(STATS) - It all seemed so easy for Charleston Southern.
Jamey Chadwell's team announced its arrival as the Big South's heavyweight last season, going 6-0 in the conference before eventually winning the program's first playoff game over local rival The Citadel. Conference rival Coastal Carolina would spend 2016 transitioning to the FBS. Kennesaw State wasn't quite ready to win the league. Sixteen of the 18 first-place votes as conference media day went to the Buccaneers.
And somehow they're 60 minutes away from seeing their chances disappear with one league game left.
Riding a five-game winning streak and already with at least a share of the Big South title, No. 25 Liberty will try to clinch it outright Saturday afternoon when it welcomes 14th-ranked Charleston Southern to Lynchburg.
The Buccaneers (5-3, 2-1) seemed to have righted themselves after some early-season turmoil that included 32 player suspensions for what amounted to misusing their NCAA book stipends on school supplies, and Chadwell himself served a suspension for contacting a potential recruit on social media. But Charleston Southern's four-game winning streak - which coincided with freshman QB Shane Bucenell taking over for Robert Mitchell - came to a surprising end last Saturday in a 17-10 home loss to Gardner-Webb, leaving the door wide open for the Flames (6-3, 4-0) to wrap up their first outright league title since 2008 at Williams Stadium.
"I've shared it for two years and, you know, sharing's just not as fun as taking it all by yourself and getting your own bid in the playoffs," linebacker Dexter Robbins said. "So I think the team is locked in and ready to take this thing, take it for the keeping."
Liberty, which split the 2013 and 2014 conference titles with Coastal Carolina, has had a season not entirely unlike the Bucs'. The Flames lost three of their first four during a gauntlet that saw them visit Virginia Tech and SMU before hosting FCS national runner-up Jacksonville State, then have steadied themselves with five straight wins since freshman Stephen Calvert became the starting quarterback.
Add in Turner Gill being suspended for an assistant's text message scholarship offer prior to when NCAA rules allowed, and it's almost like looking in the mirror.
But while Chadwell served his ban Oct. 29 against Bucknell, Gill has yet to sit out and must do so before the end of the regular season. The only other option is next week's finale against Coastal Carolina, which is no longer a conference game.
Gill has no intention of missing this one.
"There's gonna be inspiration and there's gonna be energy," said Gill, whose team is 14-2 in November since his arrival in Lynchburg. "This kind of game always brings that out so I'm not gonna have to worry about trying to get our guys ready to play."
Neither is Chadwell. The Bucs have to beat both Liberty and Kennesaw State in next week's regular-season finale to share the title with Liberty. They may be on the outside of the playoffs if they don't pull the sweep, so Chadwell believes his team is focused.
"When it's looked like our backs are against the wall, we've found a way to tear it down," he said. "I expect nothing less of our team right now. I like how they've responded to the loss. They've not dwelled on it. They've moved forward, which has been good, and we need to (in order) to have a chance to beat a really good football team on the road."
If they do anything offensively like they did in their last visit to Lynchburg, they'll be in good shape. Charleston Southern racked up a program-record 576 yards two years ago at Williams, running for 359 and four scores in a 38-36 win. Last season it was Austin Brown doing the damage through the air, throwing for 301 yards and four TDs in a 31-24 win.
Save for a 59-58 double-overtime victory against Coastal Carolina, the Bucs' defense has been outstanding against FCS competition. That's been particularly true in league play, where they've allowed a total of 27 points and just 4.28 yards per play in three games. The latter number would look a heck of a lot better without the 235 rushing yards Gardner-Webb racked up, however.
Liberty's Todd Macon and Carrington Mosley will hope to have similar success after coming alive in the last three games. The duo has totaled 613 yards and six touchdowns in that stretch.
Run like that again Saturday and the Flames might be high-stepping directly into the playoffs for just the second time in program history.