For the first time in program history, Liberty takes on nationally ranked Syracuse at Williams Stadium on Saturday. The Flames have scheduled rather aggressively as an FBS Independent school and have enough money to bring programs like the Orange to their place. Last year, Liberty hosted Old Dominion and reportedly paid the Monarchs over a million dollars to lure them to Lynchburg.
The team made a coaching change after Turner Gill announced his retirement. Replacing him is Hugh Freeze, who has had a checkered history at some of his previous stops. Freeze went 39-25 in five seasons at Ole Miss but has an official record of 12-25 thanks to issues with the NCAA over "impermissible benefits." He also reportedly made several calls to an escort service and was asked to leave because of violations to the school's morals clause. Just a few weeks ago, the head coach checked into a hospital with a life-threatening infection. He has spent some time coaching the team from a hotel, where he has a walkie-talkie to communicate with staff.
Meanwhile, Syracuse is dealing with some rare lofty expectations. The program is nationally ranked and is widely considered to be the biggest threat to Clemson's reign in the ACC Atlantic division. Last year, the team went 10-3 under Dino Babers and nearly knocked off the Tigers in Death Valley, falling 27-23. The squad also opened last year on the road against a non-Power 5 school, beating Western Michigan 55-42.
Syracuse at Liberty
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. ET
TV:ESPN+(Click link to sign up and watch)
Spread: Syracuse -17.5
When Syracuse Has the Ball
The first thing you will notice is that Eric Dungey is not under center. It's a big loss, as he was the heartbeat of the 2018 squad. Dungey accounted for over 3,500 yards of offense last season, but because of problems with injuries, sophomore Tommy DeVito saw some action. The signal-caller had four touchdowns to three interceptions in 87 attempts. Much like Calvert, DeVito is not much of a threat to run the ball.
Coach Babers wants high tempo and will be pushing his team to quicken the pace as much as they can. With a 6 p.m. kickoff, the heat won't be as much of a factor, but Babers wants the Liberty defense to be breathing heavy. The backfield is loaded with Moe Neal, who is fifth in program history with almost 5.5 yards per carry. Neal is a workhorse back who does the dirty work, with Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams spelling him. Adams had two touchdowns in the team's bowl victory last year over West Virginia. Out wide, there are a bunch of different options with Nykheim Johnson, Taj Harris and Michigan State transfer Trishton Jackson leading the way. The questions reside up front, where the offensive line is a bit unsettled after three starters departed.
Liberty's defense has seven starters back, but the Flames will need some massive improvement, especially since they allowed 45 points to UVA and 53 to Auburn in their only Power 5 games last year. Jessie Lemonier is the leader of the pack up front with 55 tackles, 13.5 TFLs, and 10 sacks last season as a sophomore. Five of the team's top six linebackers return, including Solomon Ajayi and Brandon Tillmon, who are both seniors. It'll be interesting to see how they replace cornerback Jeremy Peters, who had 16 pass breakups in 2018.
When Liberty Has the Ball
Liberty returns eight starters from last year's offense that put up 33.3 points per contest. The Flames are led by quarterback Steven "Buckshot" Calvert, who threw for over 3,000 yards with 21 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Calvert has very limited mobility and isn't much of a threat to run it out of the backfield.
Calvert's top target is 6-4 senior Antonio Gandy-Golden, who had over 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last season. In all, four of the team's top five receivers are back from 2018. The key for this offense, though, is the run game, which put up nearly 2,000 rushing yards, the most for the program since 2014. Frankie Hickson is the top option after rushing for 11 touchdowns last year. Hickson is a scatback type, with Joshua Mack and Peytton Pickett providing the size in between the tackles. This offensive line returns 100 career starts, so the Flames should be pretty solid up front.
Cuse head coach Dino Babers has said that his defense is the strength of the football team, which is a far cry from the way things used to be. The Orange forced 31 turnovers last year, which was the best in the Power 5. Leading the way are Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, who each had double digits in sacks and combined for nearly 30 tackles for a loss. It's all about the guys up front with a solid secondary behind them.
Lynchburg will be rocking as the Flames welcome their first ACC and nationally ranked opponent to town. Liberty may even get a punch or two in with its potent combo of Calvert and Gandy-Golden. I think the Flames will have a lead at some point as the Orange get off to a sluggish start. Still, I'd like to think that the team out of the ACC with more talent will eventually wear down its opponent in this one. I think we see some late fireworks to make it interesting, but Syracuse starts off 1-0.
Prediction: Syracuse 34, Liberty 20
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.