While the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt the season, both the Chanticleers and the Flames cracked the Top 25 for the first time in program history.
Whatever the circumstances, Flames second-year coach Hugh Freeze is making no apologies for Liberty's success.
“I think we’ve earned that in 2020,” said Freeze, whose Flames (9-1) climbed back into the poll after a 45-0 victory against Massachusetts. “Listen, I’m a realist and there’s a lot of teams in Power Five conferences that probably haven’t played as many games to judge their standing, but in this year, in this 2020, this craziness, we’ve been blessed.”
That blessing may have come to something of a stop this week with Liberty experiencing a COVID-19 situation that could significntly alter their available players on Saturday. They do not identify players that test positive, or how many, but a school spokesmen said Wednesday night that they have alerted Coastal Carolina about their issues and still intend to play the game.
The Chanticleers (9-0) can relate to benefitting from a bizarre season.
Like Freeze, Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell knows the pandemic limited the competition by causing many leagues to opt out of playing in the fall while several Power Five conferences chose to delay the start of their seasons. It's worked in their favor.
“It opened the door,” Chadwell said. “It opened the door because of one, not having a lot of games early on, I should say, leagues waiting until late to play. So it gave us an opportunity, one, to get on TV. It gave us an opportunity, two, to start playing and our name getting out there. Both programs we’ve taken advantage of it. We won.
“It wouldn’t matter if we weren’t winning. But we had a door, we had an opportunity to open it and we’ve kicked it down to take advantage of it."
Both programs are relative new comers to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Flames are in just their second full FBS season; the Chanticleers (9-0) made the step up in 2017.
They seem to be enjoying the national attention.
Liberty has beaten Syracuse and Virginia Tech, both of the Atlantic Coast Conference, on the ACC Newtork. They came up one point shy in a 15-14 loss to North Carolina State two weeks ago, and fell out of the Top 25 — albeit not for long.
“We’ve had a year of just tremendous exposure,” Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw said Wednesday. “We’ve made strides beyond what we could have imagined.”
It's hard for most college football fans to imagine this improbable Top 25 showdown.
The matchup renews an old rivalry from when both teams played in the Big South, often squaring off to determine the champion. It only came together this summer when both programs found themselves needing to replace a a school on their respective schedules.
Freeze has heard some of the stories about the series, with each team winning seven times. But that's history, and Freeze is looking to create new records.
“I don’t need this to be a rival game to get my juices flowing. It’s a Top 25 matchup, a chance for us to win 10 games. I’ll be very disappointed if our kids let this get to their emotions to where they’re not poised,” he said. “After about two minutes, when you get hit right in the face, all of that kinda just subsides and you might ought to worry about executing on the given play and the game plan.”
The Flames have spent four weeks in the rankings, climbing as high as No. 21 before losing to the Wolfpack. The Chanticleers have been in the poll for seven weeks.
“Each week we have moments that surpass the next one," said fifth-year Coastal Carolina senior linebacker Silas Kelly. "It’s been a historic year for our team and our program. There are so many throughout the year. I think the most memorable part for me when I’m looking back on the 2020 season is how we all came together, worked hard together and decided we weren’t going to listen to outside noise and let that affect us.”
The Chanticleers' marquee victories came early as they beat Kansas 38-23 to start the season and No. 20 Louisiana-Lafayette 30-27 in mid-October. The Flames' victories against the Orange and the Hokies were their first ever against ACC teams, and Freeze hopes the experience of preparing for those contests will carry over this week.
Said Freeze, “There’s no teacher like experience."