On Sunday afternoon, Liberty officially accepted an invitation to play in the Lending Tree Bowl against Eastern Michigan on Saturday, Dec. 18 in Mobile, Alabama. The Flames will square off against the Eagles at Hancock Whitney Stadium with kickoff set for 5:45 p.m. EST and televised on ESPN.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited to get to a bowl game,” said Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze on Sunday following the news release. “I want us to get back on the field as soon as we can. I love the date. I love that it’s December the 18th. I love that we get to go to our third straight bowl game at Liberty and represent our great university and our families and our kids. Then, get to be with our real families for Christmas. I think it’s a great date. Mobile is a great town, great players there. It’s on ESPN, so it’s a national audience to get to watch our brand. Can’t wait to get with our team and start preparing for it.”
This is the 7th bowl game Freeze will lead his team into. In his first year as head coach at the FBS level at Arkansas State, Freeze and the Red Wolves advanced to the GoDaddy.com Bowl; however, Freeze did not coach in that game as he accepted the head coaching position at Ole Miss. With the Rebels, Freeze coached in the BBVA Compass, Music City, Peach, and Sugar bowls. He has led Liberty to three straight bowl games now, with the Flames winning the Cure Bowl in his first two seasons with the program. Freeze is 5-1 as a head coach in bowl games.
Liberty, who joined the FBS ranks for their first full season in 2019, is the third current FBS team to become bowl eligible in each of its first three seasons since transitioning from the FCS to FBS, joining Appalachian State and Marshall. At 7-5, the Flames ended the regular season on a sour note, dropping three straight games after beginning the year 7-2.
“Invaluable, I don’t know how to put a quantitative value on it,” said Freeze of Liberty reaching a third straight bowl game. “Being an Independent, as we are for one more year, the ultimate goal every year is to put yourself in a position to where your kids get to play in a bowl game. I think (AD) Ian (McCaw) and our administration have done a really nice job of developing partnerships with ESPN and other bowl tie-ins to give our kids the chance to do that should we be bowl eligible. You’ve got to go out every year and earn that. Our kids have done that for three consecutive years, which I think is a remarkable accomplishment.”
The Lending Tree Bowl is not part of the ESPN Events bowl line up that Liberty has an agreement with, but the Flames were moved into the Mobile, Alabama game. Liberty took the spot from a Sun Belt team which did not have enough bowl eligible teams to fill all of their bowl slots.
Freeze spent much of Saturday night trying to get an early start on possible opponents the team could have played in the bowl game. He looked at film on two different teams, neither of which were Eastern Michigan. Freeze and the rest of the coaching staff were in a frenzy Sunday evening gathering film of the 7-5 Eagles before the staff got back on the road recruiting ahead of the Dec. 15 early signing period opening.
Eastern Michigan will play in their fourth bowl game in the previous six seasons under eight year head coach Chris Creighton. With its seven regular season wins, EMU has already clinched a winning record, the third under Creighton. Prior to his arrival, the Eagles had not had a winning record since the 1989 season.
That 1989 season has relevance for Liberty, as well, as the Flames defeated Eastern Michigan, 25-24, in Ypsilanti, Michigan in the program’s first ever win over an FBS opponent on Oct. 14, 1989.
The bowl game will allow the Flames to play in Alabama for the third time this season. Liberty, who will begin practicing Friday for the bowl game once all the coaches return from their recruiting trips, will be looking to improve to 3-0 in Alabama this year. The Flames have previously picked up wins over Troy and UAB.
In last year’s Lending Tree Bowl, Georgia State defeated Western Kentucky, 39-21, on Dec. 26 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. The bowl game has been played each year since 1999 and traditionally features teams from the Sun Belt Conference and Mid-American Conference.
“I don’t feel like I got the most out of our team this year,” Freeze said. “I want one more shot. That burns within me and hopefully it burns within our team and within our coaches to prepare to play a really good football team and us play very well against them on national TV.”