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Syracuse football 2021 opponent preview: Liberty Flames

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The fact that we scheduled this series to begin with just gets worse and worse...

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

Sure, Syracuse Orange football kickoff is still several months out, but we’ve been counting down to September for awhile already around here, so why not keep it going? And even without a depth chart of any sort coming out of spring ball, we’ll take the “consolation prize” of talking about all 12 opponents far too early. Last time out, we talked Syracuse’s week three game vs. Albany. This time around, we head to week four against:

Liberty Flames

School: Liberty University

Mascot: Flames

#BRAND Slogan(s): #RiseWithUs

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: “Falwell’s Home For Imaginary Friends” OR “We Put the ‘Q’ in QB’

Recommended Blog: A Sea of Red

Conference: Independent

History vs. Syracuse: After being shut out 24-0 in the first meeting vs. the Orange, Liberty knocked off a banged-up Orange squad 38-21 in game two last fall. SU looked pretty hapless in the second half while being unable to stop the Liberty offense. It was certainly a low moment for Dino Babers’s tenure despite the fact that Liberty wound up being pretty good last year (went 10-1, was 17th in the AP Poll).

Coach: Hugh Freeze, third season. You’re familiar with Freeze, who went from NAIA coach to the SEC in record time (just four years from his first season at Lambuth to his first at Ole Miss in 2012). Freeze won a bunch with the Rebels, but also committed numerous recruiting violations while also making calls from his school-issued mobile device to a female escort service. After resigning in 2017, he took the season off before getting offered the Liberty job for 2018, claiming that Jesus was the only one (he’s) ever met who could handle (his) junk.

Since his arrival in Lynchburg, the Flames have gone 18-6 with two Cure Bowl wins and a national ranking. He coached the Syracuse game from a hospital bed in 2019 as well, as you may recall.

2020 Record: (10-1) (N/A)

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Liberty vs Coastal Carolina Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Recapping Last Season

Independents were left out in the cold pretty quickly in 2020, when COVID concerns led to more conference play — so much of it that even Notre Dame opted to join a league for the year. Liberty managed to tough it out anyway, assembling a schedule primarily of C-USA and Sun Belt squads, plus ACC teams Syracuse, Virginia Tech and NC State, who were all foolish enough to keep them on the slate. In one of the bigger non-P5 games of the season, the Flames faced 12th-ranked Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl, outlasting the Chanticleers 37-34 in overtime to secure their first top-25 ranking to close a season in school history.

While the schedule wasn’t necessarily something to brag about, it also doesn’t take away from some of the performances on the team — namely that of former Auburn QB transfer Malik Willis. The dual-threat accounted for over 3,100 total yards to go along with 34 touchdowns. Liberty averaged nearly 483 yards per game (15th in the country), while scoring over 38 points per game. Though Willis as the lead rusher with 944 yards, Joshua Mack and Peytton Pickett each topped 500 yards on the ground as well. Also, three different Flames players caught at least 25 passes, led by senior DJ Stubbs (38 grabs for 523 yards and three TDs).

Defensively, Liberty gave up just 317.7 yards per game (10th overall) and just 20.5 points per (tied for 21st). Their 16 forced turnovers were tied for 40th in the country, and the team’s 28 sacks were 20th overall. Junior Durrell Johnson led the way there with 8.5, while TreShaun Clark had 5.5. Javon Scruggs was the lead tackler with 69, but it was a sign of a solid front seven that many of the team’s other top tacklers were linemen or linebackers.

2021 Season Outlook

This year’s schedule lays out pretty similarly to what Liberty saw last year. The Flames are on the road vs. Syracuse and Ole Miss, and also visit Troy, UAB, UL-Monroe and North Texas. The home slate is definitely very manageable, with Campbell, ODU, Middle Tennessee, UMass, UL-Lafayette and Army. Really, if they want a repeat of last season’s ranking and buzz (warranted or not), this is the schedule to have.

Perhaps unfortunately for Syracuse and most Liberty opponents, Willis is back under center again and has 15-to-1 odds to win the Heisman (also has 15-to-1 odds to go first overall in the 2022 NFL Draft, as insane as that may sound). Mack is back at running back, though Pickett’s gone. However, the latter will be replaced by Utah transfer T.J. Green. Stubbs comes back at wideout, as do four of the next six pass-catchers by receiving yards. North Texas receiver Austin Ogunmakin also transfers in after catching 23 passes for 349 yards.

Defensively, nine of the Flames’ top 10 tacklers are back (Anthony Butler is the lone exception), so that means a whole lot of production is coming back. This was a young team on both sides of the ball last year, and that remains the case this year as it wasn’t tough to convince players to return to a team that finished in the top 25 last year. Some more additions on the transfer market that should help on defense, too: ULM linebacker Rashaad Harding and Washington State safety Skyler Thomas.

Syracuse Game Date: Friday, September 24

Location: Carrier Dome Stadium, Syracuse, N.Y.

Odds of Orange Victory: 42%

Very Early Outlook vs. Syracuse:

Despite the shots at Liberty and Freeze above, they clearly have a special talent in Willis, and the hope is that the Orange find some way to stop him... since they certainly couldn’t find one last year. Really, a slightly more effective SU defense and a competent offense could make this a much more interesting affair than last year was. But winning this one — again, in a series that never should’ve been scheduled to begin with, for various reasons — will be no simple feat.