By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If the Liberty football players are working up a sweat this summer, blame the glare of the microscope.
The appropriately named Flames are feeling the heat.
All eyes are on a senior class that feels it's now or never for the Flames to make the FCS playoffs for the first time in program history.
Liberty has won or shared four straight Big South titles, but missed out on at-large playoff bids as well as the conference's first automatic bid last season (it went to Coastal Carolina, breaking a three-way tie with the Flames and Stony Brook).
On Thursday, Liberty was installed atop the Big South's preseason poll for the fifth straight year, as a decisive favorite over Stony Brook and Coastal Carolina with 15 of the 18 first-place votes in the seven-team conference.
The Flames are flattered, of course. They just don't want to run into another brick wall at the end of their tunnel to the playoffs.
"It's definitely a big opportunity for us," said the leader of Liberty's senior class, fifth-year senior quarterback and Big South Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Mike Brown. "I know the senior class, we've seen some real successful seasons and not been able to get into the postseason with that success. So this year will be a big year for us as seniors - this is our last chance at it and we're really looking forward to taking that next step and taking our program to the next step."
"We have been committed to this challenge since I arrived at Liberty and we have achieved this goal the past four seasons. We do have a group of seniors that feels like they have played at a level that has deserved playoff consideration during the past few years and I know that focus will be additional motivation for them during their final season at Liberty."
Liberty returns 17 starters, including special teams. Six of the Flames' conference-high seven All-Big South preseason selections are seniors. In addition to Brown, they are wide receiver Chris Summers, defensive tackle Asa Chapman, place-kicker Matt Bevins, punter Mike Larsson and punt returner B.J. Hayes. Junior guard Malcolm Boyd, the only returning starter on the offensive line, also gained the honor.
Brown is seeking his third straight Big South Offensive Player of the Year award. He led the FCS in total offense per game (346.4) last season and will again be at the controls of an explosiveness offense. The Flames finished third nationally with a 36.45-point average and have finished in the Top 20 in total offense in each of the last four seasons.
"Being the four-time conference champions the last four years, we're going to get everybody's best shot," Brown said. "So there's never a week that we can go in and relax and think we've got this game won, or anything like that. We've got some great competitors in the league."
Stony Brook surely has the best chance to derail Liberty's playoff plan. The Seawolves not only return two 1,000-yard rushers from last season, senior Brock Jackolski and junior Miguel Maysonet, but 2008 and '09 starter Edwin Gowins, who was injured for most of last season, is a former 1,000-yard rusher.
The Seawolves (6-5), like Liberty, went 5-1 in conference games in each of the past two seasons, beating the Flames at home to wrap up the 2009 season and win the first of their two straight shared titles. But their blowout loss to Liberty to end last season derailed their bid for the playoff bid, and the Big South berth went to Coastal Carolina.
"After the Liberty game, we discussed missing out on the playoffs among other things," Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore said. "Certainly there is a carrot for the 2011 team to take. From year to year, every team is different, but a number of kids who are back were key contributors last year. I'd like to think if the same opportunity presented itself, the kids would know the expectations.
Coastal Carolina (6-6) not only has to overcome the loss of starting quarterback Zach MacDowall, but has to go on the road to play both Liberty and Stony Brook. The Chanticleers, though, return the Big South's preseason defensive player of the year, junior linebacker Andrae Jacobs.
Charleston Southern (3-8) and Gardner-Webb (4-7) tied for fourth, VMI (3-8) was fifth and Presbyterian (2-9) was seventh in the poll.
BIG SOUTH FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL (Head Coaches and Media Panel)
1. Liberty (15 first-place votes), 123 points
2. Stony Brook (2), 104
3. Coastal Carolina (1), 96
T-4. Charleston Southern, 59
T-4, Gardner-Webb, 59
6. VMI, 42
7. Presbyterian, 21
PRESEASON BIG SOUTH ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year - Mike Brown, QB, Liberty
Defensive Player of the Year - Andrae Jacobs, LB, Coastal Carolina
QB - Mike Brown, Liberty, Sr.
RB - Brock Jackolski, Stony Brook, Sr.
RB - Miguel Maysonet, Stony Brook, Jr.
WR - Chris Summers, Liberty, Sr.
WR - James Perry III, Gardner-Webb, Sr.
WR - Matt Brevi, Stony Brook, Sr.
TE - David Duran, Coastal Carolina, Sr.
OL - Jamey Cheatwood, Coastal Carolina, So.
OL - Jamie Dunaway, Gardner-Webb, Jr.
OL - Malcolm Boyd, Liberty, Jr.
OL - Levi McFatter, Charleston Southern, Sr.
OL - Max Travis, Presbyterian, Sr.
DL - Asa Chapman, Liberty, Sr.
DL - Preston Pemasa, Gardner-Webb, So.
DL - Matt Goods, Gardner-Webb, So.
DL - Ryan Haber, Stony Brook, Sr.
LB - Andrae Jacobs, Coastal Carolina, Jr.
LB - Marty Patterson, Gardner-Webb, Sr.
LB - A.J. Gross, VMI, Sr.
LB - Craig Richardson, Stony Brook, Jr.
DB - Josh Norman, Coastal Carolina, Sr.
DB - Charles James, Charleston Southern, Jr.
DB - Justin Bethel, Presyterian, Sr.
DB - Byron Allen, VMI, Sr.
PK - Matt Bevins, Liberty, Sr.
P - Mike Larsson, Liberty, Sr.
LS - Hudson Smith, Gardner-Webb, So.
KR - Brock Jackolski, Stony Brook, Sr.
PR - B.J. Hayes, Liberty, Sr.