By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Danny Rocco has yet to picket outside NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, but if the third Sunday in November goes like the last three years, don't doubt that he and the rest of the Liberty football team will start getting the signs ready.
Rocco and the Flames have felt snubbed on Selection Sunday when his Big South champions of the last three seasons have not gained at-large bids to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. They are 26-8 over the last three seasons, including 10-2 overall and 5-0 in the conference in 2008.
This year, the Flames won't have to keep their fingers crossed if they win the Big South title. As the FCS playoffs increase from 16 to 20 teams this season - the first expansion since the field grew from 12 to 16 teams in 1987 - the Big South champion will automatically qualify for the first time.
Liberty, led by quarterback and Big South Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Mike Brown, is favored to win the Big South title. Rocco, for one, says his Flames feel pressure to meet all the lofty expectations surrounding their team.
A lot will happen for Liberty before the field is selected and announced on Nov. 21, beginning with its season opener against St. Francis (Pa.) on Saturday in Lynchburg, Va.
Let's kick off:
TSN: Were there any questions that your team answered in the preseason that were particularly important?
DR: I think a number of things. One, we came into camp with our two most veteran offensive linemen (left tackle Justin Vargas and right guard Alex Stadler) out. They did not practice in the spring, they were both nursing injuries and surgeries and we were very hopeful that they would be able to get into camp and have productive camps, and they both have.
I'd say secondly the running back position is starting to solidify itself. It's definitely going to be a two- or three-man-job-by-committee with Korrey Davis and SirChauncey Holloway handling the majority of the work, and Chase Barnett certainly had an opportunity to show us what he could do.
Defensively, I'd probably just say our linebacking corps is pretty solid and two-deep, and we were hoping that we'd be able to feel that way as we got ready for the start of the season.
TSN: Conversely, what aspects of your team are you still trying to solidify?
DR: I would say that the thing that I'm still looking for is just a little more consistency on both sides of the ball. Most specifically offensively we are very explosive, but not as efficient in the passing game that I'd like to see us be. But we are very explosive.
Defensively, (there is) still the mindset of we've given up a few too many big chunks of yardage in the summer. That's a function of being able to defend the deep ball and keeping everything in front of us.
TSN: With the Big South getting an automatic playoff bid this year, what does that do to the competitiveness of conference teams?
DR: Yeah, I think it's going to do a lot. I mean, everybody has a definitive prize at the end in terms of what they're playing for, and they have control over that. I know in the past we've been fortunate enough to have won this championship three years in a row. Even the year we were 10-2 and ranked 14th in the country (2008), we weren't invited to a 16-team tournament. So that was a little frustrating. But here we are now this year knowing that the conference champ has an automatic berth. I think it's going to make each and every Saturday afternoon all that much more competitive. I think even when you're looking at games (involving) teams that have a chance to get in versus teams that don't have a chance to get in, those teams that don't have a chance to get in really have a lot to play for in terms of making a statement and maybe ruining the opportunity for those teams that are fighting for that automatic bid."
TSN: Can you break down the Big South race?
DR: I can. I think it's tricky for me to position teams in this league. I think, though, that there are a number of teams that have reasonable reason to believe that they will be competing for a conference championship. Obviously, Stony Brook beat Liberty last year. Last year, Charleston Southern beat Stony Brook and Coastal (Carolina) and played Liberty to a really close game. Coastal's got a lot of guys coming back and a lot of talent. And three years ago they kind of had their run in this league. Gardner-Webb has an awful lot of defensive talent back and skill on offense - they're just breaking in a new quarterback. VMI has an entire defense that's back, and they were good on defense as the year went on last year. They're breaking in a brand new system of offense, which could bear fruit for them and keep them in this hunt. And then Presbyterian's the one team that's kind of on the outside looking in, looking for their first win. They did not get a win last year, but they also know that they've been very competitive in almost all the games and will have a definite opportunity to play spoiler as we get into competition and then to conference play.
TSN: Considering how close your team has come to the playoffs in recent years, would anything less than making the playoffs this year be unsatisfactory to you?
DR: I would say that it's probably a fair thing for you to say. I don't know if I'll say that. But what I think that I have done and that I will continue to do is, as you look at goals for your program I don't care what level you're at - the National Football League, the SEC, the ACC, the Big South - I think the first goal always has to be to win your conference championship. We all have aspirations to be a nationally prominent program and compete for a national championship and do all those things. But first and foremost you have to win your conference championship.
I've been very consistent since the first year that I got here in saying that my primary goal is to win the Big South Conference championship. So in theory I don't need to change my rhetoric, I don't need to change my philosophy or my line of thinking here because the automatic bid's in place. All I need to do is continue doing what we've been doing and focus on that conference championship.