College football fans in Lynchburg have left the city for the past several decades to watch Division I-A football, now called the Football Bowl Subdivision — the sport’s top tier.
Those fans often made day trips to Charlottesville and Blacksburg to watch the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech compete against nationally recognized teams.
Starting Saturday, fans have an option closer to home when Liberty University begins its inaugural season as an independent FBS member by hosting Old Dominion in a 6 p.m. kickoff at Williams Stadium.
This is the final season of transitioning to college football’s top tier after the NCAA approved a waiver for Liberty to join the FBS without a conference affiliation in February 2017.
The Flames competed last season in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“We’re kind of picking fights with people from all over the country. Every single week we’re going to be somewhere new or taking on an opponent that’s not familiar,” offensive coordinator Joe Dailey said. “For us, that’s exciting just because it’s some new faces and not the traditional Big South opponents. I know our guys are fired up and excited about the opportunity to play up and down, left and right, coast to coast, and it’s a phenomenal challenge that we’re excited for.”
The inaugural season features home games against North Texas and Troy, teams that met in last season’s New Orleans Bowl, and fellow independent New Mexico State in addition to the opener against ODU.
The Flames are paying ODU $1.32 million to travel to Lynchburg for LU’s home opener.
“I think this place is just going to be electric when we come out Sept. 1 against ODU,” senior linebacker David King said.
Home schedules for future seasons include matchups with Syracuse, Buffalo, Southern Miss, Army, BYU, Virginia Tech, Coastal Carolina, Wake Forest, Duke, UVa and North Carolina. Most of those programs are from the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the others are recognized for their past accomplishments on the gridiron.
“We’re ready to compete with whoever and whenever,” junior quarterback Buckshot Calvert said. “That’s our mindset, and that’s the mindset I think the whole team has to have coming into the season. It’s going to be a dogfight every game, and we’re going to be ready.”
The first season is also filled with challenges away from the comforts of an expanded 25,000-seat Williams Stadium.
The Flames play at Army and its strong triple-option offense in Week 2 and then make back-to-back trips to the Land of Enchantment to play at New Mexico on Sept. 29 and at New Mexico State on Oct. 6.
“I think playing against more FBS teams, it’s definitely lit a fire under everybody, and you have to come to work every day,” King said. “If you don’t prepare, it could be a long season. If you come to work, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The Flames face a grueling stretch in November with three consecutive weeks on the road. It begins Nov. 3 at UMass, a team in its third season as an independent, and continues the following week about an hour north on U.S. 29 in Charlottesville against UVa.
The trip concludes a week later in Alabama against traditional power Auburn that comes with a $1.25 million pay day.
“There’s a lot of pressure, too, but we know we can handle it,” Calvert said. “That’s why we’re here. … We’re ready for it, we’re ready for all the exposure and all the excitement that comes with this season, and we’re ready to give it our all.”
The Flames added a potential twist during the summer as well, as the university announced it had reached a two-year agreement as a secondary bowl tie-in with the Cure Bowl. If LU can reach bowl eligibility and either the American Athletic Conference or the Sun Belt Conference doesn’t have enough bowl-eligible teams, the Flames will be able to experience a bowl game ahead of schedule.
Originally, the Flames were not expected to be bowl eligible until 2019, when they reached full-fledged FBS status.
“As we talk about this season, too, there’s a lot of firsts. You’re going to be involved in a lot of things that are firsts as far as coaches, players,” Flames coach Turner Gill said. “I think young people, they like that. It lights them up a little bit. You’re going to have the first opportunity to do this, the first opportunity to do that, whatever it is. There’s going to be a lot of that this year in being able to set the bar. Then being able to have the opportunity to compete at a bowl game, it’s just amazing. It helps you in a lot of ways as a head coach.
“As you go through the season, obviously you want to win every single football game … but then you also get into the point, how many games do you got to win to make it to a bowl game? You can talk about those kinds of things. That keeps your drive, it keeps you going; it keeps you going in the right direction. I think that’s a huge plus.”