We are quickly approaching the start of the 2019 football season. Spring practice is over, the spring semester is nearly finished, and the incoming class will be arriving on campus over the summer as the Flames continue to prepare for the season opener on August 31st. How will the first season under Hugh Freeze play out? We take a look at the schedule and predict each game to find out.
WEEK 1: VS SYRACUSE
Liberty is scheduled to open the season at home on Saturday, August 31st in a game where Liberty officials have publicly expressed an interest to move the game to either Thursday or Friday night of that week if the game can be moved to a linear ESPN network. Stay tuned for more info on that as the date gets closer. As for the game, the Flames will welcome the first ever Power 5 opponent to Williams Stadium when the Syracuse Orange pay a visit to Lynchburg. Syracuse is coming off its best season in recent memory, finishing 15th in both major polls, the first time the program has concluded a season in the top 25 since 2001. The Orange also went to its first bowl game since 2013, as they won the Camping World Bowl to cap a 10-3 season.
Dino Babers is entering his 4th season as head coach following successful stints at both Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green. The Orange were 4-8 in each of his first two seasons before taking the ACC by storm in 2018. Syracuse has been ranked in the top 20 of most preseason publications, if that holds, they will also be the first FBS ranked opponent to ever play in Williams Stadium.
The biggest question mark for the Orange in 2019 will be how they replace standout quarterback Eric Dungey who has graduated. Tommy DeVito will get the opportunity to guide Babers’ squad, and he had extensive reps in game action for the injured Dungey on several occasions last season. Most notably, DeVito relieved Dungey and helped guide the Orange to wins over Florida State and North Carolina. In total, DeVito played in 8 games in 2018, completing 44-of-87 passes for 525 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. He guided Syracuse to three 2nd half touchdowns in a 30-7 win against Florida State as he also earned ACC Freshman of the Week honors for his performance. Against North Carolina, he had 181 passing yards and 3 touchdowns in the double overtime win.
Liberty has fared well against ACC opponents for the first half, sometimes even into the 3rd quarter. Remember the Virginia game last year, Virginia Tech in 2016, North Carolina in 2014, Wake Forest in 2012, and NC State in 2011. The Flames showed well in each of these games, and, except for the game against the Cavaliers, those were all played prior to Liberty’s move to the FBS ranks. Now, with two full FBS recruiting classes, Liberty is more prepared to face P5 teams than ever before.
But this Syracuse team is good. They will push the bar of “best team to ever play at Williams Stadium” to a new level once again, surpassing the North Texas and Troy teams that visited last year. Behind a raucous crowd and never before seen energy for a college football game in Lynchburg, the Flames will push the top 25 Orange well into the 2nd half. This is where Syracuse’s depth and experience will take over, and they will pull away late. The game will be much closer than the final score will indicate.
Syracuse 45, Liberty 24
Liberty’s record: 0-1
WEEK 2: @ LOUISIANA
Coach Freeze has been very adamant about wanting to get Liberty to its first ever bowl game, and game #2 is one of a few games that could be classified as “swing games” towards that goal. Louisiana Lafayette, who now goes by just Louisiana, has made 6 bowl games over the past 8 seasons including a Cure Bowl appearance in 2018 where they lost to Tulane, 41-24. The Ragin’ Cajuns finished 7-7 last year in Bill Napier’s first year as head coach. They won the Sun Belt’s West Division before falling to Appalachian State in the league’s championship game. Since being scorned by the Sun Belt a few years ago, Liberty is undefeated against Sun Belt foes including last season’s win against Troy.
Louisiana opens the 2019 season the previous Saturday against Mississippi State in the Superdome in New Orleans. Like Syracuse, the Ragin’ Cajuns will also be replacing their signal caller, as Andre Nunez has departed. Junior Levi Lewis looks to be the heir apparent. They are led by a 3-headed monster at running back as Elijah Mitchell, Trey Ragas, and Raymond Calais all rushed for over 750 yards while combining for 28 touchdowns. Leading receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley, a third-team all-Sun Belt selection a season ago, returns as well. Linebacker Jacques Boudreaux will also be back after leading the team with 93 tackles in 2018.
The game could go either way and should be very entertaining as both teams like to score points in bunches. The Ragin’ Cajuns are a year ahead of the Flames in terms of a new system and will also have the benefit of playing at home. They pull a squeaker that is decided in the 4th quarter.
Louisiana 38, Liberty 35
Liberty’s record: 0-2
WEEK 3: VS BUFFALO
Buffalo football used to be an oxymoron. Since 1999, the Bulls had exactly 3 winning seasons, including 2018, where they won 10 games for the first time in program history and advance to the school’s 3rd ever bowl game. Buffalo lost to Troy, 42-32, in the Dollar General Bowl after losing to Northern Illinois, 30-29, in the MAC championship game. Against UNI, the Bulls led 29-10 in the 3rd quarter before surrendering the lead late.
We will not get a Turner Gill rematch with his former team, as the former Liberty head coach led Buffalo to its first ever bowl appearance in 2008. Lance Leipold is in his 5th season as head coach at Buffalo.
