It's almost not fair. Liberty is off to its best start ever at 7-0 and ranked No. 23 in Athlon Sports' Top 25, set to host an FCS opponent, Western Carolina, that is playing for the first time this fall and is 0-57 all-time against FBS opponents.
Liberty being a 32.5-point favorite further emphasizes the difference going into Saturday's game.
However, with Liberty dealing with newfound national attention after a wild win over Virginia Tech which ranks among the biggest in school history, and an important matchup at NC State upcoming on Nov. 21, the Flames appear at risk of overlooking a Western Carolina squad that is coming off back-to-back three-win seasons. At least the Catamounts hope so as they head north to Lynchburg, Virginia.
Western Carolina at No. 22 Liberty
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 14 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Liberty -32.5
When Western Carolina Has the Ball
While Western Carolina is replacing quarterback Tyrie Adams, who ranks fifth in Southern Conference history with 11,525 yards of total offense, redshirt junior Will Jones made three starts last season and has appeared in 14 career games. The experience is helpful given the Catamounts averaged only 18.1 points and 325.0 offensive yards last year — both single-season lows since 2010. While Daquan Patten, who had 46 receptions last season and is the son of former NFL wide receiver David Patten, and tight end Owen Cosenke are experienced pass-catchers, the Catamounts' offensive priority is to establish running back Donnavan Spencer, who accounted for 763 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns. Ninth-year coach Mark Speir says it is vital for his team not to beat itself with mistakes.
Even after Liberty won a 38-35 slugfest at Virginia Tech, it ranks 17th In the FBS in total defense (311.7 yards per game), so the Catamounts face a stiff opening challenge to their three-game schedule. Jones must solve excellent cornerbacks Emanuel Dabney and Chris Megginson because the Flames' ends and linebackers figure to be more aggressive against an opponent that's making its season debut.
When Liberty Has the Ball
For the second consecutive year, Liberty has relied on big plays offensively. Through seven games this season, the Flames have 31 plays of 25 or more yards, with quarterback Malik Willis leading the way. The Auburn transfer has protected the ball well with only one interception in 161 passing attempts, and he's the Flames' leading rusher as well, accounting for 323.7 yards of total offense per game and 19 total touchdowns (including 11 in the last two games).
Liberty should have great success running the ball. The Flames rank 12th in the FBS in rushing yards per game (254.6), with Willis and running backs Joshua Mack, Shedro Louis, and Peytton Pickett splitting carries. All four players have more than 325 rushing yards on 5 yards per carry or better. Western Carolina's defense was terrible last season, allowing 258.4 rushing yards per game — the third-worst average in the FCS. Former Middle Tennessee coach Andy McCollum has taken over as the Catamounts' defensive coordinator, hoping to lift a unit that has productive linebackers in Ty Harris and Trevor Childers.
The clutch Willis has been a difference-maker for Liberty, but credit second-year coach Hugh Freeze and his staff for keeping the Flames both efficient and consistent throughout this surprising season. In seeking a 10th straight home win, their goal against Western Carolina is to jump out to an early lead against an FCS opponent that has to quickly transition to game speed. If that happens, a competitive game appears unlikely.
The series is tied 3-3, but those games were on the FCS level between 1996 and 2008, and over the last two seasons, Liberty has demonstrated it's a rising FBS program.
Prediction: Liberty 48, Western Carolina 17
Podcast: Week 11 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Malik Willis photo courtesy of Liberty Athletics)