Hugh Freeze has Liberty on the verge of doing something special
You couldn’t have foreseen a 10-1 season for Liberty back in September, when the Flames were struggling to beat an average Western Kentucky and an awful Florida International.
Those two would go a combined 5-12 in 2020.
Both played the Flames to one-score results.
It really wasn’t until Liberty went to the Carrier Dome and blew out Syracuse that we started to take notice, but even then, sure, ‘Cuse is in the ACC, but it went 1-9 this year.
It was the win at Virginia Tech, on Nov. 7 – and the way Liberty won that game.
Remember how the first potential game-winning Alex Barbir field goal try was blocked and returned for an apparent final-play Tech touchdown that got wiped off the board because Hokies coach Justin Fuente called timeout before the snap?
Liberty coach Hugh Freeze took the opportunity to try to get a little closer, and Tech went into a Hail Mary defense that allowed Malik Willis to complete a short pass that got Barbir into a little more comfortable range – and he drilled the 51-yarder for the dramatic, program-defining W.
Another late Barbir field goal was blocked, preserving a 15-14 NC State win, two weeks later, but that wouldn’t be the end for Liberty.
A highly-anticipated matchup with another up-and-coming former FCS program, Coastal Carolina, was lost to COVID-19 issues on Dec. 5, but Liberty got another shot at the Chanticleers, a former Big South rival, in the FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl.
Once again, the game came down to kicks – Barbir connecting from 44 in the first possession of OT for Liberty, Elijah James blocking Massimo Biscardi’s 42-yard try to preserve it.
The 37-34 win finished Liberty’s season at 10-1, and with the win over Virginia Tech, a pending Top 25 final ranking, yeah, for the moment, anyway, Liberty Football is the best in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“What a year. It’s one of the more memorable years that I have had in coaching. I really can’t wait to reflect,” said Freeze, who signed a contract extension in November that ostensibly keeps him in Lynchburg through 2026.
That is, if the school can keep the SEC from getting its hands on Freeze – who was 39-25 in five seasons at Ole Miss before resigning in 2016 at the height of scandal that included recruiting and academic violations and a personal-conduct issue involving calls from his university-issued cell phone to a female escort service.
Freeze to Liberty, which hired him two Decembers ago, was viewed in the industry as Freeze doing penance, and Liberty taking advantage of him being there however long he would end up being there to have him build the football program to a level of respectability.
He’s gone 18-6 in two seasons, won 10 games in the second season, won on the road twice in the ACC, the one loss this year being at another ACC that will also finish in the final Top 25.
Consider that one a mission: accomplished for both sides.
There are some marquee jobs possibly about to come open – looking at you, Tennessee – but you have to wonder if Freeze doesn’t have the best thing going for him right now in Central Virginia.
The disadvantages are obvious. For starters, Liberty is still an independent, with the scheduling challenges that come with being unattached.
To wit, look ahead to the 2021 schedule: another game at Syracuse, a game at Ole Miss in November that should be interesting, Louisiana and Army coming to Lynchburg in November.
It’s a 10-2 or 9-3 type schedule, but 10-2 or 9-3 with wins over the likes of Campbell, Troy, UAB, UMass isn’t going to move the needle any further.
It would seem to be imperative for Freeze and Athletics Director Ian McCaw to get Liberty an invite to a conference – memo to the 11-member AAC: any day now.
Get into a conference, and as the momentum builds for playoff expansion, from four to eight, maybe to 16, you won’t need to be in the SEC to have a chance to get into the CFP, and when you think about it, do you have a better shot if you’re Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Arkansas – i.e. not ‘Bama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Florida – just because you’re in the SEC.
The password is … not a chance.
If things start moving the way they seem to be, the timing of the Liberty breakthrough couldn’t be better.
It didn’t come easy. Freeze took over a program that couldn’t get past six wins in Turner Gill’s last four seasons, the final one being a 6-6 finish in 2018.
And then, you may remember that Freeze had to coach the 2019 season opener against Syracuse from a hospital bed in the team’s coaching booth as he recovered from a life-threatening staph infection.
So there was that, and his 2020 season included him testing positive for COVID-19, as the program had to shut down the end of its regular season, ahead of the big bowl win.
Penance, remember, they were saying when Liberty hired him.
“Obviously, there were a lot of obstacles that our program had to handle, along with the many others that played college football,” Freeze said. “I’m thankful. I’m thankful for our administration. I’m thankful for all of the staff, nutritionists and medical team and equipment staff, everybody that worked so many extra jobs to make this happen. Most of all, I’m thankful for our kids and our staff that I get to work with.
“We had a tremendous year, and what a way to end it. Heck of a game tonight, and I’m thankful that our kids found a way to win it.”
Story by Chris Graham