Can the Surging Liberty Flames Become Kings of Virginia Football?

Written By Dann Stupp on November 18, 2020

Liberty University is undefeated, ranked, and turning heads throughout Virginia. But can the Flames supplant the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech as the commonwealth’s favorite football program?

It would be a tall, tall task, as we learned from some of the country’s top sportsbooks.

However, if Liberty University can keep its magical year intact, it could conclude the 2020 college football season with what some sportsbook operators believe will be the biggest “independent” regular-season game of the year.

Currently, Liberty (8-0) competes as an NCAA Division I independent and doesn’t have a football conference to call home. In fact, the Flames didn’t move up to full NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) status until 2019, a year after a season with provisional status. Now, in just its second season as a full FBS member, it has entered rarefied air.

Heading into a Saturday matchup (7:30 p.m., ESPN3) against NC State (5-3), Liberty is ranked No. 21 in the AP Poll and No. 22 in the Coaches Poll. The Flames and No. 8-ranked BYU (8-0) are the only independents in the top 25. In fact, Liberty and BYU are also among only five undefeated Division I teams with at least seven victories this season.

It’s been a one-of-a-kind year for Liberty, especially considering the COVID-19 pandemic, continual schedule changes, coronavirus testing concerns, and the high-profile ouster of Jerry Falwell Jr. as president of the private evangelical Christian school.

However, with second-year head coach Hugh Freeze‘s football squad gelling on the gridiron, just how much are sports fans, and more precisely, sports bettors, taking notice?

Is winning the lone key for Liberty University?

The Flames’ 2020 season had an unostentatious start. They began the 2020 campaign with narrow wins over Western Kentucky (30-24) and Florida International (36-34).

However, after stomping North Alabama, UL Monroe, Syracuse, and Southern Miss in subsequent weeks, Liberty then earned a statement 38-35 win over in-state powerhouse Virginia Tech on Nov. 7. That game featured one of the year’s wildest endings:

As head coach Freeze said after the pivotal win for the program:

“I just know that sitting here today, there’s none bigger. And there’s none bigger for our kids and our program and our administration. To come play the big-boy team … I just couldn’t be prouder of the way our kids competed. You don’t get a lot of moments like this in team sports, particularly with a school that’s trying to build a program and has just been FBS for a few years. And now to have two wins over Power Five opponents in Year 2, it’s kind of euphoric.”

Liberty’s undefeated record has been a head-turner. The climb up the Top 25 has been an eyebrow-raiser. But the win over the Hokies? That’s the type of feat that even sports bettors can’t ignore.

“Liberty’s handle has been growing every week as they stay undefeated and gain some national attention.” FanDuel Director of Publicity Kevin Hennessy told PlayVirginia.

The Flames’ victory over the Hokies justified their top-25 ranking. It also earned the 17-point underdogs (+525 ‘dogs on the moneyline) a place in sports bettors’ hearts.

After all, when talking about Liberty’s 2020 popularity, it’s hard to ignore how sports bettors have helped spark much of that interest.

And as they say, good teams win, but great teams cover.

“Ranked teams always see increased action from the public, even top 25 teams from mid-majors,” BetMGM officials said in a statement. “But it also helps that Liberty is 6-2 against the spread this season.”

Can the Flames supplant the Cavaliers and Hokies?

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, a transfer from Auburn University, is having himself a season.

In fact, by leading the Flames in both passing (235 yards/game, 15 touchdowns, 1 interception) and rushing (700 yards, 7.1 yards/carry, 9 TDs), he’s garnered a bit of Heisman Trophy consideration.

Still, even with a longshot Heisman candidate, an undefeated record, and a top-25 ranking, Liberty can’t rush its way to brand dominance. Not in Virginia, anyway, where the legacy brands, the UVA Cavaliers and VT Hokies, are kings.

“Matchups play a large part in the handle we see on a game, but Virginia Tech almost always takes more action than a ranked mid-major like Liberty,” BetMGM officials said. “For example, we received six to seven times the handle on Virginia Tech for (last weekend’s) game compared to Liberty. Virginia Tech played No. 9 Miami.”

Also working against Liberty? It’s TV presence – or lack thereof. The Flames have landed a few nationally televised ESPNU slots this season. However, most of their games have aired or streamed on the less-visible ESPN3 and ACC Network. Plus, every Liberty game leading into Saturday’s evening matchup with NC State has kicked off at noon or 1 p.m. Nearly twice as many games kick off at noon compared to 7 p.m., so the competition for fans’ eyeballs is fierce.

“College football betting at FanDuel tends to first follow TV,” Hennessy said. “Saturday-night TV games are always tops as an overall event handle.”

And though Liberty has emerged as a mid-major success story this season, casual bettors still tend to flock to the big-name programs.

For example, “33% of (Liberty’s) season volume and bet count came in the game against Virginia Tech,” Hennessy said.

Individual states drive sports betting handle

When it comes to college football betting, bettors love to wager on their in-state schools. According to DraftKings officials, for example, states with legal and robust sports-betting markets can substantially drive nationwide betting interest.

It’s probably no surprise that West Virginia sports bettors bet on West Virginia University games more than any other program, according to DraftKings. The same goes for Penn State in Pennsylvania. And also Indiana University and Notre Dame in Indiana.

In fact, according to FanDuel, the sportsbook’s biggest liability in its national championship market is Penn State. Why? It’s partially due to the fact that Pennsylvania has such a massive market. In fact, PA sportsbooks have tallied more than $4 billion in bets since it legalized sports betting two years ago. And, naturally, when it comes to predicting a national champion, Pennsylvanians favor Penn State.

Additionally, one of last week’s most popular games at sportsbooks was the University of Colorado vs. Stanford. Yet, despite DraftKings being operational in eight US states, more than half of its handle for the game came from bettors in just one state: Colorado.

With Virginia soon to launch legal sports betting, bettors can soon flock to VA sports betting apps as soon as January. However, don’t expect that influx of online sportsbooks to mean an influx of betting on Virginia schools such as Liberty. After all, Virginia legislators banned betting on in-state colleges and universities as part of the legalization efforts.

That well-meaning but short-sighted decision means Virginia bettors won’t be able to actually bet on VA schools. For Liberty and Virginia’s other mid-majors, including Old Dominion University and Norfolk State University, that ban means the bettors most likely to wager on these teams won’t be able to do so legally.

Looking ahead to Liberty vs. Coastal Carolina

As for the remainder of the 2020 Liberty football season, it’s hard not to look too far ahead.

Sure, Liberty is again an underdog (3.5 points) when it meets NC State on Saturday. But if it can pull off that small upset and then defeat the University of Massachusetts (0-2) the following week, the Flames should have their best opportunity of the year to get noticed.

In that season finale, Liberty takes on Coastal Carolina (7-0). Like Liberty, the No. 15 CC Chanticleers are ranked, undefeated, and not exactly a household name. However, if both schools can both stay unbeaten before their Dec. 5 meeting in Conway, SC, they can both expect a nationally televised audience and plenty of attention on the battle of unbeatens.

Not even Virginia Tech and Virginia can match that opportunity.

“Both VA Tech and Virginia have been steady all year in terms of handle,” Hennessy said. “But if Liberty continues to stay undefeated, we are pretty confident in saying that the game at the end of the year against Coastal Carolina will be the biggest G5 (‘Group of Five’ conferences)/independent game of the year.”

Photo by AP / James Kenney
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Dann Stupp

Dann Stupp is a longtime sports journalist who’s written and edited for The Athletic, USA Today, ESPN, and other outlets. He lives in Lexington, Virginia.

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