Liberty’s debut in the FBS has brought a common handicapping myth to light – the idea that FCS teams are weaker than FBS teams by definition. NCAA football is not a soccer league in Denmark. Programs do not get “promoted” or “relegated” in and out of the top level based on final scores.
Many other factors go into a school’s choice to remain in the Football Championship Subdivision or move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision. FCS programs often conclude that dominating on the lower level is preferable to being ranked 40th or 50th on the upper one. North Dakota State, winner of approximately 99 of the last 100 FCS championships, defeated 13th-ranked Iowa in 2016.
The best FCS rosters are easily better than the worst FBS squads, and a mediocre Sun Belt team would have a hard time posting a winning record in any of the top 3 or 4 FCS conferences.
Liberty was written off as an also-ran at the beginning of the season. Fast forward, and the Flames have a respectable 4-5 record that includes a win over 8-2 Troy. CFB odds-makers aren’t giving them any chance to compete with Auburn, but have we heard this number before?
Who: Liberty Flames at Auburn Tigers
When: Saturday, November 17th, 12:00 PM EST
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, AL
Lines: Liberty (+28.5) at Auburn (-28.5) / O/U Total: (60.5)
Liberty’s offense has been more than impressive in the program’s maiden season at the top level. The Flames rank 28th in the nation in scoring with 35.4 points per game and 17th in passing yards per game. Junior QB Stephen Calvert throws his share of picks (14 to be exact) but he also has 2677 yards and 18 TDs on the season. WR Antonio Gandy-Golden is Calvert’s favorite target, catching 53 balls for 882 yards and 9 TDs in 2018.
But Turner Gill’s team has has struggled to keep foes out of the end zone. The Flames rank 123rd in FBS scoring defense, allowing 39 points per game. D-lineman Jessie Lemonier has 9 sacks, good for 8th in the country, but there’s not enough of a supporting cast to engineer a quality pass defense. Liberty is -2 in turnover differential – you have to believe if the margin was in the + category the squad would be better than 4-5.
The Auburn Tigers have had a seesaw year in 2018. They beat Washington, a squad many thought might return to the playoffs in January 2019, and also a much-improved Texas A&M team.
But the downer notes include 4 losses on the season, including a bitter fall to struggling Tennessee.
Junior QB Jarrett Stidham has modest numbers, throwing for 2,116 yards, 10 TDs, and 4 INTs. JaTarvious Whitlow is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, but the program has struggled in game control and hasn’t gotten him nearly enough carries. Administration has said publicly that head coach Gus Malzahn will be retained in 2019. But one would imagine his seat is warming quickly with the fickle Auburn fan base.
Looks like the only opinions that matter are on Malzahn’s side, however:
Auburn president Steven Leath echoed the comments made by his first-year athletics director, according to a report by Auburn Undercover. Leath, who signed Malzahn to a new seven-year, $49 million contract last December, is standing by the embattled coach, whose buyout effective Dec. 1 is approximately $32 million, with half of that due within 30 days and the remainder paid over four equal annual installments.
“Well, I hired what I think is a first-class athletic director in Allen Greene,” Leath said prior to the Auburn Senate meeting Tuesday afternoon, according to the report. “He’s doing a first-class job, so I stand with Allen — and Allen I think was pretty clear with his comments about Gus being here next year. So, I don’t really have anything to add to that specifically.”
Greene last week came out in support of Malzahn, just a few weeks removed from being very diplomatic about the coach’s job status. Greene said Malzahn is Auburn’s “coach for the future” and expressed his confidence in Malzahn’s ability to right the ship and guide the program through this season’s adversity.
Auburn’s offense has looked too much like an ordinary unit this season, most likely because Malzahn scrapped a lot of his multi-RB sets for a traditional wide-open look. Stidham may have seduced the coaches with his ability to pass the ball, but Malzahn must be willing to dance with the girl that brought him.
The Auburn defense has been solid. The D ranks 14th in the nation in points allowed per game with 18.3. The unit gave up only 16 points to an Ole Miss team that averages over 37 points per game and held a great Georgia offense to only 27 in a losing effort. Senior LB Deshaun Davis leads the charge with 95 tackles, while sophomore DL Nick Coe leads the team in sacks with 7.
It’s not often you see a “prediction” clearly in the betting lines, since the lines are an average of all likeliest final-score predictions. But it’s obvious that odds-makers and the betting public expect the Liberty offense to run (or pass) into a wall this time. Otherwise, the Tigers would have to score 50+ points to cover the wide spread.
Unfortunately for the Flames, I’m inclined to agree. Calvert has excellent vision and a talented group to throw to, but his pass-protection has broken down against physical defenses. Liberty only scored 29 points combined against the 2 best defenses it has played all year – Troy and North Texas. Players like Davis and Coe (is that a law firm?) are better pass-rushers than anyone those schools can put in the front-7.
Meanwhile, the last time Auburn faced a defense as weak as Liberty’s was in Week 2 when the Tigers beat Alabama State 63 to 9.
Take War Eagle to cover (-28.5) on Saturday. Just don’t do it because Liberty used to be in the FCS. This time, in this individual match-up, Auburn is the best bet to cover regardless of the circumstances.