The Georgia Southern football team will play Liberty in the 2019 Cure Bowl on Saturday. The George-Anne spoke to Emily Grace Baker, sports editor of The Champion, ahead of the game about her thoughts on the postseason matchup.
How has the season been overall and who were your toughest opponents?
The season has been pretty great overall, even with all of the changes we’ve seen and a lot of the off-the-field challenges the team has dealt with. Starting the season with a first-year head coach in the press box was definitely weird and an added challenge for the team, but they pulled through it and we saw a lot of great output. Liberty had the great opportunity to host Syracuse and play at BYU, both of which were season highlights but also challenging games. Syracuse was the first Power 5 school and first ranked opponent Liberty has ever hosted, and playing BYU has always been a dream for Liberty’s football program. Though they lost to both Syracuse and BYU, I think that UVA was the most challenging opponent the team faced this season, and one of the most important losses. Losing to UVA put a lot of pressure on the team to win their last game against New Mexico State because it was the last win they needed to reach a 7-5 record and become bowl eligible for the first time in school history.
Who on the team has really stood out this season?
Liberty has had a lot of standout players this season, which is partly because there are quite a few seniors on the team. Solomon Ajayi, Jessie Lemonier and Ralfs Rusins are terrors on defense. The majority of Liberty’s playing power is on offense, though. Quarterback Stephen Calvert and wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden both set the school passing and receiving records this season at 11,755 yards and 3,751 yards respectively. Gandy-Golden was especially impressive, ending the season with the third-most receiving yards in the FBS with 1,333 after leading in first for much of the season. Fans loved watching Gandy-Golden making one-handed highlight reel catches and dragging players behind him on multiple plays throughout the season.
What are your overall expectations for the game, including fan turnout?
I’m expecting the bowl to be a ton of fun. It’s hopefully going to be a highly competitive game, and I think both teams are going to travel really well. Liberty fans have an extra six hours to travel, but that’s never really stopped them–we had a great group of fans travel all the way out to California for March Madness earlier this year. Liberty’s sending student and Flames Club fan buses and even a few chartered flights, and most of the student bus seats sold out within the first day they were open. Away games are generally a great opportunity for Liberty’s online students to get involved on game day, so I’m excited to see the turnout.
What was the community’s reaction when Georgia Southern was announced as the opponent?
I think the community reacted really well, though a lot of it is bowl-focused. The Liberty community is very, very excited to reach its first bowl in its first full-eligibility season in the FBS, and playing Georgia Southern is added excitement because the game is likely to be a good one. The Flames have never faced off against the Eagles before, and each new FBS opponent is a new experience for the team and for the fans.
What has been the team’s biggest strength and weakness?
Liberty’s biggest strength this season has been its offensive capabilities, particularly on the passing end. Calvert and Gandy-Golden are a great duo, and Liberty has plenty of other great receivers who can take over when Gandy-Golden is covered. On the other end, I think the team’s primary struggle this season has been execution-based. Though I don’t think an improvement on execution would have drastically altered the team’s record, I think it may have at least earned one more win, either over Syracuse or BYU. The start of the season was really, really rough on the offensive end especially. Liberty only gained 234 yards in its home opener against the Orange, which was a bit of a disappointment coming into a new season with an offensive mastermind like Hugh Freeze as head coach.
What is your final game prediction?
I’m predicting a close game with a final score of 42-38 Liberty, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the score was much higher. Both Liberty and Georgia Southern have offenses with explosive potential, and both allowed some pretty high-scoring games this season. Liberty and Georgia Southern also finished with the same 7-5 record, with both losing to Louisiana Lafayette and both defeating New Mexico State and Maine. The game is likely to turn into an offensive shootout if given the chance to, but I think it’ll be a close one regardless.
Amanda Arnold, The George-Anne Sports Editor, email@example.com