The Liberty Flames (4-5) are preparing to face its first ever SEC opponent in the Auburn Tigers (6-4) on Saturday. The game will likely be played in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a Liberty football game. The previous record was 62,234 in Blacksburg when Liberty played Virginia Tech in 2016. The smallest home attendance game of the 2018 season for Auburn is 83,792.
“Playing SEC, that’s what you want,” Liberty offensive coordinator Joe Dailey said. “That’s what you’re looking for when you step on the stage at FBSs football, the biggest and brightest stars of tomorrow, you get to line up next to. That’s all you can ask as a player and a coach.”
Liberty’s defense, who has struggled all season, will be challenged this weekend against one of the better offensive minds in the game today. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is one of the main innovators of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense beginning in his days as a high school coach. He’s carried that philosophy throughout his coaching career.
Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is one of the best in the country at developing quarterbacks. Most notably, Lindsey coached San Fransisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens while he was at Southern Miss. At Auburn, he’s had a hand in developing a projected first round NFL draft pick in Jarrett Stidham. This year, Stidham has completed over 61% of his passes for 2,116 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions.
“He’s a very good quarterback,” Liberty linebacker Solomon Ajayi said of Stidham. “He’s very accurate. He’s very efficient. He does a good job of taking care of the football. He’s definitely going to be one of the best quarterbacks we’re going to play this season. It will be a good challenge for us.”
The Tigers also have a potent receiving corp led by Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton. Davis has already set the program record for receptions, doing so against Georgia last week. He and Stidham have combined to become the most productive passing tandem in school history. Slayton has 447 receiving yards this season.
“They run quite a few gadget plays,” Liberty defensive coordinator Robert Wimberly said. “It’s always something different. They do it in all situations, they do it anywhere on the field, they do it in big personnel, they do it in spread personnel. You can expect 2-3 forms of a gadget a game. They utilize everybody – offensive lineman, quarterbacks, running backs.”
On defense, Auburn has one of the more imposing units in the country. They have 83 tackles for a loss and 31 sacks through 10 games this season, paced by their defensive line.
“That’s the concern,” Turner Gill said of Auburn’s defensive line. “Their defensive line is pretty big and they can move. Probably a little more talented when comparing to Virginia’s (defensive line). This is a lot more speed, a lot more strength.”
That size Gill is talking about on the defensive line looks like this – their starters at DL are 6’5″ 282, 6’3″ 320, 6’5″ 320, and 6’3″ 278.
Defensive end Nick Coe, who will miss this week’s game with a wrist injury, leads the team with 13.5 TFLs and 7 sacks.
Gill coached with Auburn’s defensive coordinator Kevin Steele for 3 years at Nebraska. Primarily due to the ability of the front 7, Steele’s defense primarily plays man to man coverage on the back end.
“The play dude coverage,” Dailey said. “They got dudes, and they’re going to line ’em up against your dudes, and see who’s better. That’s what they do. When they’ve lost this season it’s because they’ve lost their matchups. In order to beat these teams, you have to win some 1-on-1 matchups.”
The Auburn defense has held opponents to a touchdown on just 29% of red zone trips this season, best in the nation.
“There’s a unique difference when you play a team of this caliber,” Dailey said. “The quality of collisions, when guys hit, they hit each other, there’s going to be some movement.”
“Their defense is all-around,” Liberty QB Buckshot Calvert said. “They got really big guys up front. Linebackers love to fly to the ball. Their DBs are really fast and they’re long too.”
“This is a game that I’ve dreamed of my whole life,” Ajayi said of the game against an SEC foe. “As a kid, seeing SEC football, I’ve always wanted to play against the best in the country. Where us as a team, we can show what we’re capable of and see where we stand against the big dogs of the country. Even though they got all the glitz and glamour, we’re still preparing as a team to win the game. We’re not just going to enjoy it and have fun, we just want to win at the end of the day.”
Gill says in order for his team to have its best opportunity to pull of the upset, they will need to not have any turnovers and need to force 3 or more.
“We’ve got to continue to improve individually as football players, also individually as coaches, Gill said. “Then, hopefully, we can continue to improve. If we continue to improve individually, then I think we will become better as a team. It still may not be enough to overcome Auburn, which I understand that, but let’s focus on things that we can control – that’s us getting better.”
Auburn 45, Liberty 17
War Eagle is just bigger, faster, and stronger across the board. While the Flames will have their moments, they will be few and far between. Hopefully Liberty is able to keep it close for the better part of the game.