Schedule Preview: Liberty

North Carolina will kick off its 2014 season under the lights at Kenan Stadium against Liberty University on Aug. 30.

Overview: Liberty had a solid 2013 campaign as the Flames finished with an 8-4 record. Their 4-1 conference record gave them a share of the regular season Big South title alongside Coastal Carolina. The Flames are led by head coach Turner Gill, who arrived in Lynchburg prior to the 2012 season. In his first two seasons at the helm, Gill has shared consecutive conference titles. Now the question is how the former Kansas Jayhawks head coach prepare his team for a matchup against an opponent from a BCS conference. The Flames haven’t faced a non-FCS adversary since 2012 when they lost at Wake Forest, 20-17.

Liberty’s offensive success is predicated on a strong ground game. In 2013, the Flames averaged 184.1 rushing yards per game (40th in the FCS) to go along with 36 rushing TDs (6th). The return of senior Desmond Rice, who led the team in carries (186) and yards (967) and was second in the Big South Conference in rushing touchdowns (16) last season. In addition to Rice, junior D.J. Abnar (5.7 ypc in 2013) should serve as a solid complementary option that will give this backfield a potent one-two punch.

In terms of quarterback play, 2014 could be the year that junior Josh Woodrum (198-of-308 passing, 2,581 yards, 19 TD, 7 INT) provides a substantial aerial compliment to Liberty’s well-established run game. The Roanoke, Va. native was the Big South’s freshman of the year in 2012 and continued to impress last year, earning Second-Team All-Big South honors. The return of junior wide receiver Darrin Peterson (First-Team All-Big South), and a trio of second-team all-conference selections on the offensive line (Mitch Hanson, Greg Ray, and Jonathan Burgess) round out an offense that owned the 16th-highest points-per-game average (37.3) nationally in 2013.

While the Liberty offense has the pieces in place to succeed, it’s the defense that has been the heart and soul of the program for the last several seasons. The Flames have surrendered the fewest or second-fewest touchdowns in the conference dating back to 2010, and over that span, have not given up more than 30 scores in a single season. On average, Liberty gave up just 313.9 yards per game, the ninth-fewest of all 124 FCS teams in 2013.

Personnel wise, this group has all of the necessary components to compete with a team like UNC for one night. Linebacker Nick Sigmon (two-time First-Team All-Big South) and safety Jacob Hagen (six INTs in 2013) were announced as Second-Team FCS Preseason All-Americans by the Sports Network earlier this month. Despite their recent success, the Flames are faced with the daunting task of replacing seven starters from last year’s defense. As a result, Sigmon and Hagen, as well as 2013 First-Team All-Big South defensive lineman Chima Uzowihe, will need to provide strong leadership to their respective position groups if this unit is going to continue to play at a high level.

Quotables “I think he’s done an excellent job with recruiting. I think he’s put together a great staff. I think our time is coming. I think this will be our year.” – Liberty AD Jeff Barber on Gill’s first two seasons, as told to the The News & Advance

Historical Outlook: Liberty will be traveling a little over two hours across the state border for what will most definitely be the toughest test on its 2014 schedule. This contest marks the first meeting between these programs and will be the second meeting with an ACC program since Gill arrived prior to the 2012 season. That season, the Flames had Wake Forest on the ropes before the Demon Deacons scored a late touchdown that sealed a 20-17 come-from-behind win.

Schedule Note: North Carolina is the only FBS opponent on Liberty’s schedule in 2014. The Flames won’t face off against a Big South Conference team until they host Gardner-Webb on Oct. 25.

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