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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 100: Troy

Troy is – or was, or was and will be again – a paragon of consistency in a sport largely devoid of programs with staying power. This is especially true on the non-B.C.S. conference level, where few programs have shown an ability to reach the top of a conference and stay there, fighting off all challengers, for a period of time beyond one or two seasons. Troy dominated the Sun Belt for five years, from 2006-10, and no, dominate is not too strong a word. The Trojans won 77.3 percent of their conference games over these five seasons, the fourth-best conference winning percentage in college football – behind Boise State, T.C.U., Ohio State and Virginia Tech. That’s some elite company. And that’s one reason why it’s safe to say that Troy will be back, even if this swoon last two years, not just one.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Troy, Ala.

Nickname
Trojans

Returning starters
15 (9 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 68

2011 record
(3-9, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 106

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at U.A.B.
  • Sept. 8
    La.-Lafayette
  • Sept. 15
    Mississippi St.
  • Sept. 22
    at North Texas
  • Sept. 29
    at South Alabama
  • Oct. 11
    W.K.U.
  • Oct. 20
    F.I.U.
  • Oct. 27
    at F.A.U.
  • Nov. 3
    at Tennessee
  • Nov. 10
    Navy
  • Nov. 17
    Arkansas St.
  • Nov. 24
    at M.T.S.U.

Last year’s prediction

Six wins will be easy to come by in conference play, but what about seven? Eight? It’s doable, but the last two Troy teams have shown a tendency to come out flat on occasion, such as they did against Louisiana-Monroe a year ago. The trick will be find more consistency on defense, which should come with increased health, and to avoid turnovers, which Robinson should do as a second-year starter. Eight wins is the baseline for success in this day and age of Troy football, and even with some lingering concerns I have no doubt that this year’s team will get there in the regular season.

2011 recap

In a nutshell It’s not like the Trojans have a history of defensive incompetence, or that Jeremy Rowell doesn’t know how to coordinate a defense. As for the first statement: Troy led the Sun Belt in scoring defense in both 2007 and 2008, finishing 31st nationally in the latter season. And as for the second statement: Rowell has been Troy’s coordinator since 2005, meaning he sat front and center during the program’s unparalleled Sun Belt run. It’s not broken. But the defense does need to be fixed, as the Trojans have played progressively worse on this side of the ball over the last three years. After allowing 29.8 points per game in 2009 and 30.2 in 2010, the Trojans gave 33.7 points per game last fall, ranking them 101st nationally in scoring defense. No amount of offense is going to bail out such a weak defense, as Troy learned the hard way – and the offense, the program’s worst since 2005, was equally to blame for last season’s slide. The end result was three wins, the program’s fewest since Larry Blakeney was hired in 1991.

High point The first four games of the season, even if you could tell that something was amiss. Troy lost to two B.C.S. conference teams, as expected, but did give Arkansas a bit of scare in the third quarter. Then the Trojans beat Middle Tennessee State and U.A.B., but neither convincingly: the Blue Raiders by a field goal, the Blazers by a single point.

Low point Troy was close to reaching five wins, but all three-win teams are close to five wins. But you really couldn’t say that the Trojans were a break or two away from bowl eligibility, not when seven of their nine losses came by 10 or more points. The worst performances came over the final two weeks of the season, when Troy lost to Arkansas State and Western Kentucky by a combined score of 86-32.

Tidbit The Trojans went 3-2 at home last fall, marking the program’s 23rd straight season with a winning record in home games. That Troy went 3-2 at home means that it went 0-7 in road games, which marked the program’s worst road record in the modern era of college football. The Trojans have now gone winless in games played outside of Troy six times in the modern era: 1936 (0-4), 1956 (0-5), 1960 (0-5), 1965 (0-4), 1982 (0-6) and last fall.

Tidbit (transfers edition) As has been the case for years, Troy’s roster is loaded with JUCO, F.B.S. and F.C.S. transfers. Thirty-eight players on Troy’s spring roster began their career elsewhere, including four transfers from the SEC. Another 21 arrived off the JUCO ranks or via a post-graduate military academy. And four players come from one school: North Alabama.

Former players in the N.F.L.

14 DE Mario Addison (Indianapolis), WR Stanley Arukwe (Arizona), OT James Brown (Chicago), RB DuJuan Harris (Jackonsville), WR Jerrel Jernigan (New York Giants), S Sherrod Martin (Carolina), DE Jonathan Massaquoi (Atlanta), CB Leodis McKelvin (Buffalo), DT Steve McLendon (Pittsburgh), LB Cameron Sheffield (Kansas City), K Lawrence Tynes (New York Giants), DE Osi Umenyiora (New York Giants), LB DeMarcus Ware (Dallas).

