CONWAY — Out with the old, in with the new.
In what feels like an absolute whirlwind, the No. 14 Coastal Carolina football team (9-0, 7-0 Sun Belt) went from hosting former Big South rival and No. 25 Liberty (9-1) to hosting No. 8 BYU (9-0) this Saturday at 5:30 p.m. on ESPNU at Brooks Stadium.
Early Thursday morning, it was determined that Liberty was unable to make the trip to Conway to battle the Chants due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Flames program.
“I felt like last night, I just had a feeling, man, that the tests were going to come back good and we were going to go play,” Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze said. “And then unfortunately we get the tests back last night and it was uncomfortable enough to for the doctors to say there’s something going on; we need to pause.”
According to Freeze, the Flames have been dealing with COVID-19 issues since Sunday, a day after beating Massachusetts. Liberty’s first reported positive COVID-19 test came yesterday when it reported that starting quarterback Malik Willis tested positive for the virus.
The Chants now look to prepare for the Cougars with the backdrop of ESPN College GameDay, the popular college football pregame show, on campus for the first time ever.
“It’s tremendous,” said Matt Hogue, CCU's athletic director. “Obviously, we know the brand that BYU has. A tremendous amount of success…and people know that name brand very well. For us to have an opportunity to play against them here in our stadium and to be able to showcase to the nation what we feel about our program (is great), that our program is a rising program in college athletics as well on so many levels.
“This is a big part of why you do what you do in this business, is to provide great experiences for your student-athletes and give them an opportunity to showcase their skills and talents on the grandest stage, and we have that opportunity.”
BYU had several options to choose from this week being idle, but it was all in on playing the Chants once Liberty was a no-go.
"Last week, I said, 'Kalani, it's kind of like when there's a married couple that's about ready to have a baby and you have your bags packed by the door; that's how it's going to be, maybe, and you might have to pick up your bag and go,'" BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said of a conversation he had with head football coach Kalani Sitake on the situation. "It's not that bad, but they were great. Kalani and his staff and the players, they wanted to play; they were just waiting, waiting, waiting."
When ESPN called, the Cougars pounced.
"ESPN kind of said, 'Hey, you can fill this game,'" Holmoe said. "And thanks to the Sun Belt Conference and to Coastal Carolina, who said, 'Let's go.' They didn't have to play that game; no way they had to play that game. There's a lot of struggled and trials to try to out together a game like that, and we couldn't have done it without them.
"I've said this all along, all season long — it takes two to tango. And we're just grateful that the Sun Belt and Coastal said, 'Yes, let's go.'"
Chants head coach Jamey Chadwell will now have to shift focus on the Cougars with just more than two days to prepare.
“At the end of the day, when it’s this short of a time frame and we were already preparing for Liberty the whole week, you’ve got to go back to things you hope you can do well and try to see if it will hold up against a really quality opponent that’s coming in here,” Chadwell said. “So there’s not a lot of fancy things you’re going to be able to do. You’ve just got to do some base things and hope it’s good enough to beat them.”
Hanging with BYU will be a tough task for the Chants, as the Cougars are arguably the toughest team they have faced all year.
BYU comes in at No. 5 in the country in total offense with 535.8 yards per game and No. 4 in scoring offense with 47.6 points per game. It is also No. 4 in scoring defense, allowing just 13.9 points per game, and No. 7 in total defense, allowing only 293.3 yards per game.
"Well, we're doing a lot of praying right now, and I know they are, too ... it's going to be an interesting one there," Chadwell said. "They’re really good offensively and really good defensively. Their rankings are what they are because they go out and dominate people. Their quarterback’s (Zach Wilson, 2,724 yards, 26 TDs, 2 INTs in 9 games) a Heisman guy; they’re really good (and) balanced. And then defensively, they’re shutting people down.”
Chadwell expressed some concern with the size of BYU’s defensive players, considering that the Chants O-line is traditionally undersized.
“They’re huge, they’re big and they’re really physical,” he said. “From a standpoint of that. We’ve not seen anybody that we’ve played up to this point with the size that they have. That’s the biggest challenge. We can have the best scheme and all, (but) can we hold up to their physical size … That’s going to be the biggest, in my opinion, the biggest challenge we face Saturday is the size that they have and the athletes they have.”
Coastal Carolina is No. 29 in the country and third in the Sun Belt in total offense, averaging 448.3 yards per game, and No. 16 in the nation and first in the Sun Belt in scoring offense with 38.7 points per game.
The Chants are led by freshman quarterback Grayson McCall, who has thrown for 1,747 yards and 20 touchdowns against only one pick in nine games this season.
The Chants are also No. 15 in the nation and second in the Sun Belt in total defense allowing just 322.2 yards per game, and No. 13 in the nation and first in the Sun Belt in scoring defense, allowing just 16.8 points per game.
There is a lot at stake for the Chants in this game, as Coastal Carolina heads into its matchup with the Cougars with a Sun Belt-record 9-0 start and a school-record 7-0 start in Sun Belt play.
The Chants’ No. 14 ranking is the highest in Sun Belt history in an FBS poll, which beat the Chants’ previous mark of No. 15 that they held in the AP Top 25 Poll for three weeks straight this season.
This is the seventh week in a row and the seventh time ever the Chants have been ranked in an FBS poll since joining the classification in 2017.
The Chants also came in at No. 18 in the College Football Playoff Poll, a school record and just the second time ever the Chants have been ranked in that poll. The Chants came in at No. 20 in the CFP poll last week.
Meanwhile, undefeated BYU is No. 13 in the CFP poll, climbing one spot from No. 14 last week.
The Cougars have not played since Nov. 21 when they trounced North Alabama, 66-14.
The game is sold out due in large part to the fact that Brooks Stadium is currently capped at 5,000 occupants — inclusive of the teams, staff and fans.
Tickets are currently going for a whopping $624 on StubHub at minimum, but Hogue might have a solution for fans who want to be close to the action.
“We are looking at the possibility of maybe providing an overflow opportunity at our baseball stadium with a large screen,” Hogue said. “We won’t be able to accommodate a lot of folks there, but it is something that we’re exploring right now that we think we could probably put to together fairly quickly to accommodate any folks that just simply want to be near the environment.”