Removing Liberty’s Top-25 Facemask

If I told you before the season started that only one of the teams in Virginia Tech and Liberty’s game this weekend would enter the contest ranked, that wouldn’t surprise you.

Now if I added that Liberty was the ranked team, then you might wonder what decade it is.

Relax. It’s still 2020, which has featured more than enough nonsense for one year. Liberty is a decent football team, but as we’ll discuss later in this piece, their ranking is questionable.

Hugh Freeze took over the head coaching role with the Flames prior to 2019 and since assuming the position, Freeze is 14-5. He’s brought instant stripper access  credibility to Liberty’s football program, elevating them to competitive status.

Most importantly, Freeze found the Flames a quarterback in Auburn transfer Malik Willis.

Willis, who at one time was committed to play defensive back at Virginia Tech, has played solid and consistent football in his first season as a starter. Willis is completing 67.2 percent of his throws, averaging 8.2 yards per pass attempt, averaging seven yards per rush and has scored 15 times. He’s thrown just one interception.

Liberty’s offense is centered around Willis — his 1,547 yards from scrimmage account for nearly 55 percent of Liberty’s offense — but Willis does have a couple of weapons around him to worry about. Liberty’s top three running backs all average five yards per rush or more, including Shedro Lewis‘ 8.3 yards per rush.

As good as Willis has been, it’s important to note when he’s produced. Six of Willis’ nine passing touchdowns came in one game — his last game vs. Southern Miss. In Willis’ previous four contests, he threw just three touchdowns.

Overall, Liberty is in the top-20 in scoring and offensive yardage. Football Outsiders ranks Liberty 39th in OFEI and ninth in offensive points per drive.

It’s a different side of the coin on defense. Football Outsiders ranks the Flames 85th in DFEI, even though Liberty is tied for 22nd in average points allowed and 12th in average yards allowed.

This glaring discrepancy can be attributed to Liberty’s schedule, which has to be among the weakest in the country. And this is where the façade that is Liberty’s No. 25 ranking begins to fall apart.

Liberty is 6-0, but the teams they have beaten thus far have a combined record of 4-28. That’s absolutely abysmal. Playing Virginia Tech on Saturday will double the win total of Liberty’s opponents this season.

Dive deeper into some of the results of these games. Liberty bested 2-5 Western Kentucky by just six points. The Flames waited until the fourth quarter to take the lead against 0-3 Florida International the following week. Two weeks ago, Liberty found themselves in a one-score game in the third quarter with 1-5 Southern Miss.

Liberty deserves credit for starting the season 6-0 and knocking off the teams on their schedule, but it’s undoubtedly the weakest 6-0 record in the nation. In fact, Football Outsiders ranks Liberty 78th in overall FEI, a whopping 49 spots lower than Virginia Tech.

None of this is meant to overlook or dismiss Liberty. Anytime a 6-0 team walks into your house, you have to come prepared to play. Another lackadaisical performance like the one we saw vs. Wake Forest will put Virginia Tech firmly on the ropes.

However, the Hokies should win this game going away. Tech’s offense is bordering on elite and the defensive metrics suggest Liberty’s defense is quite vulnerable. As much as Virginia Tech’s defense has struggled, a cogent gameplan and halfway decent play should keep Willis in check. Given the schedule’s he’s faced, it’s not unreasonable that the Hokies’ defense might be the best Willis has faced so far.

Before digging deeper into Liberty’s track record, I looked at Liberty and saw a genuine threat to Virginia Tech. But now, all I see is a team on the rise who has yet to be tested in 2020. Virginia Tech is that test, and Liberty will likely fail.

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