To repeat the success of 2018, Buffalo will have to do so without several key pieces. The Bulls lose 20 seniors in addition to quarterback Tyree Jackson (NFL draft) and wide receiver K.J. Osborn (transferred to Miami). Their wide receiving corps is also shy of experience. Jackson passed for 3,131 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2018 and will be a huge void to fill in the Bulls’ offense.
Liberty returns home and at 0-2 will be desperate for a win to keep bowl eligibility hopes alive. With Liberty’s experience at key positions on offense and hopefully hitting their stride in Freeze’s new system, the Flames will be able to pick up a much-needed win.
Liberty 31, Buffalo 20
Liberty’s record: 1-2
WEEK 4: VS HAMPTON
Big South newcomers Hampton will come to town with the Flames riding some momentum from the previous week’s win. The Pirates are coming off a successful 7-3 season in 2018 where they transited from the MEAC to the Big South. They lost to former Liberty rival Charleston Southern, 48-14, last September. This should be an easy win for the Flames.
Liberty 56, Hampton 10
Liberty’s record: 2-2
WEEK 5: VS NEW MEXICO
After jumping out to a 42-10 lead in the first meeting between the two programs last year, Liberty was able to hang on to a 52-43 win in New Mexico in a game where the teams combined for over 1,100 yards. Bob Davie remains at the helm for the Lobos, but he has a familiar face on the sideline leading his offense in Joe Dailey. The former Liberty offensive coordinator took the same position for the Lobos after Gill retired and Freeze was hired.
This deep into the season, Liberty’s offense should be finding its groove, and, as we all saw last season, the Flames shouldn’t have too much difficulty moving the ball against the Lobos. Buckshot and AGG had a field day last year – Buckshot threw for 417 yards while Antonio Gandy-Golden hauled in 11 passes for 245 yards. If they come anywhere close to those numbers again, this game won’t even be close.
Liberty 45, New Mexico 37
Liberty’s record: 3-2
WEEK 6: @ NEW MEXICO ST.
The Flames and Aggies will have faced each other 4 times in two years by the time this season is complete, but the two FBS Independents will take a brief respite from playing one another in 2020 and 2021 before the series resumes with a more traditional home-and-home series in 2022 and 2023.
The teams split the series last year, with each team winning at home by just a touchdown. The Flames will head west again this season, but not on successive weeks like the team had to do last year. That travel likely cost the team a game. This year, however, Liberty will be coming off three consecutive home dates before heading to New Mexico and the following week the Flames have an open date.
Liberty was certainly even with the Aggies in 2018, but with an extra year of development and recruiting at the FBS level, the Flames could surpass NMSU this year. Without having to deal with the extra travel, look for the Flames to come out on top in the first game of the series in 2019.
Liberty 37, NMSU 28
Liberty’s record: 4-2
*Liberty has a bye in week 7.
WEEK 8: VS MAINE
Following a bye week in week 7, the Flames will face the 2nd FCS team of the season when the Maine Black Bears come to town. Liberty running back Joshua Mack transferred to Liberty a year ago after blowing up the FCS at Maine during his first two seasons. As a sophomore in 2017, Mack led all of FCS with 1,335 yards and 9 touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He was also 2nd on the team in receiving with 30 catches for 209 yards as he was named first-team all-American by multiple outlets.
Maine didn’t seem to miss him much last season, as they had perhaps their best season in school history. The Black Bears finished 10-4 and advanced to the FCS Semifinals after defeating #8 Jacksonville State and #3 Weber State before losing to #4 Eastern Washington. Maine also had success against the FBS in 2018, defeating Western Kentucky, 31-28, to open the season. Their 2nd game of the season was also against an FBS opponent, they lost to Central Michigan, 17-5. Following a successful 3 year run with the Black Bears, head coach Joe Harasymiak left Maine to become the defensive backs coach at Minnesota. Offensive Coordinator Nick Charlton was named the new Maine head coach in December. In 2019, Maine will again play two FBS opponents, beginning with Georgia Southern on September 7th.
While Maine has some talent and plays in a very competitive FCS conference in the CAA, the Flames should be able to overwhelm them with their size and speed. Liberty should be well rested coming off the bye week and Coach Freeze will have the guys ready to go for the stretch run.
Liberty 38, Maine 17
Liberty’s record: 5-2
WEEK 9: @ RUTGERS
To this point, Liberty’s schedule has been very manageable with 5 of the first 7 games at home, including 2 games against FCS competition and a bye week in between. The Flames need to have a successful first half of the season, because the 2nd half is very challenging. Week 9 begins a stretch of 4 straight road games, 2 of which are against P5 opponents not including Independent BYU.
The first game of this stretch is at Big 10 member Rutgers.
From 2005-14, the Scarlet Knights went to 9 bowl games in 10 seasons, but they have failed to reach a bowl game since then. Greg Schiano was their head coach through 2011, leading Rutgers to a final season ranking of 12th in 2006. He left to become head coach in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Bucs as Kyle Flood took over. Flood had a successful first few seasons, but then things fell apart in 2015 amid various controversies over player misconduct. Chris Ash took over in 2016 and he is just 7-29 overall and 3-24 in Big 10 play during his time at Rutgers. Following a 2018 campaign where the Scarlet Knights finished 1-11 and 0-9 in the Big Ten, including a 42-13 loss to Buffalo, the heat is certainly on his seat.
