Auburn’s former flirtatious adventure comes to Jordan-Hare Stadium today, and not for the first time either. Liberty head coach Turner Gill was obviously one of the top candidates for the head coaching job that Gene Chizik ultimately got, but he was on the same turf back in 1982 playing quarterback for Nebraska. The Huskers got a 41-7 win over Auburn that day, so Auburn has wait 36 years for true revenge, and we hope it comes today.
In the meantime, learn about the Flames with some insight from Underdog Dynasty!
1. Liberty’s in the first season of the FCS to FBS transition, so how’s that gone for the Flames this year under Turner Gill? Also, what are the unforeseen struggles in getting up to FBS shape in this situation?
It’s gone as well as can be expected, if not more so. The unforeseen struggles for any independent not from Indiana is going to be putting a schedule together, and I’m actually kind of mad about how well done this schedule is. The team is 4-5 with an earlier FCS game moved to December 1st due to the hurricanes; had the season played out in the order it was planned to, the Flames would be 5-5 at this point which would be great for marketing purposes. Liberty has no shortage of donors, so when you have an equal mix of games you can win or at least compete in (lower-tier Sun Belt, C-USA, FCS) and games you’ll lose but will get you paid (Auburn), that’s the best you can hope for. Getting paid but going 1-10 doesn’t help anyone.
2. Explain the reason that New Mexico State’s on the schedule twice this season. Was NMSU willing to help Liberty get a certain number of games, or what?
That’s exactly right, it was just a marriage of convenience. I remember we covered it when it was announced and thought it odd, but NMSU did not anticipate being kicked out of the Sun Belt, and both needed to get to twelve games, which is tricky without a conference. It’s an odd pairing, but odder still is they’re doing this again next year.
3. Turner Gill nearly became the Auburn head coach a decade ago. After his unsuccessful stint at Kansas, what’s his tenure been like at Liberty?
I don’t have a good sports analogy here, so I’d liken it to that actor who is really popular on TV but never quite gets the movie career going? Gill didn’t do well at Auburn or Kansas, no, but prior to Liberty he took Buffalo out of the MAC to their first bowl game in school history. Buffalo was the Vandy of the MAC, literally no one could win there. But Gill did it -- hence being offered the Kansas job -- and even though Buffalo is having a great 2018, that wouldn’t be possible without Gill showing it can be done. His tenure at Liberty seems to be heading that direction, as he’s recruited well and this team has put up a good fight against its Group of Five opponents.
4. This year’s team is pretty solid on offense, but poor on defense through nine games. How have opponents been able to attack the defense this season?
By keeping the ball in the air. I think it’s all there in their schedule so far-- they lost to Army 38-14 early in the season (almost exclusively a running team), and later beat Troy, the current favorite to win their conference and also the team with the leading rusher in the Sun Belt. Meanwhile, North Texas and its huge passing game crushed the Flames, 45-7.
5. Liberty does have some experience going into a visiting stadium and knocking off a Power Five opponent (Baylor last year). What do the Flames do really well and what should Auburn be looking out for?
Pass -- as in, they do this well, not that I’m refusing to answer. Stephen Calvert has been an impressive performer on this team, though he hasn’t got much press, his numbers have been good considering the newness of the team at this level. He’s thrown for 2,677 yards already this season (that’s more than Auburn’s QB), but he also has 18 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, and has been sacked 15 times. This could just be the change in competition, but also watch out for the top rusher among all independents, Frankie Hickson (771 yards on 175 attempts, ten touchdowns). Also, I feel the need to point out that last years Baylor team was very bad.
6. If Liberty wins it’s because of what? And what’s your prediction for this game?
If Liberty wins it’s because the entire Auburn team came down with food poisoning the night before the game. Calvert puts up big numbers but lacks the consistency, and Hickson is only one man. If Auburn doesn’t take this game seriously it could get away from them-- Liberty scored 24 points against Virginia, their only other Power Five opponent this season. Don’t get me wrong, there ARE some serious Group of Five teams that could make Auburn work for it. Liberty, or at least the 2018 edition of Liberty, is not that team.
Kickoff at 3 pm CST for Auburn and Liberty today, so be sure to be there and be loud for the final home game of the season! War Eagle!