Opponent Analysis: Liberty Flames — 2021 Syracuse Football preview

Liberty v. Syracuse

As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team opponent preview each week over the summer. This week, we’re previewing Syracuse’s matchup with Liberty on Sept. 24.

This Team Will Go As Malik Willis Goes

Malik Willis is the explosive junior who transferred from Auburn at the start of last year. He led the Flames to the best record in school history (10-1) and spearheaded an offense that finished 15th in the nation. Among those 10 wins was a 38-21 trashing of Syracuse in which Liberty amassed over 500 total yards against a beleaguer Syracuse defense and an anemic offense.

Willis was electric with his legs in the 2020 season, rushing for 944 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games. Yes, you read that right. 14 rushing TDs from the quarterback. Willis rushed for 168 yards and 3 TDs in his very first game as a Flame. Pair that with the fact that he is more than competent as a passer, throwing for 2,260 yards and 20 touchdowns and you have match-up nightmare for any defense.

Willis also tied a school record with six passing touchdowns in one of their wins against Southern Miss.

With the entire offensive line coming back for another year, and only losing his 4th-string receiver this offseason, you can expect Malik Willis to lead this team to another bowl game and possibly double-digit wins.

» Related: Previewing Syracuse’s matchup in week 1 against Ohio

The Defense Is Stout, And Deep With Talent

Liberty’s defense also dominated all competition last year, finishing 11th in the country. They had their most success in run defense, and that is certainly due to the depth of their defensive line.

Outside linebackers Durrell Johnson and TreShaun Clark were terrors from the end positions, combining for 14 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. Johnson in particular is a player looking to make a big leap forward and rise up NFL draft boards this year, after his 8.5 sacks and 38 total tackles last year turned heads. Johnson made the Phil Steele Postseason All-Independent first team.

Inside, Elijah James and Ralph Rusins are two 300+ pound linemen who plug up the middle and take up double teams, freeing the edge rushers to attack the backfield. They are also well rounded players, with James having 2.5 sacks and a couple of pass breakups and Rusin having a sack and forced fumble of his own last year.

With Malik Willis having a second year in head coach Hugh Freeze’s system you can expect an already dangerous playmaker to raise his level of play, and the defense should be similar to the unit last year that finished in the top 25 (20.5 points against per game) since it returns nearly all of their starters.


Liberty’s schedule will be more difficult this season, with road games at Syracuse and Ole Mission to go along with Troy and UAB. Home games against No. 23 Louisiana and Army should be competitive as well.

But the odds makers at bettingsider24.com have set the over under at 9.5 wins this year, and a key game against Syracuse should determine that over/under.

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About Rutger Sears 129 Articles
Rutger is a freelance writer and as a Syracuse native, has an affinity for all Syracuse University Athletics. From Donovan McNabb to Mike Powell, Rutger has seen greatness in many forms don an Orange uniform over the last 30 years. He covers all Syracuse athletics with a particular emphasis on football and recruiting.