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Liberty gets chance for signature win as FBS rumors pick up

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(STATS) - Liberty has made no effort to hide its desire to join an FBS conference and play with the big boys, a stance that was reignited this week when school president Jerry Falwell Jr. said the Flames might make the leap in a matter of months.

Beating one of the premier teams in the FCS should make them a bit more attractive to potential suitors.

There's a golden opportunity to land a signature win Saturday against No. 3 Jacksonville State, the Ohio Valley Conference power that made it to the national championship game last season and the highest-ranked team that will have ever visited Lynchburg's Williams Stadium.

"I've heard so much about the environment at Liberty," Gamecocks coach John Grass said. "I think it's one of the best in FCS football."

Falwell Jr. is hoping the 27-year-old stadium will soon be one of the better - albeit tinier, at 19,200 - environments in the FBS. He announced in 2012 that the Flames (1-2) were ready to jump to the FBS, and though some brief flirtation with the Sun Belt never materialized, there could soon be a new opportunity. The Big 12 is currently considering expansion candidates - a vote is possible as early as an Oct. 17 board meeting - and the domino effect could leave either the American Athletic Conference or Conference USA looking for a new member or two.

Grass' team is coming off a 27-26 win over Coastal Carolina, another former Big South member that's making the move to the FBS. Following this transition season, the Chanticleers are off to the Sun Belt.

"We just talked about Coastal Carolina's budget and moving up; well, Liberty has the same kind of budget and wanting to move up, they are just waiting on a conference to take them," Grass said. "They have the biggest budget in FCS football and maybe some of the lower level Power 5 schools, so they have a lot going on with their university and in the right direction."

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All that speculation has little meaning to Turner Gill's current team, which is 0-for-2 against FBS schools in September after recording FBS wins in each of the past two seasons. The Flames are simply concentrating on finding a way back to the FCS playoffs, which they missed out on last season after making their inaugural trip in 2014.

There's an automatic path in by winning the Big South, but a victory over Jacksonville State could give them a reasonable chance of an at-large berth should they stumble. After Saturday, the schedule isn't exactly challenging until two games in six days in mid-November against Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina.

"It's been great focus all week," Gill said. "I'm not saying it's been a whole lot of 'rah-rah' stuff, but paying attention to detail and a lot of great communication from teammate to teammate. When I see that, that tells me they're focused and ready to go."

As of Friday morning, Gill was still silent in naming a starting quarterback. Neither of his options have played well thus far. Junior Stephon Masha has thrown six interceptions in just 60 pass attempts, giving him an interception percentage that's the second highest in all of Division I. And though he's completed only 51.7 percent of his throws, that's 1.7 percent better than freshman Stephen Calvert, who saw his most extensive action yet in last Saturday's 29-14 loss to SMU.

The Flames will need whichever signal caller is taking snaps to succeed through the air, because they'll likely find space hard to come by on the ground. LSU had success rushing against Jacksonville State, but Coastal Carolina gained just 42 yards on 35 carries.

There's no uncertainty under center for the Gamecocks (2-1). Eli Jenkins paved the way to the title game last season and despite a dip in accuracy through three games, he's still the driving force in an offense that's cracked 500 total yards against both of its non-FBS opponents.

"(Jenkins), in my mind, is no question one of the top players in the country," Gill said.

There are four wins over FCS top-10 foes on Gill's resume since arriving at Liberty in 2012 - the Flames knocked off both Montana and Coastal in Lynchburg last season - but there's a reason Jacksonville State heads north as a 9 1/2-point favorite in this one. The Gamecocks have lost only three regular-season games since Grass took over in 2014 - to Michigan State, Auburn and LSU.