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Syracuse football 2019 opponent preview: Liberty Flames

SO wish we weren’t playing this game. Alas...

NCAA Football: Liberty at West Virginia Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With spring practice officially wrapped up, it’s only fair that we start talking about the Syracuse Orange’s actual 2019 football opponents. Perhaps you’re not as excited since it’s only April. But since Syracuse won 10 games last year, and I run this place... we’re talking about them anyway.

The Orange have plenty of challenges ahead — some of those greater than others. Today, we take a look at the first hurdle:

Liberty Flames

School: Liberty University

Mascot: Flames

#BRAND Slogan: #RiseWithUs

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: Falwell University, Baylor East, “Sweeping Our Issues Under the Rug Since 1971,” “Oh no, is John going to bring this stuff up with every Liberty mention through August?”

Recommended Blog: Underdog Dynasty (SB Nation’s G5 blog)/A Sea of Red (Liberty)

Conference: Independent

Coach: Hugh Freeze, 1st year. Freeze resigned from Ole Miss in 2017 following a lengthy NCAA investigation into recruiting violations. He took a couple years off from coaching until he remembered that Jesus was the only one that could handle his junk, and figured that Liberty would be as good a place as any to stay close by to Jesus himself. Before he unceremoniously resigned from Ole Miss, Freeze went 39-25 there with wins in the Music City and Sugar Bowl. He also went 10-2 in his lone season as coach of Arkansas State in 2011.

2018 Record: (6-6) (N/A)

Recapping Last Season: Liberty jumped up to FBS last year and was an independent transitional member playing two games against FCS teams and the rest against the FBS. Though the Flames scored over 33 points per game, they also allowed nearly 37 per game. Some of the low points included scoring 52 points against both Old Dominion and New Mexico (both wins), plus a 22-16 win over a 10-win Troy team. They also lost big to Army, North Texas, Virginia and Auburn, and fell to UMass in three overtimes.

The Flames’ junior QB Stephen Calvert was impressive in 12 games, throwing for 3,068 yards and 21 scores, while also throwing 18 picks. Fellow junior Freddie Hickson was a 1,000-yard rusher, and Antonio Gandy-Golden caught 71 passes for 1,037 yards and 10 TDs. Sure there are some caveats on the numbers given the schedule, but it’s tough to trip and fall into games of more than 300 passing yards. Calvert wound up with five of those, including a 417-yard effort against New Mexico. Liberty was one of just two teams (the other being Utah State) to top 400 yards passing against the Lobos last year.

Predictably, Liberty was pretty rough on the other side of the ball. They allowed nearly 485 yards per game (123rd in FBS) and an average of 6.31 yards per play. Just 12 teams were worse in terms of points per game, and the Flames ranked in the bottom 20 in most defensive categories. All of that said, they also had a Jessie Lemonier record 13.5 tackles for loss (10 sacks) — so they certainly had a player that could make something happen (even if it was slim pickings otherwise).

2019 Season Outlook:

Liberty faces another pretty manageable schedule as an independent this year, playing P5 programs Syracuse, Virginia and Rutgers, plus BYU. The Flames host FCS programs Hampton and Maine, play a home-and-home with fellow independent New Mexico State and some other assorted G5 programs like Buffalo. Six wins are going to be hard to come by but it’s not impossible if they can get close before the late stretch of four straight on the road before the finale at home vs. New Mexico State.

The Flames return a lot of skill talent from 2018, with their leading passer (Calvert), leading rusher (Hickson) and leading receiver (Gandy-Golden) all coming back. Alternatively, the offensive line is a mixed bag with two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore projected to start while they try to replace potential NFL Draft pick Julio Lozano. Calvert returning is key, and will be a big part of any improvement this group can display. Having a wide open offense and veteran passer is something we’re familiar with from last season.

Defensively, Liberty loses four of their top 10 tacklers — but just one of the top six. Having Lemonier back will be critical for the team generating a better pass rush, but he’ll need a better push out of fellow end Austin Lewis if he’s going to get a real push up front as better opponents won’t have trouble doubling him. With Elijah Benton and Solomon Ajayi also back, there’s a chance that help could also come from the back seven.

Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, August 31

Location: Williams Stadium, Lynchburg, Va.

Odds of Orange Victory: 92 percent

Very Early Outlook:

Yes, it’s on the road and Freeze is an experienced coach at the top levels of college football — so that certainly creates some mild cause for concern. Still, Syracuse’s talent level is superior to Liberty’s right now and the returning Orange players are anxious to prove last year was no fluke. Given the Flames’ shaky defense and an offensive line that may not be able to hold back Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, it’s not hard to see SU put up some big numbers here in week one. Let’s just hope it’s an uneventful game and we can rest up for another road game at Maryland in week two.