Liberty will have the obvious advantage at quarterback as Rutgers’ Artur Sitkowski is entering his 2nd season as the signal caller for the Scarlet Knights. He completed just 49% of his passes as a freshman last season while also throwing just 4 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Rutgers has yet to complete over 50% percent of their passes in a season for as long as Ash has been head coach. If they are to be more competitive this season, Sitkowski must make marked improvement. Their offense will again flow through the run game, as Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco lead a talented group of backs.
This is a game the Flames certainly have a chance to win if they play well. Despite their record in recent seasons, they are still a Big 10 member and have Big 10 level athletes. Expect the game to be close throughout and not decided until the 4th quarter. We’ll go with Rutgers in a narrow margin thanks to their home field and experience playing against P5 opponents most weeks, but don’t be shocked if Liberty pulls the upset.
Rutgers 27, Liberty 21
Liberty’s record: 5-3
WEEK 10: @ UMASS
We all remember the instant classic these teams played last season, even if we wish we could forget it. The Minutemen were able to squeak out a win in triple overtime, 62-59, thanks to dynamic wide receiver Andy Isabella. The wide receiver, who will likely be selected in this weekend’s NFL draft, torched the Flames for 303 receiving yards. Fortunately, he won’t be back, and UMass will also have a new head coach as Mark Whipple was let go following a 4-8 season. In their 6 seasons since moving to the FBS, the Minutemen have failed to put together a single winning season.
New head coach Walt Bell hopes to change that. Bell comes in after stints as offensive coordinator over the past 4 seasons at Arkansas State, Maryland, and Florida State. At just 34 years old, Bell will implement a fast-tempo spread offensive system. Redshirt-senior quarterback Michael Curtis is the frontrunner to become the starter replacing Ross Comis who lit up Liberty’s defense last season.
The cupboard is much more empty for Bell in his first season than it is for Freeze and the Flames. Liberty has a wealth of experience, particularly on offense, that should help ease the burden of a coaching change. With a win here, Liberty would have a great chance at becoming bowl eligible. The same could have been said last season, but the Flames let a 14-point lead slip away in the final 7 minutes of regulation. That won’t happen this year.
Liberty 42, UMass 34
Liberty’s record: 6-3
WEEK 11: @ BYU
Jerry Falwell, Sr. always dreamed of the day Liberty would face Notre Dame or BYU on the gridiron. While the ultimate dream of playing and beating the Irish in South Bend has yet to be scheduled, the Flames will face Brigham Young in Utah this season.
The Cougars are coming off a 2018 campaign where they went 7-6 and won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Kalani Sitake is in his 4th season at the helm, having guided BYU to two bowl games in his first 3 seasons. Part-time starter at quarterback, Zach Wilson, returns to man the offense. He started 7 games last year, throwing for over 1,500 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. The defense is where the Cougars made their mark though, as their defensive unit finished 18th in the country in fewest yards per game and 24th in scoring defense.
The altitude and 3rd straight week on the road could have an impact on this one. Look for the Cougars to seize control of the game in the 2nd half.
BYU 31, Liberty 17
Liberty’s record: 6-4
WEEK 12: @ VIRGINIA
The long road trip concludes in Charlottesville as the Flames prepare to meet former BYU head coach and current Cavaliers’ skipper Bronco Mendenhall and the Hoos. Under Mendenhall’s direction, Virginia has improved in each of his 3 seasons, from 2-10 during his first season to 8-5 in 2018 and a win in the Belk Bowl.
Quarterback Bryce Perkins is one of 15 starters that return. He threw for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns while adding another 923 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground. Behind Perkins, Virginia has a talented roster that is poised to take another step forward in 2019.
The Cavaliers will have an open date the week prior to the game which comes just before the Friday night clash against Virginia Tech in Charlottesville. The Flames were competitive with Virginia last year into the 3rd quarter until Coach Gill elected to go for it on 4th and 1 at Liberty’s own 10-yard line. From there, the Hoos flexed their muscles and rolled to a 45-24 win in the first ever meeting between the programs. With all of Virginia’s returning talent and their sights set on achieving higher goals than 2018, this will be a tough game for the Flames. There’s also a chance UVA could be a top 25 team when the teams meet this season.
Virginia 42, Liberty 20
Liberty’s record: 6-5
WEEK 13: VS NEW MEXICO ST.
The in-season rematch could turn out to be a do-or-die game for Liberty’s bowl hopes. If that’s the case, expect Freeze and company to have the team focused and energized to take care of the Aggies for the season sweep.
Liberty 28, NMSU 20
Liberty’s record: 7-5
With 2 FCS teams on the schedule, and assuming wins over each, 7 wins will be required for bowl eligibility. Liberty has one more season left on the initial 2-year agreement with the Cure Bowl. If the Sun Belt or AAC are unable to fill their respective slot in the bowl, the Flames will get the nod. If both slots are taken, Liberty will have to hope for another bowl slot to come available.