Few people likely expected Liberty (7-5) to become bowl eligible this season, especially since the Flames needed seven wins due to their unique schedule. Fortunately, Liberty took full advantage of a five-game stretch from mid-September to mid-October that matched the FBS Independent against the likes of Buffalo, New Mexico, and New Mexico State along with a pair of FCS programs in Hampton and Maine.
So even though the Flames started out 0-2 and lost to Rutgers, BYU, and Virginia later on the in the season, they won five in a row at one point and defeated New Mexico State a second time in the regular-season finale to secure their first-ever bowl bid in its second season as an FBS member.
It also represents validation of sorts for first-year head coach Hugh Freeze. Liberty is Freeze's first coaching job since he resigned from Ole Miss in July 2017 due to scandal and improper behavior.
Georgia Southern's roller-coaster year also featured a matchup with Maine (GSU won 26-18) and back-to-back multiple-overtime victories over South Alabama and Coastal Carolina in Sun Belt play. But the Eagles' biggest win of the season came on Halloween night when they knocked off previously undefeated No. 20 Appalachian State 24-21 on the road.
Georgia Southern wasn't able to fully capitalize on the momentum from that victory, however, going 2-2 in the final four games to finish at 7-5 (5-3 Sun Belt). This marks the second straight season head coach Chad Lunsford has led the Eagles to a bowl game. GSU is 2-0 in bowls in its six-year FBS history, with wins in the 2015 GoDaddy Bowl (under current Tulane head coach Willie Fritz) and last year's Camellia Bowl.
FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl: Liberty vs. Georgia Southern
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Where: Exploria Stadium (Orlando, Fla.)
Spread: Georgia Southern -6
When Liberty Has the Ball
The Flames are led by quarterback Stephen "Buckshot" Calvert, who’s had an impressive year with 3,393 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, and just five interceptions. Antonio Gandy-Golden is Calvert's favorite target and he's third in the nation with 1,333 receiving yards on 74 catches (18.0 ypc). He's also hauled in nine touchdown passes.
DJ Stubbs and Noah Frith have combined for six TD catches, but Gandy-Golden is the big playmaker for Liberty. Fellow wideout Kevin Shaa is third on the team in both receptions and yards, but he's nursing an undisclosed injury and his status for the game is questionable.
The Flames aren't one-dimensional on offense either as running backs Frankie Hickson and Joshua Mack provide a dynamic one-two punch in the backfield. They have combined for 1,670 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground this season.
Liberty is tied for 31st nationally with 33.7 points per game, but that output is skewed somewhat due to the level of competition they faced. Still, the Flames can hurt you through the air or on the ground so Georgia Southern's defense must remain technically sound or the Eagles could get scorched.
GSU finished the regular season ranked third in the Sun Belt in both total and scoring defense. The Eagles fared better against the run compared to the pass, which could be an issue against Calvert and Liberty's aerial attack.
The Eagles' defense features two first-team All-Sun Belt performers in defensive lineman Raymond Johnson III and defensive back Kindle Vildor. The top tacklers on the team are linebackers Rashad Byrd and Reynard Ellis while fellow running mate Randy Wade Jr. is tops in both tackles for a loss (12.0) and sacks (4.0).
When Georgia Southern Has the Ball
Unlike Liberty, the Eagles’ offense revolves around its option-oriented approach. And that starts with quarterback Shai Werts, who nearly has as many rushing yards (683) as passing (704). He has thrown nine touchdown passes with no interceptions but he’s also attempted 108 (with 57 completions) in 10 games.
Instead, Georgia Southern boasts the nation's eighth-ranked rushing offense, one that generates 262 yards per game. Running backs J.D. King and Wesley Kennedy III combine with Werts for most of the damage. The junior backs have combined for 1,536 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground.
When Werts does drop back and throw, Mark Michaud (218 yards, 4 TDs) and Malik Murray (176, 3) are the main targets.
Liberty knows full well what to expect from Georgia Southern. The question is can the Flames stop the Eagles from running the ball? Ranking near the bottom of the FBS ranks (100th) does not necessarily inspire a lot of confidence in that respect.
Whatever happens, look for linebacker Solomon Ajayi and defensive back Elijah Benton to be in a lot of plays, as they are Liberty's top tacklers. The Flames also could use a big game from defensive end Jessie Lemonier, who paces the unit with 13.5 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks. It's critical that Liberty defenders make Georgia Southern ball carriers earn their yards and not break off big gains.
The best chance for Liberty is to turn this game into a shootout. Georgia Southern's option-oriented attack generates plenty of yards but not necessarily points. The Eagles are averaging 29 points per game while the Flames put up 34.
However, scoring may not be an issue for Georgia Southern in this one considering how generous Liberty's defense has been. The Flames’ struggles against the run (193 ypg allowed) do not bode well for this matchup.
Liberty has a clear advantage when it comes to passing attacks and will definitely need to capitalize on that as GSU may try and eat up as much as clock as possible by staying grounded. Turnovers also could play a key role, an area that the Eagles (+7) enjoy a slight advantage over the Flames (+3).
In the end, the team that's able to flex its offensive muscles and makes fewer mistakes is probably going to win, and perhaps by a comfortable margin.
Prediction: Georgia Southern 31, Liberty 17
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces) and Facebook. To contact him with tips, story ideas or for interview purposes, click here.
(Top photo by Joel Coleman/Liberty Athletics)