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2023 Fiesta Bowl: Oregon vs. Liberty storylines

The Flames seek an undefeated season against heavily favored Oregon.

Steve Helwick

January 1 marks the final day of the 2023 college football season, excluding the upcoming College Football Playoff Final.

One of the three New Year’s Six bowls on the first day of 2024 is the unusual Pac-12 vs. Conference USA bowl game, as the Oregon Ducks battle the Liberty Flames at 1 p.m. ET in Glendale, AZ for the 2023 Vrbo Fiesta Bowl.

Here are several storylines involved the first-ever meeting between the two programs.


On the verge of perfection

NCAA Football: Conference USA Football Championship-New Mexico State at Liberty
Liberty defeated New Mexico State, 31-10, in the 2023 CUSA Championship Game in Lynchburg, VA.
Brian Bishop-USA TODAY Sports

Only three teams cleared the regular season and conference championship weekend completely unscathed. Two of them — Michigan and Washington — participate in the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Day. The other is Liberty, which although didn’t qualify for the playoff, earns the opportunity for its greatest win in program history under the bright lights of the Fiesta Bowl. With a win, the Flames officially complete the rare feat of a perfect season.

“I think just running out,” Liberty head coach Jamey Chadwell said. “I think the last thing I will tell them is, be in the moment but don’t be of the moment. It’s the biggest one that our group of people have played in, and I don’t want it to be too big for them. They belong here. They have earned the right to be here. So enjoy it, but don’t let it be too big.”

Only five teams in the first nine years of the College Football Playoff era completed perfect seasons — 2017 UCF, 2018 Clemson, 2019 LSU, 2020 Alabama, and 2022 Georgia. Four won the playoff and all five received a share of an NCAA-recognized national championship. Although Liberty won’t be competing for a national title when kickoff transpires Monday, the Flames can prove their worth and knock off a heavily-favored Oregon team to join that exclusive club of modern-day unbeatens.

“When you turn on the film and see a team go unscathed through their conference, able to win some close games and then have some blowouts,” Oregon head coach Dan Lanning said. “You see a team that competes at the ultimate level. They play hard for each other in every single unit. They create explosive plays. They take care of the ball. They do a good job of ripping the ball away from the opponent.”


Underdog mentality

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 Liberty at WKU
Liberty head coach Jamey Chadwell led the Flames to a 13-0 start in his first season at the helm.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Liberty is spotless and undefeated, while Oregon enters the Fiesta Bowl with a twice-blemished record of 11-2. Yet, the Ducks are significantly favored in a line which stood at -18 on New Year’s Day. Liberty faced one of the bottom five strength of schedules in the country, with two victories over CUSA runner-up New Mexico State as its signature wins.

“I think any time that people question you, question whether you’re good enough, question whether you should be here, whether you deserve the right to be here, I do think that could be an added form of motivation, right?” Chadwell said. “There’s no secret. We’re not hiding that we know that we’re 17-point underdogs, 20-point underdogs? Who knows.”

But there is no secret — Oregon is the Flames’ most challenging opponent to date by a long shot. The Ducks field the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense and No. 10 scoring defense, ranking in the top five among FBS teams in a multitude of categories, ranging from passing yards to fewest sacks allowed. While Liberty respects the prestige of Oregon, the Flames still stroll into Glendale, AZ with a sense of belief, proving they belong in college football’s most prestigious slate of bowls.

“I would say it’s a challenge for anyone, just based on the fact that Oregon is a really good football team,” Liberty outside linebacker Tyren Dupree said. “I think that will be a challenge for anybody. But for us to be the Group of Five opponent, saying that we’re the underdog, that’s been all year, really. We really haven’t gotten that much praise because of our conference. We’ve had notable wins all year for Conference USA. Like New Mexico State, beating Auburn, stuff like that. So I don’t really get the reason for that. But I just hope that we can get a chance to show that we can compete.”

The respect is a two-way street. In the month leading up to the game, Lanning observed quirks on tape which make this Liberty team a legitimate juggernaut, ranging from the Flames’ high-powered spread option attack to their ability to create incredible havoc on defense. The result — an all-out dominant season highlighted by 12 wins of double-digit points.

“Well, this is not a lesser opponent, I’ll tell you that,” Lanning said. “That’s the first thing you do when you turn on your film, you see a really good football team. They lead the nation in rushing yards, over 300 yards per game. They get more interceptions than anybody else in the nation. They have a quarterback that can create explosive plays. 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. So that’s a pretty good team and our players recognize that.”


The Dorlus connection

2023 Pac-12 Championship - Oregon v Washington
Oregon DE Brandon Dorlus is well-acquainted with Liberty as his mom earned her degree there.
Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images

When Oregon lost the Pac-12 Championship Game to Washington the first week of December, the team figured it would book a return trip to the Fiesta Bowl after previously playing Iowa State in the 2020 edition of the game. But what the Ducks didn’t know was their opponent. The final New Year’s Six spot came down to CUSA champion Liberty vs. AAC champion SMU, and the unbeaten Flames edged the Mustangs by one spot in the College Football Playoff rankings to earn their first New Year’s Six bid.

It’s an opponent and brand many Ducks are unfamiliar with, except for defensive end Brandon Dorlus, who followed Liberty football for a long time since it’s the alma mater of his mother.

“I know what they’re all about,” Dorlus said. “I’ve been around the program for a long time. It’s going to be exciting. I never thought I would have a chance to play Liberty. It doesn’t sound like a game you would want to play for the last game, but it’s exciting.”

Oregon and Liberty are quite distant programs in the college football landscape. One resides in the Pacific Time Zone in Eugene, OR. The other operates three time zones away in Lynchburg, VA. The Ducks have competed in New Year’s Six bowls and even National Championship Games while the Flames are less than a decade into their FBS tenure. Yet Dorlus is one player who bridges the two seemingly distant programs together through family ties.

“Yeah, I was excited,” Dorlus said. “My mom calls me and like, there’s no way. Yeah, it’s crazy how that works.”

As far as rooting interests, Dorlus knows his mom is arriving to State Farm Stadium decked in Ducks colors.

“Maybe a little bit,” Dorlus said. “She’ll feel a little hurt. But it’s football, she understands the game. She’s going to rock the green and yellow.”