GLENDALE – As the crisp desert air cooled off State Farm Stadium Monday, the Liberty Flames saw the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl as an opportunity to reflect on their historic season.
A coach hired just a year earlier. New players. The odds were against a university that made the jump to an FBS program in 2018 yet still found itself in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Although a 45-6 loss to the No. 8 Oregon Ducks in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl wasn’t the intended result, the season felt like a win to the Jamey Chadwell-led team.
“It’s not easy to get a new coach in January and then flip the whole roster before fall camp,” senior linebacker Tyren Dupree said. “So just hats off to these coaches, hats off to the teammates that bought in.”
Quarterback Kaidon Salter shared his teammate’s perspective.
“Coaches came in January, we have our roster transfer, we are bringing in players that’s coming from all over the world,” Salter said. “Just being able to bond with them, getting to know a lot of our players just, I mean, that was very important for us and I feel like that’s what got us here today.”
Chadwell was the difference-maker.
Before he embarked on a perfect regular season with Liberty, he grew accustomed to success at his previous destination. He led the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers to a 39-22 record in five seasons and won the 2021 Cure Bowl against Northern Illinois. Although media accounts reported Chadwell saying he was “content as ever” in Conway, South Carolina, he moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, in December 2022.
The Tennessee native went from one accomplished team to the next with Liberty. However, Chadwell was faced with a tall task after what former Liberty and now-Auburn coach Hugh Freeze did for the program. Freeze went 34-15 in Lynchburg and won all three bowl games before leaving for Auburn after the 2022 season.
When Freeze left, uncertainty loomed. Fortunately for the Flames, they found their spark in Chadwell.
Liberty became one of four schools in the country to go undefeated in the regular season and land in the Top 25.
“This is our fifth year of FBS football and they made the choice five years ago to make that jump,” Chadwell said at Fiesta Bowl media day. “Within a five-year period, to be able to play in a New Year’s six bowl is arguably unprecedented.”
What Chadwell said is as real as it gets. The other schools within the New Year’s Six bowls had a final College Football Playoff ranking of 11 or higher. Even though Liberty came into the Fiesta Bowl as a near 18-point underdog, Chadwell was grateful for the opportunity and told his team to enjoy the moment.
Liberty played a standout team in Oregon. The Ducks were a likely CFP semifinal player had they beat Washington in the Pac-12 Championship in December.
Monday, Oregon proved why it belonged in that conversation. After a dismal first quarter, in which the Ducks scored three points, the offense woke up. Oregon responded with a 28-point second quarter in which quarterback Bo Nix had 257 passing yards and four touchdowns.
The script kept rolling in the Ducks’ favor as a Tez Johnson’s receiving touchdown opened the third quarter. Oregon dominated the rest of the way.
Even Ducks coach Dan Lanning tipped his hat to Chadwell after the game. His perception of Liberty hasn’t wavered, he said, especially after competing against them.
“They were an undefeated team, they had an elite season,” Lanning said. “Coach Chadwell has won everywhere he’s been and we had the better game today. We played well today and they’re a good team.
“You can’t discredit a team going unscathed throughout the season. Undefeated speaks to the quality of team they are and the quality of coaches they have.”
The camaraderie Liberty displayed throughout the season is something Chadwell cherishes. Even with the blowout loss, Chadwell remains optimistic.
“Well, I think from a recruiting standpoint, obviously, you have a chance to be on the national stage,” Chadwell said. “You have success, you have a chance to win the conference trophy, so more people will know about us. This program will be back on this stage, we will be back in this.
“Today we saw how far we are away and the guys that are returning, the guys we’re bringing in, this will be our benchmark and we’re shooting for the College Football Playoff.”