The undefeated Liberty Flames travel to the Carrier Dome to take on a reeling Syracuse Orange squad that is desperate to get their 2020 season turned around. The contrast between the teams is substantial.
Liberty (4-0), an independent that's still relatively new to the FBS level, has been averaging nearly 34 points a game. Fresh off a 40-7 home victory over ULM, it would be fair to state that Liberty's performances are garnering legitimate attention from the college football world.
Compare and contrast that with the 2020 Syracuse Orange. Syracuse began the season 0-2, with losses at North Carolina (31-6) and at Pittsburgh (21-10), before earning their first win of the season by defeating Georgia Tech, 37-20. The winning ways did not stay with Syracuse, however, as Dino Babers' team fell to Duke, 38-24, on the road last week. Compounding the loss was Orange quarterback Tommy DeVito suffering a lower leg injury that could mean the end to his season. At 1-3, it feels like Syracuse's season is on the brink.
Liberty at Syracuse
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 17 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Raycom Sports Network/ESPN3
Spread: Liberty -3.5
When Liberty Has the Ball
The Liberty offense revolves around junior quarterback Malik Willis. A graduate transfer from Auburn, Willis is a dual-threat signal-caller that can get the job done with his arm and his legs. Not only did he throw for 177 yards (on 11-for-29 passing with an interception), he also led the Flames in rushing (87 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries) in last week's 40-7 demolition of ULM. He also has thrown for nearly 300 yards in a game (285 vs. FIU) and for the season is averaging 7.2 yards per carry.
Syracuse's defense has had all sorts of trouble stopping the run, ranking near the bottom of FBS at 231 rushing yards allowed per game, and now must go forward without All-American safety Andre Cisco. After missing the past two games because of an injury suffered during a collision with a teammate in pre-game warmups, Orange head coach Dino Babers announced on Monday that Cisco was out for the season. While there were reports that Cisco tore his ACL in that collision, he announced on Tuesday that he was opting out of the rest of the season with plans to declare early for the 2021 NFL Draft. Whatever the reason, the loss of Cisco is significant enough, but especially considering the challenge facing Syracuse on Saturday in trying to slow down a Liberty offense that is averaging 34 points and 443 yards per game, including 251 rushing yards per contest.
When Syracuse Has the Ball
Syracuse was already struggling to put points on the board, and now starting quarterback Tommy DeVito could be lost for the season. Rex Culpepper figures to take DeVito's spot. A senior, Culpepper has completed eight of 19 pass attempts this season for 113 yards, a touchdown (69-yarder to Taj Harris in the loss to Pittsburgh), and an interception. Culpepper, a senior who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in March 2018 and missed that entire season before being declared cancer-free and returning the following year, has seen limited action in his career, playing in nine games across three seasons. Because of his relative inexperience (53-for-95, 613 yards, 3 TDs, 4 INTs in career), head coach Dino Babers may opt to run the ball more to let his new quarterback settle in. The problem there is that Syracuse is averaging less than 80 rushing yards per game and its top two running backs — Sean Tucker and Jawhar Jordan — are dealing with injuries. Liberty is giving up 250 yards on the ground per game, so the opportunity appears to be there, but do the Orange have the personnel to take advantage of it?
Syracuse has not been able to consistently produce any offense this season while Liberty is among the nation's top 25 teams in total, scoring and rushing offense. The Flames are undefeated and brimming with confidence. They should have little problem moving the ball against an Orange team that is battered and searching for answers.
Prediction: Liberty 28, Syracuse 17
(Malik Willis photo courtesy of liberty.edu