Long-standing members of CUSA have to be frustrated.
There aren’t many of those programs — only four to be exact — that have been part of the conference for more than a year. The other four just played their first season as part of the league. This year’s CUSA championship game will feature two of those new squads when New Mexico State visits Liberty on Friday.
While Liberty was the second favorite to win the title at +200 prior to the season, college football betting odds had NMSU with the second-longest odds at +2000. It was an unlikely path for the Aggies to get here, and for the Flames, they breezed through their schedule without hardly any hiccups along the way.
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Liberty finished the regular season tied for second in our Group of Five Top 25 and is currently ranked No. 20 in the AP Top 25.
The Aggies are riding high on an eight-game win streak following last week’s thrilling victory over Jax State:
They had already clinched a championship game berth but still went out and played like the game meant something, and it did, as they secured their first 10-win season since 1960.
But Liberty is a different beast and is the best team the Aggies have seen all season. The last time these teams met on Sept. 9, the Flames won 33-17.
Slowing Down Kaidon Salter
Easier said than done.
The sophomore signal-caller has passed for 2,431 yards and 29 touchdowns this season. He’s also added 899 rushing yards and 11 scores on the ground. This comes after passing for only 22 yards on four completions in an easy win over UTEP.
During their last meeting, Salter passed for 276 yards and two TDs while rushing for 43 yards and adding two more TDs on the ground. I’m not sure if there’s any containing him, but the Aggies will need to find ways to limit him if they want any chance at winning this game.
However, NMSU’s defense has improved since September and has only allowed two opponents to score more than 20 points since that loss. It limited a solid Jax State rushing attack that averages 232 rushing YPG to just 85 yards last week.
The Aggies boast the top-scoring defense in CUSA, allowing 19.7 PPG and their 362 total YPG ranks third.
It won’t just be Salter that the Aggies must worry about, but RB Quinton Cooley leads the league with 1,251 rushing yards. CJ Daniels’ 831 receiving yards rank fourth and his nine TDs are the second-best in the conference.
The Flames have 63 touchdowns on the season, tied for the fourth most in the FBS.
Salter is just one of three QBs in the county that has passed for 2,400 yards and rushed for 800. LSU’s Jayden Daniels is one.
Can you guess who the other is?
Diego Pavia Prospering
Pavia has really stepped onto the scene in his second season as the Aggies’ QB. Pavia has thrown for 2,737 yards and 23 TDs and has 806 yards and five scores on the ground.
He’s been the second most important player in the league behind Salter. He’s not just putting up big numbers, but you can tell he’s a guy that the Aggies have rallied around in their resurgent season.
Pavia will likely need to beat the Flames with his arm. Liberty has the top rushing defense in the conference, allowing 106.3 YPG. The Aggies don’t have one prominent pass catcher, but four with at least 20 receptions and two with more than 30 — Jonathan Brady and the QB-turned-wideout Eli Stowers.
All of these guys will need to have an impact to keep pace with the Flames. It’ll be critical for the Aggies to be efficient, control the clock, and take advantage of any scoring opportunity.
CUSA Championship Game Prediction
College football betting odds currently have Liberty as a 10.5-point favorite.
It’s hard to pick against the Flames and their high-powered attack, but with the grit and toughness that they’re playing with, I think they can keep this game within reach and cover the spread.