LU Football

LU quarterback Buckshot Calvert fakes a hand off to running back Frankie Hickson in the Liberty University game against Idaho State on October 19, 2018. (Photo by Taylor Irby/The News & Advance)

We continue our look back at the 10 moments that defined Liberty athletics this past season. Today, we look at Nos. 4 and 3 with the inaugural season in FBS and the continued rise of a marquee program.

4. Liberty football goes 6-6 in inaugural FBS season

In an age where monstrous television deals force most programs to find a home either in a power conference or one of the Group of 5 conferences, it has become harder and harder for college football teams to enjoy success as an independent in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Notre Dame and BYU are the exceptions with a long history of success and television deals with NBC and ESPN, respectively, helping out on the financial side of things. But UMass has struggled since being booted from the Mid-American Conference, Army is enjoying a surge of success after successive losing seasons, and New Mexico State took its lumps in its first independent season after it was evicted from the Sun Belt Conference as a football-only member.

Liberty, with a plethora of resources at its disposal, desperately wants to be considered in the conversation with those private schools, and its inaugural season in the FBS proved it can be competitive as an independent.

The Flames became the ninth team since 1987 to win at least six games in their inaugural FBS season by going 6-6 with victories at home over New Mexico State and Norfolk State to close the season.

The inaugural season was the first in a multi-year deal with ESPN for the network to hold exclusive media rights to the Flames’ home football games, securing an important foothold for the program at college football’s top level.

The season featured an eye-opening victory over Old Dominion in the lidlifter, edging 10-win Troy in the defense’s best game of the season, and a road triumph at New Mexico. But the bad often outweighed the good.

There’s the head-scratching loss at UMass, one that saw the Minutemen rack up 777 yards of offense; the fourth-down pass that Liberty wanted back in a loss at Virginia; and the utter dismantling at the hands of Auburn in the program’s first matchup against an SEC team.

Liberty did get a taste of what it will be like moving forward as an independent. Army, UMass and NMSU are fellow independents and are expected to appear almost yearly on the schedules moving forward. There is a home-and-home scheduled with BYU beginning with a trip to Provo this upcoming season, and the university is still engaging in talks with Notre Dame for a possible future matchup.

The offense made headlines during the season with quarterback Buckshot Calvert and wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden continuing to rewrite the program record books, and running back Frankie Hickson emerging as an everydown threat.

But the defense suffered quite a bit during the inaugural FBS campaign. Opposing teams racked up yards and points aplenty at times, which is often the result of a program transitioning up a level and still needing to fill its roster with talent necessary to compete at the higher level.

Despite the struggles, the majority of the team is slated to return for the upcoming season.

3. Men’s basketball claims ASUN tournament title, wins first NCAA Tournament game

It didn’t take Ritchie McKay very long to build the men’s basketball program into one capable of contending for conference championships on a yearly basis. The Flames were in contention for the regular-season title heading into the final week of the season in Year 2, and they lost to Radford on a buzzer-beater in the Big South tournament title game in Year 3.

Logic suggested Year 4 would be another of growth with the program transitioning to a difference conference and needing to grasp how those teams played.

That logic didn’t apply to the Flames. McKay, who built the program on the foundation of the packline defense and unselfishness on the offensive end, engineered a season in which Liberty took the ASUN by storm. The Flames shared the regular-season title with Lipscomb, and then stunned the Bisons in the tournament title game to earn the program’s first berth into the NCAA Tournament since 2013.

The stellar season did not stop there. Liberty garnered national recognition by upsetting Mississippi State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the program’s first victory in the tournament, before falling to Virginia Tech in the second round.

The victory over Mississippi State was the program’s record-setting 29th of the season.

The 2018-19 season served as Caleb Homesley’s announcement that he is a bonafide go-to scorer and a matchup nightmare against mid-major opponents. Scottie James continued to build on his success from the previous season to become a dependable low-post option on both ends of the court. And Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz embraced a role that featured fewer shot opportunities to evolve into a more complete point guard in the system.

It culminated in a team that proved it can win on the road, evidence by its triumph at UCLA near the end of December and its two victories over Lipscomb in Nashville.

Liberty finished the season ranked 58th in KenPom, its highest in program history, and the Flames’ efficient field goal percentage of 55.9 percent was 10th best in the nation.

The university administration understood the worth of McKay’s impact on the program and rewarded him with a six-year contract extension that will keep him in Lynchburg through at least the 2024-25 season.

McKay was named the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year, which is presented by CollegeInsider.com.

Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

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