Following the postponement of multiple games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Liberty’s schedule has gone from being one of the worst in the country to a very respectable slate.
The Flames lost games against FBS bottom feeders Bowling Green, UConn, and UMass, only replacing one of them as the schedule has gone from 12 games to 10. Let’s take a look at this season’s opponents in the descending order of strength.
10. Western Carolina
The Catamounts are coming off a 3-9 campaign in 2019 where their wins came against Division II North Greenville, VMI, and East Tennessee State. They played two FBS opponents last season, getting shutout at NC State, 41-0, and losing to Alabama, 66-3.
Western Carolina currently just has two games scheduled for the fall, playing at Liberty on Nov. 14 and playing at Eastern Kentucky on Nov. 21.
9. North Alabama
The two FCS teams on Liberty’s schedule have very similar recent resumes. UNA is transitioning from Division II to FCS and are coming off a 4-7 season in 2019. They recorded wins over Western Illinois, Presbyterian, Campbell, and Gardner-Webb.
The Lions are full members of the ASUN alongside the Flames, but they play in Liberty’s former FCS conference, the Big South, for football.
The Warhawks have consistently been one of the worst teams in the Sun Belt. ULM is coming off a 5-7 season last year under head coach Matt Viator who is entering his 5th season at the helm.
Like Liberty, ULM is losing a 4-year starter at quarterback in Caleb Evans and are currently going through a QB battle this summer. They return just 5 starters on offense and return 8 on defense, including all four defensive backs.
7. Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers and the Flames get to renew their rivalry after just two seasons apart. Coastal was the first to leave the Big South and join the Sun Belt before Liberty joined the FBS as an Independent just one year later. Under head coach Jamey Chadwell, Coastal is still looking for their first bowl appearance after a 5-7 season last year.
The Chanticleers are one of the only FBS teams to get in all 15 spring practices before the COVID pandemic shut everything down in March. This team is expected to make some improvement in 2020 and hopes to get to a bowl game for the first time. The season finale in early December could be both teams playing for bowl eligibility.
6. Florida International
Liberty’s home opener on Sept. 26, the Panthers are coached by former Cleveland Browns head coach Butch Davis. Davis has led FIU to three straight bowl games in his first three years in Miami. FIU advanced to the Camellia Bowl in 2019 following a 6-6 regular season record, before falling to Arkansas State in the bowl game.
FIU returns just 10 starters and will be breaking in a new quarterback. The Panthers also lose their top two running backs and three of their top four wide receivers from last season while adding SEC transfers at both positions.
5. Southern Miss
Hugh Freeze’s alma mater is expected to be one of the better teams in Conference-USA and could challenge for a conference title. The Golden Eagles finished 7-6 last year, losing to Tulane in the Armed Forces Bowl after starting the season at 7-3 with losses to Alabama and Mississippi State.
They return quarterback Jack Abraham, who could be one of the best signal callers Liberty faces in 2020. This will be the best team to visit Williams Stadium this season.
The only team Liberty played in 2019 and is scheduled to play again in 2020. The sky was the limit for the Orange in 2019 under Dino Babers who entered the season ranked in the top 25 and expected to challenge Clemson for the Atlantic Division championship. Things did not go as expected as Syracuse limped to a 2-6 mark in ACC play and 5-7 record overall.
Of course, the Orange did blank the Flames, 24-0, in the season opener at Williams Stadium. How much did Hugh Freeze’s absence from the majority of fall camp and having to coach from the coaches’ box affect the offense’s struggles?
3. NC State
The Wolfpack are a team that prognosticators are picking all over the place. Some see NC State as making a push in the Atlantic Division of the ACC and returning to a bowl game while others think the 2019 4-8 record will be repeated.
Head coach Dave Doeren had 51 freshmen on the team last year and opened the season at 4-2 before dropping 6 straight games to finish with a losing record for the first time since Doeren’s first season in 2013. They return 10 starters on offense and 5 on defense.
2. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers are a favorite to win C-USA’s East division this season, in large part due to their stifling defense, led by the CUSA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in DeAngelo Malone.
Grad transfer Tyrrell Pigrome from Maryland is expected to take over at quarterback, replacing Ty Storey. WKU also returns 1,200 yard rusher Gaej Walker.
1. Virginia Tech
The only previous meeting between the Flames and Hokies was the 2016 season opener that Virginia Tech won, 36-13. That was also the last time Liberty had to break in a new quarterback since Buckshot Calvert took over early that season and went on to start for 4 straight seasons.
Expectations are high once again in Blacksburg, where Justin Fuente led the Hokies to an 8-5 season last year, despite losing to Virginia for the first time in 16 games and falling to Kentucky in the Belk Bowl.
Virginia Tech has 18 returning starters and are one of the most experienced teams in the country.