Editor's note: On Thursday morning, Coastal Carolina announced that Saturday's scheduled game with Liberty had been canceled due to the Flames' COVID-19 issues. In its place, the Chanticleers will instead host BYU on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. ET in a matchup of undefeated teams.
The No. 18 Coastal Carolina Chanticleerswill host the Liberty Flames on Saturday for a highly anticipated top-25 matchup between a pair of non-Power 5 heavyweights. There is no shortage of intrigue for this game and for good reason.
Liberty and Coastal Carolina are a combined 18-1 on the season and two of just four teams in all of college football that have accumulated nine wins. Both programs feature high-powered offenses that are a blast to watch, led by a pair of dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks. And both teams feature defenses that rank in the top 15 nationally. Throw in a pair of highly acclaimed head coaches in Liberty's Hugh Freeze and CCU's Jamey Chadwell, and you have the perfect recipe for a "must-see" matchup. Even ESPN couldn't deny the allure of this game, bringing College GameDay set to the Coastal Carolina campus for the first time ever on Saturday.
There are still a couple of chapters yet to be written in Coastal Carolina's storybook season, including Saturday's contest against Liberty. Regardless, it has already been a magical run for a team that was picked to finish dead last in the Sun Belt East in the preseason. The Chanticleers not only proved the naysayers wrong by clinching their first-ever Sun Belt East title with last week's 49-14 throttling of Texas State on the road, but they are also off to the best start of any team in conference history with a perfect 9-0 record. For their efforts, the Chants have achieved the highest-ever national ranking for a Sun Belt team, coming in at No. 14 in the latest AP poll and No. 18 in the College Football Playoff rankings. But with upset-minded Liberty coming to town on Saturday, Coastal Carolina will face arguably its toughest test to date. Can the Chanticleers hold off the Flames to keep their storybook season intact and reach ten wins for the first time since joining the FBS ranks?
Coastal Carolina isn't the only non-Power 5 team that has captured the attention of the nation. It's been an exceptional campaign for Liberty as well. The Flames are a mere point away from also being undefeated, no thanks to a heartbreaking 15-14 loss to NC State a couple of weeks ago. Fortunately, any lingering effects of that loss were short-lived, as the Flames bounced back in resounding fashion to secure their first shutout of the season last week in a 45-0 blowout of UMass. They will look to carry that momentum on the road to face the unblemished Chanticleers in search of their first 10-win season since 2008.
Adding to the intrigue — Saturday's contest will be a rivalry renewed. Liberty and Coastal Carolina faced off every year from 2003-16 during their time together as bitter rivals in the Big South Conference (FCS). The all-time series is deadlocked at seven wins apiece. The Chanticleers won the most recent meeting in 2016 by a score of 42-7.
Liberty at No. 18 Coastal Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. ET
Spread: Coastal Carolina -8.5
When Liberty Has the Ball
Quarterback Malik Willis is the driving force behind a potent Liberty offense that averages 38.3 points and 483.5 yards per game. The former Auburn transfer has completed 64.0 percent of his passes for 2,040 yards with 20 touchdowns against just four interceptions. However, he has reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, which would make him ineligible to play on Saturday. If he's sidelined, Chris Ferguson will take the reins. Ferguson, a graduate transfer from FCS Maine, has completed 19 of 37 passes for 197 yards and four touchdowns in limited snaps across six appearances, but he's nowhere near the running threat that Willis offers.
But Ferguson should be able to keep Liberty's passing attack going. Wide receiver DJ Stubbs leads the team in receptions (33) and receiving yards (455), while deep-threat Kevin Shaa leads the Flames in touchdown receptions (4) and yards per catch average (18.9). But it has truly been a collective effort this season for a Liberty passing attack that has featured 16 different pass catchers and 11 different players that have at least one touchdown reception.
The problem for the Flames is that they will be going up against Coastal Carolina's "Black Swarm" defense. The Chanticleers are giving up a modest 181.1 passing yards per game (12th in the FBS) and have allowed just eight touchdown passes all season. The Chants also have 11 interceptions to their credit. And a CCU pass rush that has already generated 31 sacks (sixth-most in the FBS) should be a big concern for a Liberty offensive line that has surrendered 21 sacks on the season. Defensive end and three-time Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week Tarron Jackson leads the Chants with 8.5 sacks (fourth-most in the FBS), followed by standout defensive tackle C.J. Brewer with 6.5 and linebacker Jeffrey Gunter with 5.5.
