The news became official last Friday as Liberty and the Conference USA jointly announced that the Flames will be joining the FBS league as an all-sports member beginning with the 2023-24 athletic season. It will be the first time Liberty has been a member of an FBS conference, after the Flames joined the FBS as an Independent prior to the 2018 season.
“I’m pumped,” Liberty head football coach Hugh Freeze said on Wednesday, his first public comments about the move to C-USA. “I think it’s the right move, trust (Liberty AD) Ian (McCaw), and he felt like it was a great move. Obviously, to have a chance to enter a conference in a little over a year’s time and win a conference championship in the new landscape, whatever will happen with the playoff expansion, irregardless, you’ve got a chance to win a conference championship, and I think that was the right move for our University to be a part of a conference.”
Liberty will be one of four institutions joining the new look Conference USA prior to the 2023 football season, as the Flames are joining alongside fellow FBS Independent New Mexico State and FCS call-ups Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State. Those four will join current members UTEP, Louisiana Tech, and Florida International. Middle Tennessee announced on Wednesday it will remain in the conference after flirting with the Mid-American Conference in recent weeks. Western Kentucky is also a current member of C-USA, but they have also been in conversations with the MAC without an official announcement regarding their intentions moving forward.
Conference USA was at 14 members just a couple months ago before it was raided by the American Athletic Conference and the Sun Belt, losing 9 members in a short period of time. The addition of the four new schools, as well as securing a commitment from MTSU, helps the conference stabilize.
“I like our team, however I know LA Tech is strong every year,” said Freeze of how his team stacks up with other C-USA members. “FIU is going to have great players. Middle is going to be really well coached. Don’t overlook the Sam Houston State’s, Jacksonville (State’s), and UTEP’s now either, and if you hold on to Western. I don’t know a lot about New Mexico State. I know there are a lot of those schools in places where they have access to a lot of good players, and really good players usually make really good coaches. It will be a good test, but I don’t see that we are overwhelmed by anything that is current.”
Sam Houston State is the reigning FCS national champion as they defeated South Dakota State in last year’s championship game to finish 10-0 on the season. Under eighth year head coach K.C. Keeler, the Bearkats are currently 8-0 on the 2021 season and ranked No. 1 in FCS football. Keeler is 77-22 in his time at Sam Houston, advancing to the FCS playoffs five out of his first seven seasons.
Jacksonville State is also one of the more successful FCS programs, having won the Ohio Valley Conference championship six out of the past six seasons, advancing to the FCS playoffs nine times since 2003.
Liberty and New Mexico State have played each other four times since 2018, both coming in an unorthodox in-season home-and-home series in 2018 and 2019. The Flames and Lobos are currently scheduled to play each other eight times from 2022-2029.
“I like the consistency of it,” Freeze said of joining a conference. “You get to develop some relationships and competitive games with teams that are now in your conference, and you are playing for something every week, it’s on the line. It’s like this game matters, really matters. We’ve been able to convince our kids of that here too, but it certainly matters when you’re playing those conference games.”
Joining an FBS conference has been a dream for Liberty University for a long time as the school has searched for a conference home at the FBS level for over a decade. In 2013 and 2014, Liberty appealed to the Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA to join either league as the Flames were looking to move from the FCS to the FBS. Both of those leagues turned Liberty down at the time, with reports of LU even offering as much as $24 million to join Conference USA at the highest Division I football playing classification.
As currently constructed, Conference USA teams will play an eight game conference schedule. Once all the dust settles, there is a chance that could change, but an eight game conference schedule is most likely. Freeze and McCaw have already had discussions on Liberty’s future football schedules and what the non-conference schedule could look like. Of course, Liberty’s athletic administration staff will have to work with the teams on the future schedules, but Freeze laid out his ideal for what the non-conference schedule would look like once the Flames are in C-USA.
“I guess currently we would be having eight conference games, as is sitting here today,” said Freeze. “So, you’ve got four left. I’d like an FCS opponent and two Group of Fives and one Power Five, but I understand there will probably be some years we have to play two Power Fives and I’m ok with that.”
Liberty currently has agreements for future games against numerous Power Five teams including Virginia, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, North Carolina, Wake Forest, and Duke with most of those teams making the trip to Lynchburg. The Flames also have agreements with regional Group of Five teams such as Coastal Carolina, Old Dominion, Appalachian State, and Marshall. Freeze would like to continue the trend of playing regional teams in the non-conference, particularly with all Conference USA games being flights.
“If we don’t have to travel far, let’s don’t travel far,” Freeze said. “You can’t control the conference, but if there’s anyway possible let’s keep our Group of Five, FCS, Power Five, let’s keep them on this eastern seaboard. I think it makes sense for us to play the UMass, UConn’s, Syracuse, Coastal, App’s, Old Dominion’s, all of that, Wake Forest, North Carolina, the Duke’s, Virginia, Virginia Tech’s, all of that makes sense to me. I certainly would not be for us scheduling a cross country trip as one of those four, I just wouldn’t be for that.”
Liberty not being able to compete for a conference championship has been something other teams have used in recruiting against Freeze and the Flames. Joining Conference USA takes that ammunition away, and should give the program a boost on the recruiting front.
“I thought we overcame this conversation quite a bit in my short time here,” Freeze said of recruiting in terms of not being in a conference. “Now, it’s not a conversation that I even have to address. I think it’s only helpful. Do I think we could have continued to overcome it and recruit well? Probably so, but it certainly removes one of the things off the table that we get hit with a lot.”
Liberty’s last season as an FBS Independent will be next year as the Flames prepare for the most anticipated home schedule in school history. Liberty will play host to Virginia Tech and BYU next season, while also facing Wake Forest and Arkansas on the road.
“We’re excited,” Freeze said of the move to Conference USA. “Our players are excited. I wish it happened next year and we could redo next year’s schedule, that’s the most brutal schedule we’ve had yet here. We look forward to getting into that conference and competing for championships in it and seeing where that puts you in the national landscape. I think we’re all excited about it.”