Much to be decided in Big South's final weekend
(STATS) - With its regular-season finale on Thursday night, Liberty's players can watch the final full weekend of FCS action unfold from the comforts of their dorm rooms knowing they'll at least share the Big South championship regardless of their own result.
That's about all they know.
Liberty (6-4, 4-1) lost control of its own playoff fate Saturday, but that doesn't mean its game at No. 16 Coastal Carolina is without meaning. Far from it, in fact, in the first game of what should be a wild weekend in the Big South.
Charleston Southern (6-3, 5-1), ranked 14th, revived its hopes of back-to-back conference crowns by blasting the Flames 48-26 in Lynchburg last weekend, leaving those two teams and Kennesaw State with one league loss apiece. But in Liberty's case that was its final conference game, so while there's the guarantee of a share of the Big South title, the automatic playoff bid that goes to the winner is still very much up in the air.
The Buccaneers will grab it with a victory Saturday against the Owls (8-2, 3-1), but if they come up short their at-large aspirations will disappear thanks to a schedule that's only produced five wins over Division I opponents. Should Kennesaw State pull the upset, that automatic bid will go to Liberty.
"I really hate depending on other people and that's the kind of situation we're in right now," Flames cornerback Chris Turner said. "We've just got to depend on somebody else to put us in the playoffs when we had the opportunity to do it ourselves."
While Charleston Southern needs the auto bid, there's hope for Liberty and Kennesaw State to get in come Sunday morning even without it. For the Owls, beating Charleston Southern would give Brian Bohannon's program a signature victory in its second year of building from the ground up.
"It's important to understand where we are, first of all," Bohannon said. "If we're fortunate enough to go beat a really good football team on Saturday, you'll have a football team that is 9-2.
"There's no question in my mind, if we take care of business, you're talking about maybe one of the hottest teams in the country. I don't think there is a team that would be more deserving to go play in the playoffs than Kennesaw State."
The Flames played a difficult schedule, falling at Virginia Tech in September before hanging with SMU well into the fourth quarter. They also played Jacksonville State and won at Kennesaw, though the 22-point loss to the Bucs will certainly be fresh in voters' minds.
Enter Coastal Carolina, which is likely the last team Liberty wants to see as a potential spoiler.
The Chanticleers won parts of three straight Big South titles from 2012-14 but are now transitioning to the FBS, so they won't take part in the FCS playoffs despite having a resume that would probably put them there otherwise. They'd love to bid farewell to the subdivision by playing even a small part in the demise of Liberty, which is the only current Big South program that Coastal Carolina is under .500 against (6-7).
Chanticleers coach Joe Moglia has made no secret of his animosity toward the Flames, who in his mind haven't conducted themselves well before, during or after beating Coastal in each of the past two seasons.
"One of the things that a lot of people are not crazy about is their players ... spend a lot of time mouthing off at you," Moglia said. "They're doing that at the beginning of the game, they're doing it at halftime, they're doing it during the game, they're doing it during warmups. I don't find that particularly classy, so I won't miss that part."
The man who's helmed those 2014 and '15 losses won't be standing on the sideline across from Moglia. Liberty coach Turner Gill is serving a one-game suspension for a self-reported program violation earlier this season, leaving defensive coordinator and safeties coach Robert Wimberly in charge.
"He's well organized, he understands the university, understands the way we go about doing things, understands how I coach and how we lead the team," Gill said, "so I thought he was the best person to give us the best chance to win this football game and lead our football team."
To review: Charleston Southern's in with a win Saturday. A loss and it's out, ceding the Big South's automatic bid to Liberty. Even if the Bucs win, the Flames could get in with an impressive win over Coastal. Kennesaw State needs to beat Charleston Southern and hope the committee likes the Owls' overnight success story. The Chanticleers are driving into town hoping to create chaos for their old pals before riding off to the big city.
Come Sunday, the Big South is hoping two teams can say they do, too.