No. 25 Liberty thinks big bowl, vows to ‘stay hungry’ at UTEP

Field Level Media

November 22, 2023 at 5:14 pm.

The stakes were plenty high for Liberty. Now they’re even bigger.

The 25th-ranked Flames crashed the College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday and take an undefeated record into Saturday’s matchup at UTEP in El Paso, Texas.

“For us, our challenge is can we continue to stay hungry and not look ahead and stay in the moment?” Liberty coach Jamey Chadwell said. “That’s always the challenge when you get late in the season and you do have another game here.”

This is the first time the Flames (11-0, 7-0 Conference USA) registered in the CFP rankings. They have a home game next week against New Mexico State — the league championship game — but a loss to UTEP would ding the chances of being the Group of 5 selection to play in an upper-tier bowl game.

Tulane, at No. 23, is the other Group of 5 school in the CFP’s Top 25. The Flames want to polish their credentials should the Green Wave falter.

“We’re getting closer and closer to playing that best game,” Chadwell said. “Especially in November when there’s so many different things going on. … Typically if win and you’re in the Top 25 and somebody loses in front of you, just naturally people move forward.”

Chadwell said the Flames need to snap out of a tendency to play conservative.

“I don’t think we’ve executed with the same intensity,” Chadwell said. “And, also, we’re letting some other guys play. Our job here is to develop and get guys ready.”

UTEP (3-8, 2-5), which has lost its past two games, is looking for a major upset on its Senior Day. The Miners had another close call with last week’s 34-30 loss at Middle Tennessee.

“The message to the team was a tremendous effort with a lot of guys making a ton of plays,” UTEP coach Dana Dimel said. “We played against a good Middle Tennessee team and we had our chances but didn’t get a chance to finish it in the end there.”

Miners could be without running backs Torrance Burgess Jr. and Deion Hankins on Saturday.

UTEP still has Kelly Akharaiyi as a huge part of the offense. The receiver is averaging 126.8 yards per game in the last five games to boost his season total to 924 yards.

“I’d be foolish to say we’re not going to try to get Kelly to 1,000 yards,” Dimel said. “We’re not going to change our game plan because of it, but we’ll definitely be aware.”

Chadwell, who’s in his first season at the Lynchburg, Va., school after serving as Coastal Carolina’s coach, is the first Liberty coach to begin a tenure with an 11-0 mark. This will be the team’s longest trip of the season.

“We got a long flight out there — two-hour time difference, so there’s a lot of different challenges for us going out there,” Chadwell said.

Running back Quinton Cooley of Liberty has seven games with 100 or more rushing yards. His 1,168 rushing yards for the season are the most for a Liberty player in nine years. He’s a transfer from Wake Forest in his first season with the Flames.