The Syracuse Orange out of the ACC will host the Liberty Flames, an FBS independent, on Friday night inside the Carrier Dome, marking the third meeting all-time between the two schools. These teams should be fairly familiar with one another after facing off in each of the last two seasons. Syracuse came away with 24-0 win against Liberty in Lynchburg in 2019, while the Flames scored a 38-21 victory over the Orange last season in Syracuse.
Liberty enters Friday night's matchup with a perfect 3-0 record following last week's 45-17 win against Old Dominion. Star quarterback Malik Willis accounted for six touchdowns, and the Liberty defense held the Monarchs to just 201 yards of offense in the blowout win. The Flames have won 14 of their last 15 games under head coach Hugh Freeze dating back to 2019, with their only loss coming by one point to NC State last season. Liberty will now make its way north in hopes of keeping its unblemished record intact by beating Syracuse for the second year in a row.
Syracuse has already doubled its win total from last season, courtesy of last Saturday's dominant 62-24 win against UAlbany from the FCS ranks. Orange running back Sean Tucker put on quite a show in the process, racking up 253 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns to become the first player in Syracuse history to pick up more than 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game. Now 2-1 on the season, Syracuse will look to exact a little revenge against the Flames on Friday night. Does head coach Dino Babers' squad have what it takes to pull off the upset at home?
Liberty at Syracuse
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Liberty -6
When Liberty Has the Ball
Willis is the driving force behind a potent Liberty offense that averages 38 points and 435.3 yards per game. The former Auburn transfer has completed 71 percent of his passes for 613 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions, with an exceptional 179.1 passer rating. Willis also stars in the run game, leading the Flames with 225 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, averaging a healthy 6.6 yards per carry in the process.
In terms of pass-catchers, it has truly been a collective effort for the Flames, with 17 different players pulling in a reception through three games. Wide receiver Demario Douglas has been Willis' favorite target to date, hauling in 16 catches for 185 yards and a pair of scores. Wide receivers DJ Stubbs (6 rec., 102 yds.), CJ Daniels (7, 91, 2 TDs) and Kevin Shaa (4, 62, 2) also feature prominently in the passing game.
While the dual-threat Willis spearheads the ground attack, running backs Joshua Mack (40 att., 127 yds., TD) and Utah transfer T.J. Green (23, 132) also play a pivotal role in the backfield. The Flames also have sophomore running back Shedro Louis (17, 81, 1), who torched the Orange defense last season to the tune of 170 yards and two scores on the ground.
The Flames will be paired against a Syracuse defense that has, so far, shown real improvement over last season. The Orange are allowing 16.7 points and just 225.3 yards per game (No. 4 in FBS). They have been outstanding against the pass and the run, giving up 161.7 passing yards per game and 63.7 on the ground, both of which rank in the top 25 nationally. Linebacker and leading tackler Mikel Jones (28 tackles) leads the way for the Syracuse defense. Meanwhile, a much-improved pass rush, spearheaded by defensive lineman Cody Roscoe (3.5 sacks), could present a challenge for a veteran Liberty offensive line, led by tackle Tristan Schultz.
The Orange defense has shown marked improvement. However, they have yet to really be tested. That will change on Friday night when Willis and a stout Liberty offense come to town.
When Syracuse Has the Ball
Babers has yet to decide on a full-time quarterback, which means we will likely see both Tommy DeVito and Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader behind center on Friday night. DeVito has completed 61.5 percent of his pass attempts for 388 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, adding 97 yards and a score on the ground. Shrader, while being known more for his athleticism and mobility, has actually been the more efficient passer. Shrader has posted a 72.7 percent completion rate thus far for 240 yards with a touchdown and an interception, adding 44 yards and a pair of scores on the ground.
The Orange hope to have leading receiver Taj Harris (14 rec., 151 yds.) back for Friday night's matchup after sitting out last week with an undisclosed injury. Harris, who recently passed Marvin Harrison for fifth on Syracuse's all-time receptions list, is a crucial part of the Orange's passing attack. If Harris is unable to play, DeVito and Shrader will lean heavily on the collective efforts of Anthony Queeley, Sharod Johnson, and Courtney Jackson.
On the heels of a historic five-touchdown performance against UAlbany, it's safe to say that no one is more critical to the Syracuse offense than Tucker. In three games, Tucker has racked up 367 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. He's also been instrumental in the passing game with seven receptions for 148 yards and a score and ranks second nationally with 515 all-purpose yards.
A veteran Syracuse offensive line, led by left tackle Matthew Bergeron, has shown vast improvement over last season. However, this group remains somewhat of a liability and is sure to have its hands full against a Liberty pass rush that has already generated 10 sacks through three games, led by defensive lineman Kendy Charles with four.
As for Liberty's defense overall, the Flames have been stout, allowing 12.3 points and 234 yards per game. They have been particularly strong against the run, limiting opponents to just 58 yards and under two yards per carry. And there are talented playmakers at all three levels, led by linebacker and leading tackler Storey Jackson (20 tackles, 1.5 sacks). The Orange will definitely have their work cut out for them against this defense on Friday night.
While Syracuse does appear to be an improved football team so far this season, the Orange have done most of their damage against inferior competition. In their lone contest against a Power 5 school, the Orange constantly shot themselves in the foot with costly penalties and mistakes, resulting in a 17-7 loss to Rutgers. If Syracuse can avoid such mistakes on Friday night, they should have a chance to pull off the upset. And unlike last season, there will actually be fans in the Carrier Dome to provide a legitimate home-field advantage.
Liberty has primarily faced poor competition as well. But the Flames have done a better job of passing the eye test overall and return everyone of note that participated in last season's 17-point win over 'Cuse. The Orange should make it more interesting this time around. However, a more polished Liberty squad, led by one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, will hold on to keep its perfect record intact.
Prediction: Liberty 31, Syracuse 24
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.