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Fiesta Bowl: Can Flames Cook the Ducks?

The Liberty Flames are big underdogs to the Oregon Ducks in the Fiesta Bowl, but will the Ducks be motivated?

One of the first college football games of 2024 will involve a first-time meeting between two teams. Oregon is playing in its second Fiesta Bowl in the last four seasons. Meanwhile, Liberty is only in its sixth season of FBS football. Both teams are entering this game with a vastly different outlook on what this game means to each program. But with Oregon being more than a two-touchdown favorite, will Liberty even be able to make it a competitive game?

Who is Liberty?

For those college football fans who don’t live in the DMV area or have a life outside of college football, there is a good chance that this will be their introduction to Jamey Chadwell’s team. Liberty is one of the fastest-rising football programs in the country. Most recently, former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze took over the program in 2019. The Flames finished 8-5, 10-1, 8-5, and 8-5 before Freeze accepted the Auburn head coaching position. Liberty promptly pried its next head coach out of Conway, SC in Chadwell. All he has done in the Flames’ first season in Conference USA was go 13-0 and capture the league title.

Chadwell, who established himself at Coastal Carolina with a unique scheme that looked like a modern-day triple offense, instantly turned Liberty’s running game into one of the nation’s best. It starts with quarterback Kaido Salter’s decision-making ability that makes Chadwell’s read-option offense run. Salter was one of two 1,000-yard rushers for the Flames this season. Running back Quinton Cooley and Salter combined for 28 touchdowns. Liberty led all of college football in rushing yards, averaging more than 300 rushing yards per game. But it isn’t just the rushing game that helps put up points. Wide receiver CJ Daniels on the outside is the team’s leading receiver with 988 yards and 10 touchdowns on 47 receptions. With Salter’s high level of production, he is one of just five players in college football to account for more than 40 touchdowns. One of the others just happens to play quarterback for the Flame’s opponent in the Fiesta Bowl.

Thanks to an explosive offense and competent defense, the Flames have only played two games that finished within one score. The team averaged an 18-point victory margin. However, there is one major point of criticism that many have tagged to the Flames. Half of the teams on Liberty’s schedule did not make a bowl game. New Mexico State or Jacksonville State would qualify as the Flame’s best win of the season.

Key Liberty Players Missing the Fiesta Bowl

The good news for Liberty is its roster is mainly intact from the regular season. Specifically, no regular players from the Flames’ offense have opted out of this game. Defensively, Liberty will be without starting cornerback Preston Hodge (arguably the team’s top defensive player this season) and starting safety Robert Rahimi. A few key contributors on the defensive line rotation have been lost as well. Kendy Charles and Bryan Whitehead both played over 230 snaps and combined for 38 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss this season.

Will it Be a Disappointed Oregon Team Showing Up?

Dan Lanning has done a masterful job continuing to elevate the status of the Oregon program. Currently, the team has a Washington problem that will need to be addressed in 2024. However, while Duck fans will be kicking themselves thinking about what could have been this season, another 10-win campaign sets up the program to make some history. If the Ducks were to win the Fiesta Bowl, it would be just the sixth 12-win season in program history. This Fiesta Bowl will also be quarterback Bo Nix’s final swan song in college. The same quarterback who made his debut against Justin Herbert (who is in his fourth season in the NFL) will be making his record 61st start. The fifth-year starter and two-year captain of the Ducks at quarterback has a chance at several program and national records. Currently, Nix has completed 336 of his 435 pass attempts for 4,145 yards, 40 touchdowns, and only three interceptions. Nix also rushed for 228 yards and six touchdowns.

The 2023 Pac-12 offensive player of the year is flirting with passing Marcus Mariota in a few categories. If his career passing efficiency rating stands at 176.3, it would set a new Pac-12 record (171.8). Specific to the Oregon record book, if Nix passes for more than 309 yards he would pass Mariota’s single-season passing yards. He’s already passed Mariota’s single-season completions record with 335 so far. With three more touchdown passes it would break Mariota’s 2014 record of 42. Nix also has a chance to break Mac Jones’ (Alabama) 2020 completion percentage record of 77.4%. Nix currently sits at 77.2%.

Key Oregon Players Playing/Missing the Fiesta Bowl

But Nix isn’t the only surprising name playing in the Fiesta Bowl for the Ducks. After declaring for the NFL draft as an early entrant earlier in December, Lanning confirmed running back Bucky Irving will play in the Fiesta Bowl. Irving has totaled nearly 3,000 yards from scrimmage and averaged six-and-a-half yards per carry in his career as a Duck. Irving is just the sixth Duck to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. However, a national-ranked program like Oregon was not immune to opt-outs in preparation for the NFL draft. Most notably, Oregon will be without starting center Jackson Powers-Johnson, starting wide receiver Troy Franklin, and starting cornerback Khyree Jackson.

Fiesta Bowl Prediction

In non-playoff games, the issue of motivation always becomes the center of attention. Any time a NY6 bowl game is not hosting a playoff game, the buzz around them nationally is no different than the Myrtle Beach bowl (no offense, we love all bowl games at Last Word). However, the Group of 5 representatives have never had their motivation questioned. These teams have often put up a good fight at a minimum because their fans and the teams view it as their chance to prove they belong. Oregon is having to re-focus after seeing its playoff bid come up just short in the Pac-12 championship game.

There should be little doubt that the scoreboard operator will be busy in this game. In terms of total offense, Oregon is averaging 526.6 yards per game, while Liberty averages 514.9. The scoring offense numbers for both teams are equally staggering with Oregon averaging 44.2 and Liberty averaging 40.8 points per game. The issue here is depth. Oregon, while losing a few key players, has players filling in their place that would be starting at Liberty right now. Chadwell’s offense will stress Oregon’s defense, but the Ducks pull away in the second half as they grind down the Flames.

Oregon 49, Liberty 28



Photo courtesy of the Fiesta Bowl.


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