(STATS) - Virginia Tech had one of college football's most stabilizing forces on the sidelines for nearly three decades, with Frank Beamer transforming a program that had accomplished nothing into a consistent contender and periodic powerhouse.
It's easy to imagine folks in Blacksburg feeling a little out of sorts Saturday as they watch someone other than Beamer calling the shots, but Justin Fuente won't be the only newcomer they'll see.
Liberty has never faced Virginia Tech despite the schools' relative proximity along the Blue Ridge Mountains, but the Flames' hour-and-a-half bus ride from Lynchburg isn't any sort of sightseeing tour. Liberty opened two of its first four seasons under Turner Gill on the road against ACC opponents and led in the second half both times before falling.
Can this trip be different?
"We're gonna have to play the best football game we've ever played to have a chance to be competitive," Gill said. "I don't know whether that's gonna be good enough or not, but we'll give it our best shot."
OK, so maybe that's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Flames' shot at playing spoiler in Fuente's debut - neither is the 30 1/2-point spread Las Vegas has installed - but there are a few reasons Liberty can hang around with a Hokies team that's hardly guaranteed to make a 24th straight bowl appearance.
The biggest is that Virginia Tech isn't quite sure what to expect from a Flames offense that will have a very different look. Gone is four-year starter Josh Woodrum, a pocket passer who led the Flames to three Big South titles before last season's 6-5 struggle. In his place is little-used junior Stephon Masha, who will be operating a no-huddle spread attack.
"He's more athletic, can run the ball, he's more dynamic with the ball in his hands whereas the quarterback they had last year, throwing the ball was his strength," said Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster, entering his 30th season in Blacksburg. "This kid can do a little bit of both, and that's where the challenge is going to be, how they're going to set their offense up so they can run the quarterback."
Masha's most prominent moment in his first two seasons happened to lead Liberty to one of the biggest wins in school history. With Woodrum sidelined in a late November game against No. 1 Coastal Carolina, Masha came in and went 20 for 33 for 285 yards, engineering a 15-14 upset - and that was after he threw four touchdown passes and ran for 99 yards a week earlier in a two-point loss to Charleston Southern.
"It's not really a big transition, being here for three years, I know what I have to do jumping into that starting role," Masha said. "I always prepare as if I'm the starting quarterback, now I know I have to step up vocally and be a leader for the team on and off the field. All these guys know they can count on me."
How much of a threat Masha will be in the running game remains to be seen, but Liberty could certainly use a dual threat. The Flames averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last season - 88th in the FCS - and Gill promoted Joe Dailey from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator to help fix that. The concern with letting Masha show off his wheels outside the pocket is simple - if he goes down, the backup is true freshman Stephen Calvert.
"I'm not a coach worried about if he's going to get hurt, if he's going to get banged up, or that kind of thing," Gill said. "We are going to call the best play to be successful. If he's going to run it 20 or 30 times, so be it."
Liberty is hoping to run 80 plays per game after averaging 67.9 during Gill's first four seasons in Lynchburg, and it can get a pretty good lesson in tempo by staring across the sidelines Saturday. Memphis ran 80.2 plays per contest under Fuente last season while averaging 40.2 points behind the arm of current Broncos rookie Paxton Lynch.
The Hokies will be running their own no-huddle attack with Jerod Evans in the role of Lynch. A transfer from Trinity Valley Junior College, Evans threw just three interception in 289 attempts last season, and ball security has typically been a key topic for Fuente. Lynch only threw four INTs in 443 attempts last season.
Evans has a 1,000-yard rusher in Travon McMillian, a reliable giant of a tight end in the 6-foot-7 Bucky Hodges and a stud wideout in junior Isaiah Ford, who caught 11 TDs last season - three fewer than Liberty's wideouts totaled. Gone is star Flames defensive end Chima Uzowihe, but Liberty has eight starters back on defense. Among those are nose tackle JaRon Greene and defensive end Erwin Dessources, who will need to get some penetration up front to make Evans think even faster than he'd like.
"Quarterbacks have always done well wherever (Fuente) has been, so I know their offense is gonna be outstanding," Gill said.
AROUND THE BIG SOUTH
- Monmouth opens its meat grinder of a schedule (eight road games, three at home in the final season of the crumbling Kessler Field) with a fifth meeting in six years with Lehigh (Saturday, 12:30 ET). The last two have been one-possession games, with the Hawks finally taking down the Mountain Hawks 28-21 on the road two years ago. Sophomore quarterback Cody Williams wasn't around for that win, but senior running back Lavon Chaney was, totaling 165 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. Monmouth will likely ride Chaney again as it returns to Bethlehem's Goodman Stadium.
- Charleston Southern, on the heels of announcing self-imposed recruiting penalties against coach Jamey Chadwell and an unnamed assistant, will try to avoid overlooking Division II Kentucky State (Saturday, 11:45 am). It'd be easy to do so considering the Buccaneers are coming off a heartbreaking OT loss to five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State - and oh, by the way, there's the minor matter of invading Tallahassee on Sept. 10 to take on No. 4 Florida State. Chadwell's team shouldn't have many issues here.
- Football fever returns to Kennesaw State as the program kicks off its second year, and the Owls open this campaign the same way they began their first: against an overmatched East Tennessee State team. The Owls rolled to a 56-16 win over the Buccaneers on the road to open their inaugural season and look for more of the same in this one (Saturday, 7 pm). Kennesaw State only completed two passes in last year's matchup, but one was a 69-yard touchdown strike to the speedy Justin Sumpter, who was sixth in the FCS at 20.2 yards per catch last season and should find himself open often again.
- Another rematch from last season's non-conference schedule takes place in Elon, North Carolina, where Gardner-Webb looks for a little revenge from a game that was ... well, let's be polite and stick with "an offensive struggle." The Runnin' Bulldogs scored on the final play of regulation against Elon on Sept. 12 to send things into overtime tied at 7, and after trading field goals in the first two overtimes, the Phoenix walked away winners on Corey Joyner's 25-yard TD from Connor Christiansen in the third OT. Gardner-Webb returns 10 offensive starters and Elon nine, so bring a good book and pretend these teams won't average 3.1 yards per play for a second straight meeting (Saturday, 3:30 pm). Not convinced? How about this: Missouri and Vanderbilt met last season with a Vegas-installed over/under of 34, the lowest total in the FBS since 2004. That's 2 1/2 more points than the oddsmakers expect out of this one.