(6-4) Liberty @ (8-2) Coastal Carolina – Thursday, November 17th 7:00pm (ESPNews)
Liberty closes out the regular season by paying a Thursday night visit to old Big South rival Coastal Carolina.
With Coastal’s departure for the green-ish pastures of the Sun Belt Conference, this game takes on an unfamiliar vibe. For 13 years, this game has carried major implications in the Big South race so for the event to now be essentially meaningless in itself is a bit of an adjustment for fans of both schools. Liberty currently holds an edge in the all-time series 7-6 and have won the last two but these games have tended to be pretty close. The last three meetings have been decided by a combined seven points with both the 2013 and 2014 games decided by walk-off blocked field goals.
Liberty comes into this game after failing to wrap up the outright Big South title at home against Charleston Southern and must rebound fast on a short week. Against CSU, Liberty’s inexperience on offense was on full display as inconsistency plagued the Flames just as it had in “big” games earlier in the season. Defensively, LU gave up big play after big play but still managed to gather three interceptions on the night. That penchant for takeaways will come in handy this week as Coastal has turned the ball over six times in their last two games (Monmouth & Bryant).
As an important aside, Liberty will travel down to Conway without the services of head coach Turner Gill. Gill will sit out this game as a penalty incurred for an NCAA Level III recruiting violation when an assistant texted a scholarship offer to a recruit before the allowed date. In his place, defensive coordinator Robert Wimberly will assume the head coaching duties for the day. This marks the second time this season that a Big South head coach has had to miss a game for an a Level III violation as CSU’s Jamey Chadwell sat out the Bucknell game for virtually the same reason. *(OPINION: There are only four levels of NCAA violations and a Level III is considered pretty minor. As such, the NCAA needs to re-visit suspension of coaches as a penalty for this as it pertains to football. The current punishment makes sense to a point in a sport like, for example, basketball where a team plays 30 games a year and the absence of the head coach for one contest won’t make that much of a difference in the season. However, it’s inequitable to apply the same penalty to a sport where there are only 11-12 guaranteed games in an entire season. END OF TIRADE)*
What Liberty has to do against Coastal: Execute on offense. That may seem like an obvious oversimplification but lack of offensive execution against good teams has been an ongoing theme this season. Depending on who you ask, this game does or doesn’t have at-large implications for Liberty but, ultimately, none of that really matters. The Flames need to play well because they need to play well.
(8-2) Kennesaw State @ (6-3) Charleston Southern – Saturday, November 19th 11:45am (ESPN3)
Welcome to the next Big South Championship game. By defeating Liberty last week, Charleston Southern not only kept their own conference title hopes alive, they resuscitated Kennesaw State’s as well. Both teams come into the game with identical 3-1 conference records and the winner of the game will split the conference championship with Liberty.
For KSU, a win would secure a conference title in just their second year of existence – no small thing in itself – and announce their presence on the national stage. While a Kennesaw victory would hand the conference autobid to Liberty, finally getting a quality win over a ranked opponent would also go a very long way toward the Owls’ argument for inclusion in the FCS playoffs as an at-large team.
For CSU, it’s autobid or bust. The Bucs have carried a high ranking all season long but one of their wins came against D2 Kentucky State and one of their three losses was to sub-.500 Gardner-Webb.
Kennesaw comes into this game on an absolute roll. Since losing to Liberty on October 15th, the Owls have won four straight with an average margin of victory of 49-17. Granted, KSU hasn’t exactly been playing the cream of the crop – those four wins have come against Gardner-Webb, Monmouth, D2 Clark Atlanta and Presbyterian – but a young team winning like that is a team building confidence for the games that matter and, boy, does this one matter. The Owls are playing three quarterbacks that have played and won games for them and human pogo stick receiver Justin Sumpter has returned from injury.
