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Syracuse football 2020 opponent preview: Liberty Flames

There’s two ways I can play this preview, and I don’t know which I’m going to choose just yet...

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 08 Liberty at Army Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s looking less and less likely that the 2020 college football schedule looks anything like what’s on paper right now. But until we hear something different from what we know right now, it’s business as usual around here.

Last week, we looked at annual Syracuse Orange football foe the Louisville Cardinals, who managed to get their act back together rather quickly following Bobby Petrino running the team into the ground in 2018. Next up, we get our second go-around against Liberty following a bye week for the Orange. You’re thrilled to see them again, I’m sure, especially after they turned the broadcast into an ad for the school via homer announcers and a public access halftime show on ESPN+.

If you think it’s a little early or presumptuous to be talking about upcoming opponents, you’re probably right. But whether we’re coming off a five-win season or a 10-win season, I’m personally excited to see what 2020 turns into for the Orange. And since I run this place, we’re already diving into the coming year’s opponents. So on we go...

Liberty Flames

School: Liberty

Mascot: Flames

#BRAND Slogan(s): #RiseWithUs

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: #FalwellU OR #WhatFirstAmendment OR #OpenForrBu21ness

Recommended Blog: A Sea of Red

Conference: Independent

Coach: Hugh Freeze, second season.

Freeze was born in Oxford, so he should’ve been able to figure out a way to make the Ole Miss job work. But after five years and some NCAA shenanigans, he was out the door. Ends up Jesus was the only one that could handle his junk, so he went straight to the main himself, who strangely spells his name “Jerry” now. He runs Liberty University, and Freeze took the Flames’ football coach gig for 2019. Despite a tough start, Liberty wound up going 8-5 and even beat Georgia Southern in the Cure Bowl.

Before all of that, though, Freeze went to Southern Miss, and coached at Briarcrest High School in Tennessee from 1992 to 2004. He coached tight ends from 2006-07, then took the head coaching job at Lambuth (NAIA) for a couple seasons. That got him the Arkansas State OC role, then a one-year stint coaching the Red Wolves before moving on to Ole Miss. He went 39-25, with four bowl trips and two wins (including the Music City and Sugar Bowls).

2019 Record: (8-5) (N/A)

Recapping Last Season:

Now, you’ll definitely want to adjust these results for the fact the Flames played a hilariously weak schedule aside from a handful of games. However, Liberty did have a top-40 offense by total yards per game (439.4) and points per game (32.8). “Buckshot” Stephen Calvert shook off his rough opener vs. Syracuse to put up over 3,600 passing yards and 28 touchdowns on the year. Antonio Gandy-Golden also wound up with nearly 1,400 yards and was picked in the fourth round last month.

The Flames allowed over 400 yards per game, and 28 points per game, but most of that success comes from a handful of games. Liberty let both Maine and Rutgers score 44 points each, and Virginia scored 55. As you know, Syracuse only scored 24, which was warning sign No. 1 that all wasn’t right for the Orange offense. On the year, Liberty actually wound up with 35 sacks (28th in the country), and collected 18 turnovers.

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Liberty vs Georgia Southern Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

2020 Season Outlook:

The schedule’s a little tougher for Liberty this time around. Road games at Virginia Tech, Western Kentucky, Bowling Green, Syracuse, UConn and NC State. The Flames also host Southern Miss and FIU, plus some other foes that shouldn’t pose a major challenge. Still, where last year allowed for a pretty reasonable path to six or seven wins, this year’s could be tough sledding to hit five.

In order to do so, it’ll likely rely heavily on the offense once again. Without Calvert or Gandy-Golden, the keys potentially get tossed to Auburn transfer Malik Willis, or one of an assortment of QBs like Brandon Robinson or Jonathan Bennett. DJ Stubbs (32 catches/401 yards/3 TD) is the top returning wideout, but the Flames lose four of their top seven targets from last year. Top rusher Frankie Hickson is gone after picking up 1,000 yards last year, but versatile running back Joshua Mack returns to campus after amassing over 900 total yards and seven scores last season. The line in front of him is younger, but experienced in certain spots.

Defensively, a lot’s departed for Liberty as well. The top three tacklers are all gone, leaving a fairly inexperienced line and relatively green linebacker group as well. Ja’Von Scruggs is the potential star of the defensive unit at corner, teaming with fellow corner Kei’Trel Clark to form a decent cover combo there. For a secondary that managed 10 interceptions last year (the team had 12 total), the pressure will be on to increase that production in 2020. Sack leader Jessie Lemonier’s absence (he had 10.5 sacks last year) could pose some problems there, however, if opposing QBs suddenly have a lot more time to throw.

Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, October 17

Location: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.

Odds of Orange Victory: 80 percent

Very Early Outlook vs. Syracuse:

Syracuse has its own changes to adjust to, but has better talent depth to deal with that. A dual-threat QB for Liberty could make this one closer than we’re comfortable with. But the team isn’t loaded with the same level of playmakers on either side of the ball to make this as close as they did last season. The Orange should be able to take advantage of that en route to a comfortable win that hopefully leaves you more at ease than last year’s did.