LYNCHBURG, Va. – After scuffling to a 4-8 record in each of his first two seasons at Syracuse, coach Dino Babers guided the Orange to a 10-win season and a bowl victory in 2018. Now expectations are much higher for the 22nd-ranked Orange as they visit Liberty in Saturday's season opener.
TV: 6 p.m. ET, ESPN+. LINE: Syracuse -17.5
Babers returns for Syracuse, but he no longer has the services of Eric Dungey, a four-year starter at quarterback who now gives way to sophomore Tommy DeVito. "We don't want to have any more 4-6 seasons or whatever they were in the past," DeVito said recently. "Last year is the standard, and that's the lowest we want to be, and we want to be better than that." Liberty is facing a strange situation surrounding the status of new head coach Hugh Freeze, who underwent back surgery recently and encountered complications resulting from a staph infection, forcing him to coach practice from a walkie-talkie in his hotel room. "You want to be out there with those guys. I miss that," said Freeze, who will try to coach from the sidelines Saturday. "It's frustrating that I can't be, but I know there's purpose in everything."
ABOUT SYRACUSE (2018: 10-3)
DeVito completed just over 50 percent of his passes last season and averaged only six yards per passing attempt, although he did have some bright spots as a freshman. Moe Neal (869 yards, five TDs) returns to fuel a deep backfield that also features Jarveon Howard (315 yards, seven TDs). Some feel that Orange defensive ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman comprise the best DE duo in the nation, which could pay big dividends if Liberty is forced to pass in order to come from behind.
ABOUT LIBERTY (2018: 6-6)
The Flames, in their second season as an FCS independent, played two notable opponents last season, allowing 98 points in losses to Virginia and Auburn. They rallied from those two defeats to win their final two contests and finish with six victories for the fourth straight year. Liberty must find a way to replace Kentory Matthews, who ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns in the 2018 season finale, but senior Stephen Calvert -- the school's all-time leader in touchdown passes -- should carry the bulk of the load offensively for Liberty.
1. Syracuse is the first power-5 school ever to visit Lynchburg, Va.
2. The Orange have two preseason All-Americans in sophomore kicker Andre Szmyt and sophomore safety Andre Cisco.
3. Syracuse has not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Jerome Smith (1,171 yards) in 2012.
PREDICTION: Syracuse 27, Liberty 24