I don’t know what you did Flames Nation, but you all must have been really good this year because the bowl committee saw fit to gift the Flames with the best matchup we could have asked for! The game that was meant to be Liberty’s final regular season showdown that was tragically canceled due to COVID concerns in the Flames football program is back on due to the magic that is bowl season! Liberty is just happy to play in a bowl game following concerns that the 9-1 Flames would be shut out of the postseason, but to get to play their undefeated rival and top 15 team Coastal Carolina is a dream come true! Welcome Flames nation to an article I wasn’t sure I would get to write, welcome to my 3 keys to the game vs #12 Coastal Carolina!
1. COME OUT SLOW AND GET IN RHYTHM
It’s bowl season, no holds barred, nothing to lose, throw caution to the wind! Right? Usually, I would say yes but not in this case. Liberty hasn’t played football against another team since November 27th and is coming off an extended break in training due to COVID concerns in the program. 30 days is a long time to go without playing real football and I expect Liberty to be rusty at first in many areas, but especially on offense. It will be crucial to get Willis into a rhythm and to settle him down in this end of year matchup against Liberty’s toughest opponent of the season.
However, as important as it will be to get Willis in rhythm, the whole offense could be out of sync early and Liberty can’t try to go too fast until the offense gets its feet back under them. This should be treated almost like a first game of the year. Liberty was really clicking coming down the final stretch of the season (besides of course the NC State game which I blame more on play-calling than anything else), but we can’t expect the same dominant team to take the field on Saturday. I would expect Liberty to look more like they did against FIU (at least early on in this matchup) than they did against VT. However, if Liberty can get its receivers used to catching the ball in traffic again, its running backs used to taking the handoff and getting upfield, and, most importantly, get Willis used to managing this offense again, I think it will all come back to them and we will see a smooth and efficient offensive attack at least in the second half if not earlier. How quickly Liberty’s offense gets back on track depends entirely on the play calling and how effectively Hugh Freeze manages his cold motor offense.
2. DEFENSE NEEDS TO FOCUS ON T.E.S.
Tackling, Eye-discipline, Swarming. Yes, technically I cheated and this is three keys in one, but I used a clever acronym I thought up on the spot so I think I can sneak by. Coastal’s offense is scary to watch. The Chanticleers’ run what is in essence a modern upgrade to the option. Coastal’s version of the option has all the normal things such as pitches, RPO, and QB run but it also adds in elements of spread offense with both receivers and tight ends getting in on the action.
Coastal’s starting QB has 473 yards rushing combined with 2,170 yards passing and has rushed for 6 touchdowns and passed for 23 scores to only 2 interceptions! 4 different players have over 300 yards rushing for Coastal. 5 players have over 200 yards receiving. This is certainly, the most dynamic and versatile offense Liberty has faced all year.
Liberty’s defense has had the most incredible turnaround of any unit I have ever seen (especially in the secondary). Liberty is going to need that defense to be on full display Saturday if it wants to have a shot at slowing down this Coastal attack which is averaging over 446 yards and 37 points per game. The first step in stopping the Chanticleers attack will be effective tackling. Coastal’s QB and main running back are both sitting at 200 pounds and run with power and speed. Liberty’s defenders are going to be alone on islands at times due to the spread you out nature of this Coastal offense. Often times the biggest element to suffer after an extended break is tackling and Liberty’s defenders are going to need to be extra focused on wrapping up and hitting hard after 4 weeks off.
The second thing Liberty will need to emphasize on defense is eye discipline. This is a natural part of taking on an option offense as each player needs to make sure they are watching their assignments and knowing where the football is actually going. However, this is especially key against Coastal as the Chanticleers will use the run to draw the secondary closer to the line of scrimmage and then go over their heads for big passing plays. Liberty’s safeties and corners will need to make sure they are keeping awareness of Coastal’s talented wide receivers while also being available to help stop the run game.
With all the misdirection and trickery that Coastal uses, Liberty’s defense is likely to be pretty spread out, but as soon as Coastal makes a move and the ball leaves the QB’s hands (or stays in them for a run), Liberty’s defenders need to be swarming to the ball. As I said, tackling is going to be dicey in this one with such a long time off, but Liberty can make up for any missed tackles by making sure that 2 or 3 defenders are on the spot to bring down the ball carrier every time.
