EL PASO, Texas (AP) No. 22 Liberty completed the first undefeated regular season in the program's 50-year history, with Quinton Cooley rushing for three touchdowns in a 42-28 victory over UTEP on Saturday.

Quarterback Kaidon Salter ran for a team-leading 94 yards and threw for a score as the Flames made their Conference USA debut by becoming the league's third team to go 12-0, joining Tulane (1998) and Houston (2011). They are the first team Division I team from the state of Virginia to win 12 games.

“Making history like that is just something you didn’t start out to do,” first-year coach Jamey Chadwell said. “As coaches, you’re, ‘All right, what’s next. I’m thinking about next week.’ We’ll look back on it and just how special it was, especially being new.”

Liberty (8-0 C-USA), which rushed for a season-high 441 yards, will host New Mexico State in the conference championship game Friday, but likely will need a Tulane loss to have a shot at the Group of Five bid to the New Year's Six bowls.

Liberty is one of five undefeated FBS teams. It just entered the College Football Playoff rankings for the first time at No. 25, two spots behind the one-loss Green Wave, who beat Southern California in the Cotton Bowl to finish last season.

“Being 12-0 is truly a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing,” said defensive end CJ Bazile, part of a unit that record an FBS-best 20th interception. “I ain't going to lie, in there, I was little emotional. Being 12-0 is something I always dreamed about being a kid. I've never won nothing in my life in football.”

The Flames, in their sixth FBS season, had already broken the school record of 10 wins in 2020 and left little doubt against the Miners (3-9, 2-6). They found the end zone on four of their first five possessions for a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter.

Liberty had 287 yards rushing at halftime, while holding UTEP to minus-2 yards on the ground, then started the second half by running on all eight plays of a 55-yard drive to Cooley’s third TD.

Salter opened the scoring with his 39th total touchdown of the season - one shy of the school record - on a 6-yard pass to CJ Daniels. Cooley's 42-yard TD run made it 21-7 late in the first quarter.


The Flames didn't have a 100-yard rusher despite their most yards on the ground since joining FBS. Cooley had 65 yards on 14 carries, and Aaron Bedgood had 82 yards on just four attempts. There were seven Liberty ballcarriers with at least 30 yards each.

“It’s just a lot of great athletes, even behind me,” said Cooley, who finished the regular season as the only 1,000-yard rusher in C-USA. “It doesn’t even start with me. It starts with the other people, also.”


The Flames are four spots behind 18th-ranked Tulane in The Associated Press Top 25. SMU is worth keeping an eye on as another Group of Five team playing in a conference championship next weekend. The two-loss Mustangs, fourth among other teams receiving votes this week, visit Tulane in the American Athletic Conference title game.


Liberty: The Flames might have a shot at their highest-profile bowl even without the Group of Five bid in the New Year's Six games. Liberty is on a four-year bowl streak started by Hugh Freeze, who left for the Auburn job after last season. The Flames played in the Cure Bowl twice, followed by the LendingTree Bowl and the Boca Raton Bowl.

UTEP: The Miners, who finished the season with their fourth-string quarterback, have had losing records in five of coach Dana Dimel's six seasons and have won more than three games just twice. UTEP hasn't played in any bowl other than the New Mexico Bowl since Mike Price led the program to consecutive eight-win seasons in 2004-05. Those are two of just three eight-win seasons since 1989.


Liberty: New Mexico State, less than two weeks removed from a 31-10 road win over Freeze's Auburn team, makes the C-USA title game a matchup of a pair of newcomers to the league. The Flames beat the Aggies 33-17 in the conference opener for both teams Sept. 9.

UTEP: The Miners are scheduled to open next season at Nebraska on Aug. 31.


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