As we countdown to kickoff in August, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will open the 2019 season when it heads down to Lynchburg, Va. to play Liberty on Aug. 31.
COACH FREEZE RETURNS
It has been an interesting path for Hugh Freeze back to the Division I coaching ranks.
Freeze made a name for himself in the early 2010s for restoring a once floundering Ole Miss program. During his tenure there, he had the Rebels ranked as high as No. 3 in the country, with appearances in the 2014 Peach Bowl (a loss) and the 2016 Sugar Bowl (a win).
That win in the Sugar Bowl catapulted the Rebels to a finish of ninth in the country, its first finish inside the AP Top 10 since 1969.
That was the beginning of the end for Freeze at Ole Miss.
The NCAA began investigating Ole Miss, and eventually charged the school with 21 counts of academic, booster and recruiting misconduct. The Rebels were penalized with a two-year postseason ban, three years of probation, scholarship reductions and 33 vacated wins.
Though Freeze went 39-25 during his five-year stint, the record books only show 12-25.
Freeze ultimately resigned in July, 2017 after an internal investigation revealed that he had used a university-issued phone to call a female escort service.
Freeze stayed out of coaching until he was hired as Liberty’s head football coach in December, 2018. The Flames are in their first season as a full FBS member, having transitioned from the FCS starting last year.
The transitional year was predictably a mixed bag. The Flames opened with a 52-10 rout of Old Dominion in its home opener, and also added wins over New Mexico and Troy along the way. But Liberty also struggled against Power 5 schools Virginia and Auburn, who combined to outscore the Flames, 98-24.
Still, Liberty finished 6-6 in 2018, though its head coach, Turner Gill, retired at the end of the season. That created the opening for Freeze, who used rather unfortunate phrasing to describe “his junk.”
The Flames will play three more Power 5 teams in Syracuse, Virginia and Rutgers this season, along with fellow FBS independent BYU.
WHO TO WATCH FOR
The good news for Freeze is that he returns plenty of experience on both sides of the ball.
On offense, Liberty returns three key position players.
Quarterback Stephen Calvert returns for his senior season after a year where he threw for 3,068 yards and 21 touchdowns. His primary target, senior WR Antonio Gandy-Golden also returns, having caught nearly half of those touchdown throws (10) to go with 71 receptions and 1,037 yards.
In the backfield, Frankie Hickson is coming off a season where he rushed for 1,032 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Up front, the Flames return three offensive linemen, and have bolstered the group even further with JUCO transfer Maisen Knight, a 3-star prospect according to 247 Sports.
On the defensive side of the ball, defensive lineman Jessie Lemonier and linebacker Solomon Ajayi were Nos. 1 and 2 in sacks last season, and both are back.
The defensive line has been an area of concern for Liberty, especially with the departure of Juwan Wells. But defensive lineman Austin Lewis emerged as a reliable option as a true freshman and was named a freshman All-American, and Freeze has added a class that includes three JUCO defensive lineman transfers.
In the secondary, defensive back Tayvion Land was the crown jewel of his recruiting class, having been rated 4 stars by Rivals.com.
Liberty should be nonplussed by Power 5 programs.
Just one season ago, the Flames gave Virginia all it could handle for one half, with the Cavaliers clinging to a 24-17 lead at half before Virginia opened the second half with a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to seize momentum in what ended up being a 45-24 win.
Add to the mix that Freeze is a proven winner at the most elite level of college football and the Orange could have its hands full for the early part of the game, especially with Syracuse on the road.
But while Liberty can potentially keep up with Syracuse on the offensive side of the ball for a period of time (Liberty finished 34th in FBS at 33.3 points per game), its defense will pose the biggest problems.
The Flames finished tied for 122nd in FBS play in 2018, giving up 5,817 yards while surrendering 36.8 points per game, which is why I’m predicting a 52-27 win for the Orange.