Column: ESP(Em)

This weekend’s football game hosting Syracuse will be one of the biggest — if not the biggest — Liberty football games in school history. Saturday will be the first time Liberty has ever welcomed a Power Five and nationally-ranked school into Williams Stadium and the first game Liberty plays with new Head Coach Hugh Freeze.

The Liberty ticket office is anticipating a giant turnout for the game, to the point that students were asked to pick up their “ticket” wristbands more than two weeks before the game date. There’s quite a lot of rumor that Syracuse will be bringing hundreds of fans, and each of the several Orange fans I’ve spoken to have told me they’re definitely coming to the game. 

This game will be a test on Williams Stadium’s capacity between sold-out Flames Club-level seats, thousands of students and a large group of Syracuse fans. While I doubt we’ll see commencement-level crowds,  Williams Stadium will be pretty close to its 30,000-seat capacity.

As far as the team, the Flames are facing a huge challenge. Syracuse is already ranked 22nd in the nation and expected to win with an over-under of 17.5 points.

Syracuse is a formidable team, particularly after its phenomenal 10-3 2018-2019 season, including a bowl win and a four-point loss to an undefeated Clemson. The Orange also finished the season ranked 15th in the nation, their first top-25 ranking in nearly 20 years.

Despite graduating Eric Dungey, their starting quarterback, and several other key starters, Syracuse has several strong players stepping up to fill their shoes. The most notable of these players is likely Tommy DeVito (who, as far as I know, is not related to Danny DeVito), who will be the Orange’s starting quarterback. 

DeVito shows a lot of promise and proved himself to be a capable quarterback last season with four touchdowns and a total of 525 yards in seven games.

His skill presents a challenge for Liberty’s defense — as does just about any offense in the country, as of last season. Liberty’s defense struggled to keep up all season and was ranked 123rd in the FBS. Freeze and his staff have recruited several junior college transfers and others who will add some strength, but it’s still yet to be seen if that defense will be effective.

The Flames will have less to worry about offensively. Liberty’s offense was 46th in the nation last year, which should only improve under Freeze’s offensive prowess. The Flames scored an average of 33 points per game, which put them at 34th in the FBS in scoring, and the team earned a total of 5,075 offensive yards for the season.

Liberty will also see quite a lot of quarterback competition, particularly between starting senior Buckshot Calvert and Auburn transfer Malik Willis. While Calvert is the incumbent starter, I wouldn’t be surprised to find Willis taking the field more than a couple times this season.

Whoever the quarterback is, the Flames have a strong offensive line to defend him and the receiving and running depth to keep things moving. Liberty’s offensive line was one of the top lines in the nation, and the Flames will see another year of play from star receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden. 

However, the offensive line will have to fend off Syracuse’s Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman — two pieces of one of the strongest defensive end groups around. Robinson and Coleman will be plenty to keep the offensive line busy.

But Liberty has one more thing going for it: the element of surprise. While the Flames can watch tape of Syracuse all day, the Orange has very little to watch of Liberty. The Flames will have an entirely new coaching staff and Freeze at the helm, who hasn’t coached in a few years.

But surprise isn’t enough to win a game. As lovely as it would be to pull off a Syracuse upset, it’s doubtful that Liberty can keep up for all four quarters. While a one-sided blowout from Syracuse is unlikely, a Liberty win is even more unlikely. 

My final prediction is 42-31 Syracuse.

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