3. IMPRESS THE VOTERS
The lack of respect that Liberty has received in the polls has been practically criminal. Liberty is currently sitting at 9-1 with wins over two Power 5 teams and only a one-point loss to Top 25 NC State and yet is only #23 in the unofficial Coaches and AP Poll and is unranked in the official CFP rankings!
Now, there’s not much Liberty can do this year to correct the injustices poured upon it by a Committee that is being called into question by people from all over the country (to include Coastal’s own University President), but there is something Liberty can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again next year. Part of the reason Liberty has struggled to find respect in the national rankings is because they are a little known school from Lynchburg who is currently only in their third FBS season. However, Liberty is set to play a Top 15 team on national television, on prime time, in what many are rating as the best bowl game of the year and will likely have more eyes on them than at any point in their athletic history.
If Liberty can get the win against Coastal, they will become a household name and in a current ranking system that no longer uses computers and depends entirely on biased humans, how much people have heard about you matters as much as your record. Liberty will likely return almost their entire team next year due to the COBID eligibility rule which doesn’t count this year against player’s 4 years of eligibility. So, how they perform this year will heavily impact where they start off next year. A team’s ceiling in the rankings (especially for Group of 5s) is often determined by their starting position and so it is vitally important for Liberty’s 2021 season that they end 2020 with an impressive performance against Coastal.
Bowl season is unique for many reasons, but perhaps most interesting is the factor of motivation. Unlike the regular season, there is nothing left to play for besides a trophy. This is it, this is what the season has been about and what every game has been played to reach. Often times it doesn’t matter so much which team is the most talented, but which team wants it more. A big factor that can impact motivation is what the team hoped to achieve.
Let’s look at Liberty. Liberty was playing only their third season in the FBS, had lost their top QB, WR and RB as well as key players on defense and special team (to include their kicker). Many doubted the Flames could even make it to a winning season, let alone a bowl. Fast forward to the last game of the season and Liberty has to back out due to COVID concerns, the 9-1 Flames are unfairly and inexplicable shut out of the CFP Top 25 and some sports analysts shed doubt on whether the Flames will even get a bowl invite. Liberty is over the moon to be playing in this bowl game and wants this win bad after a crazy and unexpectedly magnificent season.
Now, let’s look at Coastal Carolina. Coastal also lost their QB last year and had to rebuild with the talented Freshman Grayson McCall. Coastal had a rough year last year with a 5-7 record but things couldn’t have gone better this year. Coastal jumped into the rankings after only the 5th week of the season and has risen as high as the number #12 slot in the official CFP rankings and is in the Top 10 in the AP poll. Coastal thinks they deserve to be in the conversation for the playoffs and maybe they have a case. They are undefeated and have a win over #19 Louisiana who beat #10 Iowa State at the start of the season. At the very least, Coastal thinks they deserve to be in the NY6 and this matchup against Liberty is unfair and perhaps even insulting.
We have seen in the past where far athletically superior teams that were on the cusp or in the running for much better bowl games but got slotted in a less prestigious bowl game ended up losing to teams they should have beat easily. #3 Alabama losing to #11 Oklahoma in 2013 comes to mind as well as Boise losing to Baylor in 2016. The motivation factor and want to be at the game is real and from the comments being made by Coastal’s leadership, it doesn’t seem that Coastal is as happy as Liberty is to be in this matchup.
Liberty and Coastal may be miles away in the polls but they are much closer matched when it comes to the athletic caliber of each team’s athletes. Coastal probably owns a slight edge over Liberty due to their one-year head start in the FBS and the overall depth at skill positions on the team, but Liberty is certainly no slacker in the skills department and are only 7.5 point underdogs. However, as I said before, motivation is often far more important than skill levels and I think Liberty wants this win more than Coastal does just going off of the circumstances that brought both these teams to this game and the statements being made by Coastal’s leadership.
I expect Liberty to have some rust to shake off early in this one, but Hugh Freeze is one of the top coaches in the country right now and will certainly have this team prepared to the max extent possible. I expect Liberty to struggle early but find its feet in the second half and lead a comeback that has the potential to be one of the all-time great bowl game classics. Either way, you won’t want to miss this game as the 9-1 Flames take on the 11-0 Chanticleers. Merry Christmas Flames Nation!
SCORE PREDICTION: Liberty 42 vs Coastal Carolina 35
Written by Mr. Exclamation Point