The Liberty Flames make the short journey to Blacksburg, VA this Saturday for the toughest game of their fairy tale College Football season. In what has been the most disrupted year imaginable, the Flames have lit up the FBS. Undefeated, ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history, and with an ACC scalp in their trophy cabinet, they’re exceeding even their own expectations.
“I don’t think there’s any of us that thought we’d be sitting at 6-0 at the break, headed into Virginia Tech. I don’t think in all honesty I could have said before the season that we would be.”
Liberty Flames on fire under Hugh Freeze
Liberty Flames head coach Hugh Freeze knows that the success his side is having this season has taken many people by surprise, including himself. His honesty shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of confidence in the program, however. It’s more an appreciation of how a team in relative FBS infancy has come together against a backdrop of national crisis and disruption to be greater than the sum of it’s individual parts.
“It’s not that none of us believed we could compete or win. But man, we didn’t have spring ball. Fall camp was a whole different type of camp. Are we going to play, aren’t we going to play? Are we having a season or are we not? We certainly haven’t been perfect as individuals, but we’ve been perfect together to this point.”
In his second season in charge – Freeze delivered a first ever bowl win for the program in year one – perfect is exactly what the Liberty Flames have been so far in 2020.
They swept aside a Western Kentucky team that had nine wins in 2019 to open the season. They’ve comfortably cast aside FIU, Southern Mississippi, and Louisiana-Monroe. Then there was the game that helped bring national attention to the Liberty Flames program, a statement win over “Power 5” opposition in Syracuse.
Greater than the sum of their individual parts
By his own admission, this Liberty Flames team isn’t stacked from top to bottom with household names. Freeze tells me: “Our roster is still not totally full of FBS players.”
However, former flame Antonio Gandy-Golden wasn’t a household name prior to the 2019 season that took led him to a fourth round selection of the Washington Football Team in the 2020 NFL Draft.
He is evidence that the program can produce talent.
Their offense is led by transfer quarterback Malik Willis. The former Auburn QB made his way to Lynchburg this off-season and has illuminated the Liberty Flames with his skills as a dual threat quarterback. Willis has thrown for over 1000 yards with a 9:1 touchdown to interception ratio whilst leading the team in rushing yards (495 yards at seven yards per carr) and adding another six touchdowns on the ground.
Whilst no one wide receiver has replicated Gandy-Golden’s 2019 production, Demario Douglas, D.J. Stubbs, Kevin Shaa, and CJ Yarbrough all have triple digit receiving seasons and a remarkable eight different players have touchdown grabs.
On the other side of the ball, Durrell Johnson ranks fifth in the entire nation for a Liberty Flames defense that has allowed just 21 points on average per game, ranking 23rd in the nation. When you consider that eight teams in front of them have played less than five games that paints a more impressive picture of what they’ve achieved.
Their biggest test of the season, however, awaits in Blacksburg on Saturday.
Virginia Tech provides biggest threat to Flames' undefeated season so far
Although they have already beaten one ACC team, and are ranked higher than Virginia Tech, the Liberty Flames head into Saturday’s encounter as a significant underdog. The Hokies may be 4-2, but after an opening defeat to their particularly disrupted season, only a defeat to North Carolina has come out on top against the Vriginia Tech offensive juggernaut.
Freeze is under no illusion as to the size of the task ahead.
“No one has stopped them. They’re fourth in the nation in rushing. I think they’re very good up front, offensive line wise. Tailback and quarterback there are extremely talented. I really think that one of the keys to watch if we have a chance to be in this game will be our red zone defense. Are we able to hold them to some field goals instead of touchdowns? Because they’re going to move the ball. They have a good scheme, they’re well coached, and they have some good players.”
“We’ve had two practices I really liked [this week] and I think our kids will be excited and they’ll show up and be ready to play.”
The Liberty Flames aren’t going to give up their unbeaten season without a fight, but even if they don’t find a way to beat Virginia Tech on Saturday this team has put Liberty on the College Football map.
“I’m incredibly proud of our kids and our staff. It’s taken, truly, a village to be at our best. To be in the Top 25 this week will be be a memory to keep safe for all of us for years to come.”
Oliver Hodgkinson is a College Football writer for The Touchdown. He also writes on the NFL for the Pro Football Network. You can hear his opinions on all things College Football as one third of the College Chaps Podcast.