Oregon Ducks enter Fiesta Bowl against Liberty as heavy favorite
Jan 1, 2024, 9:21 AM | Updated: 9:25 am
(AP Photo/David Becker, File)
GLENDALE (AP) — No. 18 Liberty rolled through its sixth season as a Division I program undefeated, earning a spot in Monday’s Fiesta Bowl.
Awaiting the Flames in the desert is something unlike anything they’ve faced, maybe ever: the big, bad Oregon Ducks.
“It doesn’t take a lot of time to watch the video to know how talented they are,” Liberty coach Jamey Chadwell said. “We shared with them (the team), and I think I’ve said it before, they’re six points away from playing for a national championship. That’s how good they are. Going into championship weekend, they were the favorites to win the national championship. They’re tremendous.”
Oddsmakers certainly think so.
No. 8 Oregon is a 17.5-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, one of the most lopsided betting lines during bowl season.
The Ducks (11-2) steamrolled through their schedule, outside of two games against No. 2 Washington, one of four College Football Playoff teams. Oregon lost by three in both games, including the Pac-12 title game.
The Ducks are led by quarterback Bo Nix, a Heisman Trophy finalist who has put up gaudy numbers and has a chance to break the NCAA single-season record for completion percentage.
Oregon has one of the best offensive lines in the country, a group that allowed an FBS-low five sacks this season. The Ducks’ past-blocking grade of 92.0 is the best in the country, according to Pro Football Focus.
Oregon’s defense has been just as good, finishing 12th against the run (97.5 yards per game) while giving up 10 points or less six times.
The Ducks aren’t about to take the Flames lightly, either.
“Several of the players on their team started off at Power Five schools and I don’t know if everybody realizes this, they’ve won every single game they’ve played,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said with a touch of sarcasm. “That’s a pretty good team and our players recognize that.”
Liberty is playing in its fifth straight bowl game since becoming a Division I program in 2018. The Flames are the first Conference USA team to play in a New Year’s Six bowl game, doing it in their first year in the league.
Oregon is 2-1 in the Fiesta Bowl, with wins over Colorado in 2002 and Kansas State in 2013. The Ducks lost to Iowa State in the 2021 game.
Liberty (13-0) has played the best season in program history despite enduring a tragedy before it even started.
Early in camp, freshman offensive lineman Tajh Boyd died, ruled by the medical examiner as a suicide.
The Flames bonded around their fallen teammate throughout the season.
“When things like that happen, you can either fall apart or you can make it a point to be around each other and be together, and try to stay together,” Liberty offensive lineman X’Zavea Gadlin said. “We really did that.”
No one would have blamed Nix for skipping the Fiesta Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft.
A Heisman Trophy finalist, Nix threw for 4,145 yards and 40 TDs with three interceptions this season. His completion rate of 77.2% is right behind the NCAA single-season record of 77.4% set by Alabama’s Mac Jones in 2020.
Nix wasn’t interested in riding off without his teammates.
“You go the whole season, you’re playing and you’re going week by week, and things get crazy,” Nix said. “When you get to the bowl game, it’s like your last hurrah for the whole team and your last time to be together to maximize that time with your teammates and coach.”
Liberty led the nation with 21 interceptions, but will need to get pressure on Nix against the FBS’ top-rated offensive line.
Oregon’s offensive line may have had the nation’s best grades, but Liberty’s group is also first class.
Liberty arrives in the desert with the nation’s best rushing attack at 302.9 yards per game — more than 20 ahead of Air Force, the next closest team.
The Flames also are the only team in FBS with two 1,000-yard rushers.
Quinton Cooley is 13th nationally with 1,322 yards and quarterback Kaidon Salter added 1,064. Salter also has thrown for 31 touchdowns and accounted for 43, both school records.
Oregon’s rushing defense is 12th nationally, allowing 97.5 yards per game.
Oregon (526.6) and Liberty (514.9) are second and third nationally in total offense.