CSU, meanwhile, is also playing three quarterbacks but not necessarily because they can. Last week’s game at Liberty was a great win for the Bucs but it was a physical contest and both teams limped to the locker room at the end. Starting QB Shane Bucenell left the game in the 3rd quarter with what, through the computer screen, looked like a concussion and at least two linebackers had to be helped off the field. The importance of Bucenell to CSU is obvious; their other two quarterbacks, Robert Mitchell and London Johnson, have performed well in spot duty but have not been particularly effective over extended periods. Further, having a healthy linebacker corps against a triple-option offense is imperative.
What Kennesaw has to do against CSU: Go all out. KSU plays aggressively anyway but this is the week to let Owls’ freak flag fly. If there’s a trick play or nine in head coach Brian Bohannon’s back pocket, this is the week to pull them out.
What CSU has to do against Kennesaw: If Bucenell is playing, play-action all night. The weakness of the KSU defense is their safeties’ inability to adjust with speed and CSU can get them going the wrong way. If another QB is back there for the Bucs, ball control through the ground game. Both Mitchell and Johnson are elusive runners but are not outstanding passers.
(4-6) Monmouth @ (4-6) Gardner-Webb – Saturday, November 19th 1:30pm (Big South Network)
This game is interesting…well, “interesting” isn’t the word for it. This game is unusual in that both teams played ten games straight leading up to last week and then had November 12th off so this is more or less like a bowl game for two 4-6 teams that have nothing on the line and which will not impact the conference standings in any way. This is the Why-Are-We-Still-Doing-This? Bowl brought to you by the good people at Prozac and Jim Beam who remind you not to get them in the same room together.
In any event, Gardner-Webb comes into their home finale fresh – kind of fresh anyway – from knocking off 8th-ranked Charleston Southern on the road. Prior to that, G-W had lost three straight with their previous win being on October 8th.
Monmouth, on the other hand, has now lost four straight and their previous win was also on October 8th. This game represents Monmouth’s eighth and, thankfully, final road game of the 2016 season. Gardner-Webb has the obvious motivation of Senior Day here but this game just seems like all kinds of anti-climactic for both teams. G-W got a highlight win in a season full of close disappointments and Monmouth is a team more familiar with airline miles than Jennifer Garner is at this point.
What Monmouth has to do against Gardner-Webb: Score points in the second half. Scoring late wasn’t Monmouth’s problem for much of the season but, in each of their last two games, the Hawks have put 17 points in the first half only to be completely blanked in the latter half.
What Gardner-Webb has to do against Monmouth: Run the ball. In just their last four games alone, Monmouth has given up over 1,200 yards rushing. That just happens to be G-W’s forte so it could be a long day for the visitors and a fun day for the Gardner-Webb seniors.
(2-8) Presbyterian @ (4-5) South Alabama – Saturday, November 19th, 7:00pm (ESPN3)
This game for Presbyterian was originally scheduled to be played on this day against SEC East-leading Florida. But, as part of their public standoff with LSU over re-scheduling a game lost to Hurricane Matthew, UF bought Presby out and the Blue Hose instead found a matchup with LSU’s castoff opponent, the Jaguars of South Alabama.
Presbyterian comes into this game enduring one of the least productive years in school history. The Blue Hose have been shut out twice, held to a field goal or less five times and held to a single touchdown eight times. PC is mired in a four-game losing streak and none of their eight losses on the year have been remotely close games. This game represents their last chance at displaying something that resembles offensive competency.
For South Alabama, this game was originally going to be a chance to play on the biggest of stages at LSU but is now merely a wide spot in the road between Monroe, Louisiana and Moscow, Idaho. USA has already faced and beaten an FCS team this year (a 41-40 OT win over Nicholls State) so this game doesn’t even help the Jags toward bowl eligibility. Not that bowl eligibility is really a concern, though. Despite massive wins over Mississippi State and a ranked San Diego State team, South Alabama currently sits at 4-5 overall and 1-5 in Sun Belt Conference play. The objective for the home team here is just to play the game and notch the win.
What Presbyterian needs to do against South Alabama: Score nine points. Nine points would get PC to 100 total points on the season and, while that’s a paltry goal, it would spare the current Blue Hose team from being the first squad to score less than a hundred since the Kennedy administration.