Liberty football had to pause all football related activities on Thursday, Dec. 3 as the team saw an increase in positive COVID cases. At the time, the Flames were preparing for the biggest game in school history against the program’s biggest rival from its FCS days, Coastal Carolina.
The Flames were 9-1 at the time and ranked in both major Top 25 college football polls after wins over ACC programs Syracuse and Virginia Tech earlier in the season. The Chanticleers were also ranked in the top 25 and unbeaten. ESPN’s College GameDay was preparing to broadcast its national show from Brooks Stadium in Conway, South Carolina ahead of the showdown between the ranked opponents.
As head coach Hugh Freeze and the Liberty football program meets on campus in Lynchburg, Virginia on Monday morning, the Flames can resume preparation for Coastal Carolina, this time in a bowl game. No. 23 Liberty (9-1) and No. 12 Coastal Carolina (11-0) each formally accepted invitations to the FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl on Sunday afternoon where the long time rivals in the Big South will renew acquaintances on Saturday, Dec. 26 from Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida in a game televised by ESPN at 7:30 p.m.
“When I found out Coastal was a possibility, we kind of had our fingers crossed, if not it was going to be a really long night for a lot of people,” Freeze said from his office overlooking Williams Stadium on Sunday evening. “It’s not going to be that way. We already have a game plan in place that we had from a couple weeks ago. Will it tinker some? Maybe, but it’s not like we have to start from scratch. We felt good about our game plan the first go around. I doubt it will change very much. I’m sure that is advantageous for both us and Coastal.”
This will be the first ever matchup between ranked opponents in the six-year Cure Bowl’s history, and it will be the second straight year the Flames’ will be heading to the Cure Bowl following Liberty’s win over Georgia Southern a year ago.
“It is rare to play in the same bowl game two years in a row, but it will be a much different experience as we have a new TV partner with ESPN, different hotel properties, and a different stadium as it moves to Camping World Stadium,” said Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw. “That will give it a different flavor.”
The Cure Bowl’s Executive Director Alan Gooch said he and his staff have been talking about the possibility of these two former Big South rivals meeting in the Cure Bowl for about a week, and he was excited to finalize the matchup on Sunday afternoon.
“We’re looking forward to the matchup and very excited to take place in Camping World Stadium,” Gooch said. “The stadium capacity is going to be 4,865 tickets.”
Camping World Stadium, located just a few blocks from where last year’s Cure Bowl was held at Exploria Stadium, has a capacity of 65,000, but due to COVID there will be limited capacity. The stadium in Orlando will play host to three bowl games in one week’s time, beginning with the Cure Bowl on Dec. 26, followed by the Cheez-It Bowl between Miami (FL) and Oklahoma State on Dec. 29, and the Citrus Bowl between Auburn and Northwestern on Jan. 1.
“Ian (McCaw) and his staff, they reached out early wanting to know what we thought was going to happen,” Gooch said of Liberty’s interest level in the bowl game. “I was very happy that an Independent, undefeated at the time, I think they were ranked 21 at the time, that was an honor that they would want to come back. They were excited about this opportunity. So were we, especially the way the Flames have been playing this year. They are a kick away from being undefeated themselves. This matchup takes our bowl to another level.”
2020 has been a very eventful year. The Flames’ bowl prospects were no different. Early in the process some national pundits were stating Liberty could be left out of a bowl game altogether, regardless of the success of the team, due to bowl tie-ins and every team being eligible. So, for the Flames to be rewarded with a bowl game against an undefeated and ranked opponent is a huge accomplishment in the program’s second full year as an FBS member.
“I’m thrilled,” Freeze said. “What a crazy year 2020 has been, it’s obviously been a lot of challenges, but at the same time we’ve experienced a lot of great times also. I think those are the things that make for great memories. Certainly, we’ve got a lot of things we can talk to future family members and kids and everything about. Certainly, the 2020 season for Liberty Athletics, in particular for football, has been an outstanding year. To get (Sunday’s) news that we’re going to be able to play an undefeated Coastal team that is ranked top 15 in the country in our second consecutive bowl game, we’re just elated. So excited.”
In the days leading up to the first scheduled meeting between the two programs earlier this month, much was made of the rivalry. These two used to fight it out on the gridiron for Big South championships at the FCS level before both moved up to the highest level of college football in recent seasons. It will be the first time Hugh Freeze and Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell have been a part of this rivalry.
“It definitely means a lot to the people here,” Freeze said. “Our players, I think we have two players who have any kind of recollection of what this game is. Certainly, to hear others like Matt Bevins and those talk about it and Ed Gomes talk about what the rivalry is. I appreciate rivalry games. I get that. Now to do it in the Cure Bowl with them and us being ranked in the top 25. That’s exciting. I know there will be a lot of emotions going into it, but still will come down to who executes the best that will win the game.”
For the Flames, it will be a chance to further prove it belongs on the national stage and deserving of the top 25 ranking. The College Football Playoff Committee has refused to include Liberty inside their top 25 throughout the past several weeks despite several teams losing and falling out of the rankings. It’s likely due to Liberty’s wins coming against two FCS opponents and six teams ranked 100 or worse in ESPN’s FPI rankings. The Flames’ only marquee win, according to this metric, came against Virginia Tech. The Hokies are ranked No. 31 by the FPI. Liberty has yet to knock off a ranked FBS opponent, one of the few remaining hurdles for the program which has grown so much in such a short order at the FBS level.
Five of Coastal’s 11 wins have come against FCS competition or FBS teams ranked 100 or worse and eight of their wins have come against teams ranked 90 or worse. The Chanticleers do own three top 40 wins, having knocked off Appalachian State (#39), Louisiana (#36), and BYU (#15).
“We believe any time we get to put our program on a national stage that it’s of value and it has merit,” said Freeze. “We’ve endured everything that came at us this year, our team has, as have many. We think it’s important to finish. I think it’s important for our partners, the bowl game, the TV partners, and everyone that we finish. That’s our goal. Hopefully COVID will leave us alone this week and we will be able to do that, but that’s what we’ve always felt like was important. For us to get to represent Liberty on a national stage on ESPN on the 26th against the top 25 opponent, look where we are in our program in year two. That speaks to it and it speaks to recruits. That’s what we want to be about every single year, playing these type of games. We embrace it and we’re excited about it. I know a lot of people may not be real excited about going into a bowl game, but our staff and our kids are.”
2020 has been a difficult year for everyone, but the Liberty Flames football team has a chance to go out with a bang and cement the incredible growth the program has made in such a short order. This team has already put themselves at the top of the list in terms of best team in school history. A win Saturday makes it that much more difficult for a future team to reach the same level.
“As we made the transition to the FBS, this is what we dreamed of – having an opportunity to play in a bowl game,” said McCaw. “This year, obviously, having the opportunity to play against an undefeated team that’s nationally ranked, as we are also nationally ranked, obviously, is something that we never would have dreamed would happen this early.”