Will the Flames be rusty? Liberty opens their season on Saturday afternoon against Western Kentucky on the road, who lost to Louisville 35-21 in their opener (13-point dog). This is the first-ever meeting between the two programs.
Freeze leads brand-new FBS programIt's usually not easy for an FCS program making that transition up to FBS. They have to add 22 more scholarships (from 63 to 85) and play a much tougher schedule. In Liberty's case, as an Independent, they played a very solid schedule in their second season at the FBS level and went 8-5. It helped to have former Hugh Freeze as the head coach in his first season. The former Ole Miss coach, despite coaching from his hospital bed in one game due to a staph infection in their opener against Syracuse, was able to lead the Flames to their first bowl game. The season ended with Liberty downing Georgia Southern 23-16 in the Cure Bowl.
This season, the Flames have five starters returning on offense and five on defense. They do have to replace quarterback Buckshot Calvert, who threw for 28 TDs with just seven picks last season. Auburn transfer Malik Willis, Maine transfer Chris Ferguson and Johnathan Bennett were expected to battle for the starting nod. Willis, a redshirt junior, won the job and will get the start for the Flames. Willis is a 6-1, 216-pounder, who is a threat to run, having rushed for 309 yards on 28 carries in limited action with the Tigers.
“Malik will get the start on Saturday,” Freeze said on Monday on Aseaofred.com. “We feel very good about he and Chris (Ferguson), and even (Johnathan Bennett). They both have continued to improve, just felt like Malik would, maybe, give us a little extra something, when plays don’t quite go the way we want, with his legs.”
The question will be at wide receiver with top wideout Antonio Gandy-Golden off to the NFL (Washington). Senior D.J. Stubbs is back after catching 32 passes and they have several questions after that. At running back, senior Joshua Mack (792 yards, 7 TDs) had a strong season, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. The addition of Willis at quarterback should make his job easier, if Willis is effective as a runner.
On defense, the Flames struggled against the run last season, allowing 189.7 yards per game to rank 96th. They also lost their top three tacklers from 2019. They will rely on several transfers including Anthony Butler from Charlotte at Mike linebacker.
The schedule this year features Syracuse again, Virginia Tech and NC State on the road. If they can survive postponements, they'll wind up playing 10 games.
Piggy struggles in the openerWestern Kentucky replaced last year's C-USA Newcomer of the Year Ty Storey with Maryland transfer Tyrrell Pigrome. "Piggy", who showed some flashes as a spread-option quarterback in the Big 10, struggled in the opener against Louisville, completing 10 of 23 for 129 yards with one TD (no picks). The 5-10 dual-threat quarterback also led the Hilltoppers in rushing with 68 yards on 17 carries.
The disappointment came as star running back Gaej Walker was held to just 19 yards on nine carries. Last year's leading rusher led the Hilltoppers with 1,208 yards on the ground and eight scores. They'll need to establish his presence against the Flames and give him more than nine touches in a game.
Last season, the Western Kentucky defense ranked 24 in total defense with nine starters back. They allowed 144 rushing yards and 343 passing yards against the Cardinals, but did force two turnovers.
Tyson Helton went 9-4 in his first season at the helm as head coach at Western Kentucky. He was C-USA Coach of the Year last season and despite the opening loss, his squad has a good shot of getting back to a bowl game and winning the conference. Last season, the Hilltoppers beat Western Michigan (23-20) to win the First Responders Bowl.
- 18-7 ATS last 25 as an underdog.
- 18-8 ATS last 26 road games.
- 15-5 ATS last 20 as a road dog.
Western Kentucky is:
- 3-7 ATS last 10 as a home favorite.