Fortunately, the Flames have one of the best rushing attacks in the nation to fall back on, although it will probably look different on Saturday. Liberty ranks eighth in the FBS, averaging an impressive 252.1 rushing yards per game and 5.9 yards per carry. The caveat for this game is that Willis is the team's leading rusher with 807 yards and 10 scores on the ground. The good news is that he hasn't done it all by himself. Running backs Joshua Mack (125 att., 692 yds., 4 TDs), Peytton Pickett (87, 505, 6), and Shedro Louis (60, 431 yards, 3) have all played significant roles in the backfield. That group will need to come up big against a good, but not necessarily great, Coastal Carolina run defense that allows 140.3 rushing yards per game (42nd in the FBS).
When Coastal Carolina Has the Ball
Redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall headlines a high-powered Coastal Carolina offensive attack that averages 38.7 points and 448.3 yards per game. Like his counterpart in this matchup, McCall has been nothing short of phenomenal so far this season, completing 67.2 percent of his pass attempts for 1,747 yards with 20 touchdown passes and just one interception. He also ranks in the top 10 nationally in passing efficiency (188.4) and yards per attempt (10.0). The Chants feature four pass catchers that all average better than 16 yards per reception, led by go-to receiver Jaivon Heiligh (41 rec., 682 yds., 8 TDs) and tight end Isaiah Likely (17, 423, 4).
The Chanticleers' passing attack will be put to the test on Saturday against a Liberty defense that allows just 171.6 passing yards per game (eighth in the FBS) and has 10 interceptions to its credit. However, the Flames haven't fared as well in keeping opposing passing games out of the end zone, surrendering 14 touchdowns through the air. Liberty does feature a formidable pass rush, led by defensive end Durrell Johnson (8 sacks), that has racked up 26 sacks this season. That should make for an interesting matchup in the trenches against a CCU offensive line that has been stellar in pass protection, giving up just 10 sacks in nine games.
Do-it-all running back CJ Marable (867 all-purpose yards and a Sun Belt-leading 14 total touchdowns) spearheads a solid three-man rotation in the backfield for a CCU run game that is averaging 220.3 yards per game (19th in FBS). That group also includes running backs Reese White (63 att., 402 yds., 5 TDs) and Shermari Jones (68, 341, 3). McCall also serves as an integral part of the Chants' run game with 365 yards and five scores on the ground.
The Chanticleers will be matched up against a Liberty defense that has been somewhat stingy against the run, giving up 129.6 rushing yards per game (34th in the FBS). However, the Flames have struggled against a few of the better running teams on their schedule — giving up 201 rushing yards against Virginia Tech, 215 against Southern Miss, and 167 against NC State. And Coastal Carolina may just have the best rushing attack that Liberty has seen all season. Likewise, for the CCU defense against Liberty's potent ground attack. It will be fun to see how the matchups between these two high-powered run games unfolds on Saturday.
From a statistical standpoint, these teams couldn't be more evenly matched... if Malik Willis was going to play. The likely absence of Liberty's dual-threat quarterback due to COVID-19 protocols is a reason why the Flames come into this game as an 8.5-point underdog. In fact, it wouldn't surprise if that number continues to grow closer to kickoff on Saturday. In many ways, Liberty has been as impressive, if not more so, than Coastal Carolina this season, especially when you consider the Flames have played a more difficult schedule. They also have a more experienced head coach in Hugh Freeze, who happens to have a very successful track record against big-time opponents in big-time games, particularly as an underdog.
That being said, there is something truly special about this Coastal Carolina team. The Chanticleers also appear to have a slight edge where it matters most — in the trenches. And no Willis completely changes the dynamic for Liberty's high-powered offense going up against Coastal Carolina's swarming defense. The Chants' storybook season will continue with another fairly comfortable win at home.
Prediction: Coastal Carolina 34, Liberty 23
Podcast: Coaching Carousel and Week 14 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.