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Opponent Preview - Liberty

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It’s gonna get FLAMIN’ hot in November between brutal road trips.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Southern Methodist Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

We continue the Opponent Preview series today with a look at Auburn’s final non-conference opponent, the Liberty Flames. The backdrop of intertwining stories provide a much more interesting November cupcake weekend opponent than usual, and one that’s a dangerous foe coming between road trips to Athens and Tuscaloosa.

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In an alternate timeline somewhere, Gene Chizik is still the head coach at Iowa State, and Turner Gill became the head coach at Auburn in the winter of 2008. Gill was the hot name for a brief time after taking Buffalo to a MAC Championship, beating previously-undefeated Ball State in the conference title game. If you want some real weirdness, Ball State lost to Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl that year. Remember who was running the Tulsa offense?

Yeah, so 2008 was a weird time. Either way, Auburn didn’t hire Turner Gill, instead opting for Chizik (with Malzahn running the offense), and they won a national championship two seasons later. Despite the end of Chizik’s tenure, it worked for Auburn in the long run. We got a title, Gus returned and we got another SEC Championship and another national title game appearance. Auburn has been pretty good.

I don’t know how it would’ve looked with Gill running the show. His one good season at Buffalo was a bit of an anomaly, as he went 2-10, 5-7, and 5-7 in his other three years at the helm there. After heading to Kansas post-Mark Mangino, he could only muster a 5-19 record (sound familiar?) in the Big 12 in two seasons. Since getting the ax in Lawrence, Gill’s been the guy leading Liberty.

He’s never had a losing season in Lynchburg, but he’s also never had a spectacular year. The Flames completed four 6-5 seasons, and their lone FCS Playoff appearance came in 2014 with a 9-5 record and a second round exit in the postseason.

Still, Liberty might end up having the chops to play with the big boys. They’ve made the move up to FBS starting this season, where they’ll play as an Independent, but there’s another reason that Liberty might end up being able to attract some actual football talent.

Endowment: $1.29 billion.

That’s not much less than the added sum of Auburn ($738 million) and Alabama’s ($683 million) endowments combined, and we know that money is what it takes to compete and at least pull yourself up to the big leagues. They’ve got a good stadium —

Kinda Starkville circa 2005.

— and they’re on the fast track to joining a conference in the FBS. All in all, it’s not an enviable and totally easy rent-a-win. The Flames beat Baylor last year (although Baylor was in the bottom tier of Power Five football teams), and they’ve kept it respectable with other FBS opponents over the recent past.

It’s not exactly my cup o’ tea sandwiched between the two biggest games of the year, both of which will be on the road.

OFFENSE

Remember that ULM game last year? The Warhawks came into Jordan-Hare with a pretty annoying passing game and wanted to play spoiler after the Tigers knocked off the top-ranked team in the country.

Liberty’s going to do the same thing this year. They were good through the air in 2017, and they’ll have most of that production back. Quarterback Stephen Calvert tossed 29 touchdowns to only six interceptions last year, completing 58% of his passes for over 3300 yards in the process.

And he gets most of his favorite targets back.

Antonio Gandy-Golden started 2017 off in a great way, catching 192 yards worth of passes and two scores against Baylor, and he’s a prototypical receiver as well. 6’4, 220, and what’s worse, he’s from Georgia, so there may be that potential chip of playing against a team that didn’t recruit him.

Calvert will also have Damian King (5’11, 175), Cephas Reddick (5’8, 175), DJ Stubbs (5’9, 175), Kentory Matthews (5’10, 175), and Lionell McConnell (5’11, 195) back to help round out an experienced receiving corps.

While the up-tempo passing game will lead the way, there will be solid protection in front of Calvert to help keep Auburn’s insane defensive front off of him. He was only sacked 15 times all of last year, but his line still doesn’t have FBS size. The Tigers should be able to get to Calvert and make him at least uncomfortable, even if the outright sacks aren’t coming in droves.

As for the running game, Liberty loses 2017’s leading rusher Carrington Mosley, and will have to turn to somewhat-experienced Frankie Hickson, who’s a bit of a bowling ball at 5’8, 200. At least for the first part of the season, and unless Hickson turns out to be dynamite, I’d expect Liberty to be fairly one-dimensional. The Flames will lean on the passing game that won’t take long to get reacclimated in 2018, but hopefully that won’t take too long for Auburn to figure out the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

DEFENSE

There’s good news and bad news for Liberty as the defense heads into this season.

The good: they return nearly everyone from last year’s starting defense.

The bad: they weren’t all that great.

Liberty allowed over 200 yards per game on the ground, and the big plays caught up with them in the passing game. That said, having nine starters back should help and they’ll definitely improve this season. One of the things you’ll notice about Liberty is that they’ll still sport FCS measurements, and you’ll hear the word “undersized” a good bit in describing the linebackers and ends.

While the rush defense struggled, so did the pass rush itself. Liberty notched just 11 sacks last year. If they add to that total in 2018, the big plays in the passing game will diminish as well, and things will improve.

There’s tenacity, to be sure, and a nice group dynamic, but they just might be a couple years away from being a real threat in the FBS.

SCHEDULE

In their first year in the FBS (although transitioning), Liberty won’t be eligible for the postseason, and they’re not in a conference, so there’s no championship to play for. The Flames will be all spoiler, all the time. But, there’s no reason that they can’t end up with a winning record and a solid entry into FBS.

The first half of the schedule includes Old Dominion, Army, Norfolk State, North Texas, New Mexico, and New Mexico State. Now, 2017 was a bit of a change from the norm, with Army, North Texas, and NMSU all going bowling, but Liberty should be able to compete with those squads.

After that, Troy comes to town, then Idaho State and UMass dot the schedule before two trips to Virginia and Auburn. Liberty will finish the regular season with another game against New Mexico State (odd, right?) as the Aggies come to Lynchburg on the return trip. They can probably outright beat a few of these teams, but getting to five or even six wins will be a huge hill to climb. “Bowl eligibility” (because they can’t go bowling this year) would be the dream, but five wins would be pretty good as well and should have everyone excited about the future in Lynchburg.

Up Next: the Evil Empire