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Louisiana vs. Liberty Football Prediction and Preview

Author:
Malik Willis, Liberty Flames Football

Malik Willis and the Flames take on the Ragin' Cajuns from the Sun Belt in an intriguing, late-season non-conference matchup

The Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns will head north to face the Liberty Flames for an intriguing late-season showdown between a pair of non-Power 5 heavyweights. Saturday's game will mark just the second meeting all-time between the two schools. Louisiana scored a dominant 35-14 win over Liberty in Lafayette in 2019.

Louisiana, ranked No. 22 in the AP Top 25 and No. 21 in the AFCA Coaches Poll, continues to ride a huge wave of success under head coach Billy Napier, who has led the Ragin' Cajuns to a sparkling 29-5 record since 2019. The Cajuns have already clinched their fourth Sun Belt West title in a row. And by virtue of their 35-21 win over Troy last Saturday, their 12th straight conference victory dating back to last season, the Cajuns are set to host the Sun Belt Championship Game on Dec. 4. Now 9-1 overall and 7-0 in conference play, Louisiana will hit the road for the second time in as many weeks to face Liberty in its final non-conference tilt of the season. If successful, the red-hot Ragin' Cajuns will extend their winning streak to 10 games.

FBS independent Liberty also has enjoyed a fruitful run under head coach Hugh Freeze, going 25-9 over his first three seasons with the Flames. Unfortunately, Freeze's return to his old stomping grounds at Ole Miss wasn't quite as fruitful, as star quarterback Malik Willis was sacked nine times and tossed three picks in the 27-14 loss to the Rebels. Now fresh off an open date, the 7-3 Flames will look to bounce back against Louisiana this Saturday inside Williams Stadium, where they will put their 15-game home winning streak on the line.

Louisiana at Liberty

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 20 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: ESPNU
Spread: Liberty -4.5

When Louisiana Has the Ball

Quarterback Levi Lewis engineers a balanced attack that averages 420.1 yards and 31.2 points per game. Lewis' numbers haven't been spectacular this season — completing 61.8 percent of his pass attempts for 2,108 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. However, his track record speaks for itself. Lewis holds the school record for career touchdown passes, ranks second in school history in career passing yards, and needs just 72 yards on Saturday to become the program's all-time leader in total yards (rushing and passing). Lewis is also coming off a stellar four-touchdown (one rushing) performance against a really good Troy defense just last week.

Lewis has relied on a collective effort from a receiving corps that has featured 18 different pass catchers and nine players with at least one touchdown reception. Peter LeBlanc leads the team with 29 receptions, while deep-threat Michael Jefferson leads the Cajuns with 323 receiving yards, 25.5 yards per catch, and three touchdown receptions (tied with Kyren Lacy and John Stephens Jr.). Meanwhile, all-conference tackle Max Mitchell headlines a stout Louisiana offensive line that has given up just 15 sacks all season. The Louisiana passing game is fairly solid overall, but Lewis and Co. will certainly have their work cut out for them on Saturday against a stingy Liberty pass defense that ranks 10th nationally (182.2 ypg) and has allowed just 10 touchdowns through the air in 10 games.

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The Ragin' Cajuns will probably need to rely more on their run game in this matchup. Liberty has been solid against the run this season, giving up 134.4 yards per game. However, a potent Louisiana rushing attack that ranks 24th in the country (201.2 ypg) should be up for the challenge. The Cajuns feature a dangerous three-pronged attack in the backfield — featuring running backs Chris Smith (125 att., 762 yds., 8 TDs) and Montrell Johnson (119, 677, 10) to go along with Lewis at quarterback (68, 210, 3). Liberty linebacker Storey Jackson will serve as their biggest adversary on Saturday. Jackson leads the Flames in tackles (76), tackles for a loss (9.5), and sacks (5).

When Liberty Has the Ball

Willis spearheads a formidable Liberty offense that averages 446.6 yards and 35.1 points per game. A true field general, Willis has completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 2,159 yards and 21 touchdowns. And his impressive 9.2 yards per pass attempt ranks 10th nationally. That said, Willis has tossed nine picks and fumbled three times this season. And as we saw against Ole Miss, he can be a little reckless with the ball at times. The offensive line has also struggled to keep a clean pocket, allowing 38 sacks on the year — only five teams in the FBS have allowed more. That could be a problem against a Louisiana pass rush that has produced 26 sacks this season. Willis does get plenty of help from a solid group of receivers — led by Demario Douglas (42 rec., 618 yds., 5 TDs) and CJ Daniels (27, 463, 7). The Liberty passing attack will be put to the test against a sound Louisiana pass defense that ranks 39th nationally, giving up 210.3 yards per contest through the air.

Liberty also features a strong run game that generates 195.7 rushing yards per game. Willis also spearheads that effort with a team-high 755 yards and 10 scores on the ground. Running backs Joshua Mack (100 att., 407 yds., 3 TDs), Shedro Louis (63, 358, 4), and T.J. Green (61, 329, 3) provide additional firepower in the backfield for the well-constructed Liberty ground attack. That group should find ample running room on Saturday against a middling Louisiana run defense that ranks 64th nationally (147.5 ypg). Liberty will have to contend with star defensive end Zi'Yon Hill (46 tackles, team-high 6.5 for a loss, and a team-high 4.5 sacks), who grades out as one of the top defensive linemen in the country, per PFF.

Final Analysis

There are plenty of reasons to like both teams in this matchup. The Ragin' Cajuns are well-coached and riding the momentum of a nine-game winning streak. They also feature a strong run game, a veteran quarterback, and a defense that rarely gives up a lot of points. However, Louisiana is a fairly average football team overall from a statistical standpoint. The Cajuns also have had several close calls on the road this season against inferior competition. Liberty is far from an inferior opponent, and the Flames should be well-rested and adequately prepared following a bye week. The Flames also feature a top-25 offense — led by a future NFL quarterback in Willis. And a defense that ranks in the top 15 nationally. More importantly, Liberty has not lost a home game since Aug. 31, 2019 — winning 15 consecutive contests inside Williams Stadium under Hugh Freeze. Make it 16 in a row on Saturday, as the Flames edge out the Ragin' Cajuns in a hard-fought thriller.

Prediction: Liberty 31, Louisiana 27

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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.