Liberty football coach Hugh Freeze made his intentions known this past spring he was confident the Flames deserved a chance to “sit at the table” and discuss joining a conference. Independent life had treated Liberty well in the program’s infant stages in the FBS, but getting into a conference home and having an easier path into the expanded College Football Playoff discussion was paramount.
Freeze couldn’t help but retweet everything that popped up on his social media timeline Friday during the football team’s flight to Tupelo, Mississippi. It was during that time when Conference USA announced Liberty was one of four additions to the Group of Five league, giving the Flames’ football team a home it longed for since joining the top-tier subdivision.
“I’m pumped. I think it’s the right move. I trust Ian [McCaw, athletic director] and he felt like it was a great move,” Freeze said Wednesday during the Flames’ off week. “Obviously to have a chance to enter a conference in little over a year’s time and win a conference championship in the new landscape, whatever will happen with the playoff expansion.
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“We’ll look forward to getting into that conference and competing for championships in it and seeing where that puts you in the national landscape,” he added.
Conference USA was decimated during this wave of conference realignment, which started when Texas and Oklahoma announced it was moving from the Big 12 Conference to the Southeastern Conference.
Realignment has seen nine teams leave C-USA for the American Athletic Conference (six teams) and the Sun Belt Conference (three teams), and that left the league with only five members in Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, Florida International, Louisiana Tech and Texas-El Paso.
The additions of Liberty, New Mexico State, Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State helped stop the bleeding and give the league stability moving forward.
The four new members will join by July 1, 2023. That is the date the nine teams are leaving for the AAC (Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and Texas-San Antonio) and the Sun Belt (Old Dominion, Marshall and Southern Mississippi).
“We’re excited to be members of Conference USA in a little short time,” Freeze said.
Sidney McPhee, the president of Middle Tennessee, issued a statement Wednesday morning reaffirming MTSU’s commitment to Conference USA. He cited “a strong footprint in the South and Southwest” with the additions of Liberty, Jacksonville State, Sam Houston State and New Mexico State.
That announcement was followed late Wednesday afternoon with the Mid-American Conference stating it was not expanding.
Western Kentucky had been tied to the MAC as a potential expansion target.
That gives the C-USA nine full-time members, which is one above the minimum needed for an FBS conference.
“I think we’re all excited about it,” Freeze said prior to MTSU’s announcement. “I think we’re hopeful that we can hold on to a couple more schools.”
Liberty and New Mexico State currently compete as FBS independents, and fellow independents UConn and UMass have been linked by multiple news outlets as potential football-only members of C-USA.
The Flames have completed 12-game schedules through 2026 and have matchups on the schedule through 2034. Those schedules will need to be changed by 2023, and Freeze said he is involved in the conversations of how to shape the slates moving forward.
“They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them to reshuffle all of those things once we get our conference numbers settled in. I will be in the conversation,” Freeze said. “Some things, dates and things, you might have to not get your exact wants every year, but I think we’re all on the same page. Currently, we would be having eight conference games sitting here today, so you’ve got four left. I’d like an FCS opponent, two Group of Fives and one Power Five. I understand that there’s going to be some years we probably have to play two Power Fives, and I’m OK with that.”
There are regional opponents Freeze wants to keep in the out-of-conference schedules like ODU, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, UMass and UConn, as well as the regional Power Five opponents.
Liberty is scheduled to play South Carolina (2023), Virginia (2023, 2027, 2029, 2030), North Carolina (2024, 2028, 2031), Wake Forest (2025, 2026), Duke (2025, 2026, 2027) and Virginia Tech (2027, 2028, 2029, 2030) after it joins C-USA.
The Flames also have future matchups scheduled with regional opponents Marshall and Army.
“All of that makes sense to me. I certainly would not be for us scheduling a cross-country trip as one of those four. I just wouldn’t be for that,” Freeze said. “I think just juggling the reshuffling of all these schedules is the challenge, but I do know that we all agree if those other four outside of the conference can all be over here on this side [East Coast] somewhere, it makes a lot of sense.”