(STATS) - When nobody was looking, Liberty kept winning games.
That shouldn't be surprising.
After Liberty clinched at least a share of its record eighth Big South Conference championship this past Saturday, the Flames moved into the STATS FCS Top 25 for the first time this season - at No. 25 - on Monday.
The top five in the national media poll did not change with Sam Houston State ranked No. 1 for the fourth straight week followed by Jacksonville State, Eastern Washington, North Dakota State and The Citadel.
In the Big South, Liberty (6-3, 4-0) has played in the shadow of defending champion Charleston Southern this season - a reversal of many past years - but because of a conference loss by Charleston Southern this past weekend, the Flames can clinch the conference's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs by defeating the Buccaneers at home Saturday in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Liberty had a subpar season last year and then had to replace an influential senior class in the offseason, so when the Flames opened the season with a 1-3 record against tough competition (the losses were to two FBS opponents and Jacksonville State), it may have been easy to consider this a retooling season.
But the Flames have reeled off five straight wins, all since true freshman Stephen Calvert has become the starting quarterback. Their defense fueled a 16-0 shutout at Presbyterian this past Saturday, pushing fifth-year coach Turner Gill's record with the Flames in November games to 14-2.
"We always just say the games that are in November, those are the ones you are going to remember - good or bad, so to speak," said Gill, who credits the strength and conditioning of his players shining through at this time of the season.
If Liberty doesn't beat Charleston Southern, the Flames could still claim the Big South's automatic playoff bid depending on the outcome of the Kennesaw State-Charleston Southern game on Nov. 19. Liberty will end its regular season with an out-of-conference game at Coastal Carolina on Nov. 17.
The FCS powers are all focused on clinching conference titles and playoff bids prior to the announcement of the 24-team field on Nov. 20. The Citadel (Southern Conference) and Lehigh (Patriot League) were the first teams to clinch bids.
Sam Houston State (9-0) did its part to remain No. 1 with a 56-43 win over McNeese in the Southland Conference. The Bearkats, who gained 113 of the 162 first-place votes in the Top 25, will travel to Northwestern State on Saturday before hosting Central Arkansas in a huge matchup on Nov. 19.
Jacksonville State (8-1), Eastern Washington (8-1), North Dakota State (8-1) and The Citadel (9-0) also received first-place votes.
James Madison (8-1) replaced Richmond at No. 6 after beating the Spiders 47-43 in a key CAA Football matchup. Chattanooga (8-1), Richmond (7-2), Villanova (7-2) and North Carolina A&T (8-1) rounded out the Top 10.
South Dakota State (6-3) moved up two spots to No. 11 and was followed by North Dakota (8-2), Central Arkansas (8-1), Charleston Southern (5-3), Coastal Carolina (7-2), Cal Poly (6-3), Youngstown State (6-3), Montana (6-3), Western Illinois (6-3) and Grambling State (6-1).
Then it was New Hampshire (6-3) up a spot to No. 21, Samford (6-3), Lehigh (8-2), Harvard (7-1) and Liberty.
Stony Brook fell from the rankings, leaving CAA Football in a tie with the Big Sky and Missouri Valley conferences for the most Top 25 teams with four each. Eleven conferences had at least one ranked team.
A national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries select the STATS FCS Top 25. In the voting, a first-place vote is worth 25 points, a second-place vote 24 points, all the way down to one point for a 25th-place vote.
The Top 25 is released on Monday afternoons during the regular season, except for Sunday morning, Nov. 20, prior to the announcement of the playoff field. A final Top 25 will follow the FCS championship game, to be held Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.