Under second year head coach Hugh Freeze, Liberty had a season to remember in 2020. The Flames finished with a 10-1 record, tied for the most wins in program history. and were ranked No. 17 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, the highest ranking in program history.
Liberty also recorded wins over Syracuse and Virginia Tech, the first ever wins over ACC teams. The Flames concluded the season with a win over former Big South Rival and undefeated Coastal Carolina in overtime in the Cure Bowl. It was the second straight season Liberty won the Cure Bowl, becoming just the second transitioning team in NCAA history to win consecutive bowl games during its first two full seasons at the FBS level.
Now, Liberty and Freeze look to build off that success and not become complacent with one season of national attention.
“Look, last year was fun, it was awesome,” Freeze said in a press conference Thursday. “It was incredible, great memories, can never take them away. I have a picture of us, top 20. I have it, I’ll keep it, I’ll frame it, but there’s something about programs that can sustain that over a period of time.”
The football team, including 13 early enrollees from a 2021 signing class of 19, is back on campus and going through offseason workouts with strength coach Dominic Studzinksi and his staff. The Flames are scheduled to begin spring practice March 1st, with practices every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday through the month of March. Liberty is planning on an open practice on Saturday, March 27th, which could be open to the public depending on COVID guidelines at that time.
“Our theme for this spring is to be a program that is obsessed with good habits,” Freeze said. “Well, a program is made up of people so that starts with me, the coaching staff, the players. Are we obsessed with good habits?”
Freeze has spent much of the first month of 2021 working on a personal growth plan. He’s made an ongoing list of areas for personal growth, focusing on obsessing on good habits. He hopes that new mantra flows down to the rest of the coaching staff and his team.
“I want to set that tone of that because the beliefs we have will drive some behavior, and that behavior is going to give you a habit and that habit is going to give you a result. We need to start with the result and work backwards.”
Freeze and Liberty will have a good foundation to build upon for 2021. According to ESPN, the Flames have the 6th most returning production for next season among all FBS members. Liberty is 2nd among all FBS teams with 95% of all offensive production returning and 33rd with 79% of all defensive production returning.
Leading this group of returnees are 16 ‘Super Seniors’ which will come back for one more season in 2021 after the NCAA ruled it will not count the 2020 season against eligibility. Also, the Flames have a talented group of non-seniors returning including quarterback Malik Willis who will look to build upon his first season as Liberty’s starting quarterback after transferring from Auburn. Willis completed 64.9% of his passes for 2,329 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. He also led all of FBS quarterbacks with 944 rushing yards and another 14 touchdowns, setting program records in total touchdowns and rushing yards by a quarterback.
“I don’t really put quantitative numbers on what a success looks like,” Freeze explained. “I’ve never done that. I just don’t like that. I don’t really get it because, especially being an Independent, every year our season structure is different. One year you may play 7 teams that on paper are as good or better than you depth chart wise. Who knows? I don’t get caught up in putting quantitative numbers on it.”
Liberty is scheduled to open the 2021 season at Williams Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 4 against Campbell. It is the first of six scheduled home games including Old Dominion (9/18), Middle Tennessee (10/9), UMass (10/30), Louisiana (11/20), and Army (11/27). The Flames’ road slate is highlighted by trips to Power Five teams Syracuse (9/24) and a much anticipated game against Freeze’s former team Ole Miss (11/6). Other road trips are at Troy (9/11), at Alabama-Birmingham (10/2), at Louisiana-Monroe (10/16), and at North Texas (10/23).
“7 wins next year may be as good a year as 10 wins this year,” said Freeze. “That’s reality. People won’t see it that way, but I will understand that. You don’t know how good these other teams are going to be and all of that. We don’t know what all is going to happen with us, but it could be reality that we look from behind the 2021 season and say 7 games and a bowl game we had as good a season because we chased the standard that we’re setting with great habits and we got the most out of that year.”
Freeze has won at least 10 games at every one of his coaching stops, but he has never been able to duplicate that success. In 2009, he won 12 games at Lambuth, but left after the season to become the offensive coordinator at Arkansas State. He won 10 games in 2011, his only season as head coach at Arkansas State, before leaving to take over at Ole Miss. He built the Rebels into a 10 game winner, capped by a win in the Sugar Bowl, in 2015. The next year Ole Miss was 5-7 in his final season in Oxford.
“My expectation is that we enhance our chasing of the standard to compete for 60 minutes on any given Saturday whatever the schedule gives us,” Freeze said. “How do we do that? We do that by if we’re obsessed with good habits, whether it’s nutrition, workouts, academics, life choices, what we think, body language, whatever it is.”
Freeze hopes to set the standard this spring with his group of players, mainly returners, but also a talented group of newcomers. Following the 2020 season, the expectations around Liberty’s football team will rise, but Freeze won’t count the 2021 season a success based on the number of wins end up in the win column.
“I don’t put quantitative numbers on it, but if you’re asking me what we have to do to remain where we want to be it starts with this spring, this group, understanding the past is the past and we must be obsessed with good habits and chasing the standard that we want, and we will see what happens next year in those 60 minute games.”