The walls around the locker room inside the nearly completed Liberty Football Center shook early Saturday evening. The music blared from massive speakers, players jumped in unison, and members of the coaching staff joined in on the reveling.
Liberty wildly celebrated its 49-28 victory over New Mexico State that secured bowl eligibility for the first time in program history.
Now, the Flames have to patiently wait and hope they receive a bowl invitation. They are one of 79 bowl-eligible teams, and there are 78 spots in 39 bowl games.
“Hopefully somebody will take a chance on us and give us a chance,” Liberty redshirt senior running back Frankie Hickson said after the victory, “so that we can put the world on notice that Liberty University is here in the FBS and we’re here to stay.”
The Flames (7-5), despite being in their first full-fledged season as members of the Football Bowl Subdivision, do have a path to a bowl game — the Cure Bowl — if Memphis, Cincinnati or Appalachian State are the top-ranked Group of 5 team in the final College Football Playoff Top 25 rankings.
Memphis currently owns the distinction of the highest-ranked G5 team in the penultimate rankings at No. 17, two spots ahead of Boise State (Mountain West Conference) at No. 19.
Cincinnati, which plays at Memphis this weekend in the American Athletic Conference championship game, is at No. 20, and Appalachian State is at No. 21 ahead of its matchup against Louisiana in the Sun Belt Conference title game.
“I mean, obviously, there’s a lot of games to play,” Rob Mullins, the College Football Playoff selection committee chair, said Tuesday night in a conference call. “Memphis is the highest ranked G5 at No. 17. The committee’s impressed with their win over Cincinnati last week to add to their wins over Navy and SMU. Explosive offense, for sure.
“But we still have to watch the championship games coming up this weekend.”
Both the AAC and the Sun Belt have a bowl agreement with the Cure Bowl, and that is the only bowl game in which Liberty has a secondary tie-in agreement.
The Flames can be selected to play in the Cure Bowl if the AAC or Sun Belt does not have enough teams to fill their allotted bowl slots.
The AAC has seven bowl-eligible teams for seven slots, while the Sun Belt has five bowl-eligible teams for five slots.
Alan Gooch, the executive director of the Cure Bowl, said Saturday his bowl game is seventh in the AAC’s pecking order, which would open up a spot for the Flames if the AAC champion (either Memphis or Cincinnati) is the highest-ranked G5 team in the final CFP rankings.
If that happens, the AAC team would have six teams to fill the seven slots.
Conversely, the same would happen if Appalachian State wins the Sun Belt and jumps ahead of the other three G5 teams currently in the rankings. The Sun Belt, then, would have four teams to fill five slots.
“[In] our first year [in 2015], we had a 5-7 San Jose State, which was a great team, and they came in and won the game,” Gooch said of taking an at-large team. “But we certainly wanted to have a little bit more control of our destiny in teams that we were able to select.”
Gooch then explained following the Flames’ February 2017 announcement of transitioning from the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision to the FBS as an independent program unaffiliated with a conference, he was able to research Liberty and the investment the university has made into the program to see if it was worth adding it as a secondary option in case the bowl game needed to fill an open slot.
The Cure Bowl and Liberty entered a two-year agreement prior to the Flames’ inaugural FBS season last year.
“We felt like Liberty making the commitment, watching the growth, seeing the commitment with the facilities, led with Turner Gill and now Hugh Freeze, who both have I-A experience, they were going to get there,” Gooch said. “I didn’t really feel like it was going to be a big roll of the dice. Yeah, it was a little roll of the dice, but it was also an insurance policy for the Cure Bowl, if you will.”
Gooch said all bowls and conferences have been asked to wait until after the conference championships Saturday to begin revealing bowl matchups.
The Flames were going to have to wait, regardless, because of the secondary tie-in and possibly being added to the pool of at-large teams if Boise State somehow jumps Memphis to become the highest-ranked G5 team.
Most national publications have LU in a bowl game, with the majority slotting it in the Cure Bowl.
“No preference. I just want a bowl game,” Hickson said.
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.