Arbitrary top five list

U.S.C. running backs
1. O.J. Simpson (1967-68).
2. Reggie Bush (2003-5).
3. Marcus Allen (1978-81).
4. Mike Garrett (1963-65).
5. Charles White (1978-80).

Coaching

Larry Blakeney (Auburn ‘70), 164-91-1 after 21 seasons with the Trojans. He holds — by leaps and bounds — Troy’s record for career victories, winning nearly four times as many games as his next closest competitor, Billy Atkins, who won 44 games from 1966-71. Last fall’s three-win finish snapped Troy’s streak of five consecutive seasons with at least eight wins, the program’s best stretch of play since joining the F.B.S. in 2002. The slide was disappointing but temporary: Troy may again struggle getting back to six wins in 2012, but it won’t last. Over the span of eight-win seasons, Troy cemented its place as the top program in the Sun Belt. After playing on the Division II level from 1973-92 — the final two seasons under Blakeney – Troy moved up to the F.C.S., where it spent the following nine years, from 1993-2001, before graduating to the F.B.S. the following season. The team has experienced success as each step of the way, winning a pair of Southland Conference championships from 1999-2000 and sharing or winning outright five straight Sun Belt titles from 2006-10. Troy has appeared in five F.B.S. bowl games, though it has won only two, losing a pair in painful fashion. Blakeney’s 164 wins at his current stop ranks him third among active coaches in the F.B.S., trailing only Chris Ault and Frank Beamer. The finest coach in school history, the finest coach in Sun Belt history and one of the most consistent non-B.C.S. conference coaches in the country, no coach fits his program better than Blakeney fits Troy.

Players to watch

Corey Robinson didn’t regress. But neither did he improve. Instead, Robinson’s sophomore season was either as good or a shade worse than his sterling freshman season; the lack of progression can be viewed as regression, in a way, since most quarterbacks are able to take a nice step forward during their second season in the starting lineup. All Robinson did was continue to produce: he threw for 3,411 yards and 21 touchdowns, cracking the 300-yard mark seven times and tossing two or more scores seven times, including in each of the last four games of the year. But he also continued to have some issues with turnovers, throwing 15 picks for the second straight year. A high number of interceptions is to be somewhat expected, given the high volume of attempts, but this is one area where Robinson could stand to improve.

Why? Because Troy is nearly unbeatable when it stays turnover-free – 29-4-1 in such games since Blakeney arrived in 1991. Beyond that, Robinson is the lifeblood of this offense, with the passing game as his weapon of choice: Troy goes as far as he leads them, especially with such concerns on defense, so Robinson needs to step into a rhythm and stay there, nearly without pause, for three-plus months. It would be ridiculous to say that Troy could do any better with its other options, though perhaps Blakeney was smart to push Robinson by trying out Deon Anthony and Dallas Tidwell during the spring. It’s Robinson’s position, his offense and his team. He’ll have a very good junior season.

Losing three talented seniors after the 2010 season – like Jerrel Jernigan, for starters – led Troy to spread the ball around more last fall. Twelve players made at least 12 catches a year ago, led by a team-best 67 grabs from junior Eric Thomas, an all-Sun Belt pick, and I’d be surprised if offensive coordinator Kenny Edenfield doesn’t continue sharing the wealth in 2012. But the receiver corps revolves around Thomas, who moved seamlessly into Jernigan’s top role as Robinson’s favorite receiver. Thomas should draw enough attention to make life a little easier for returning contributors like Chandler Worthy (22 receptions for 392 yards), Justin Albert (40 for 338), Jaquan Robinson (18 for 211) and Felton Payton (13 for 120).

One player whose fall availability is in serious question is senior Corey Johnson, who tore his A.C.L. in late March. Modern medicine has reached the point where a springtime knee injury doesn’t automatically end a player’s season, but it’s hard to imagine Johnson returning to full strength by September – it’s also hard to see him returning to the point where he’d leapfrog ahead of Troy’s other gifted, injury-free options at the position. But remember that the Trojans do get back Chip Reeves and Jamel Johnson, two would-be starters who missed last season due to academics. With Thomas leading the way, Reeves and Jamel Johnson back in the fold and Worthy a very promising sophomore on the rise, Troy’s receiver corps is locked and loaded.

The passing game clicked last fall, yet Troy still took a serious nosedive offensively. Why? Because for the first time in several years, the offense lacked any balance. While Troy is well known for its high-test passing game, the Trojans are at their best when the running game carries a hefty portion of the load. The running game disappeared last fall: Troy went from 54th nationally in rushing in 2010 to 117th last fall, losing nearly 70 yards per game off its total. This needs to be repaired, though the blame for the decline falls both on the offensive line and the defense – the latter forced Troy to turn predominately to the pass in order to keep pace on the scoreboard.

The returning running backs have a proven track record of production. Senior Shawn Southward (556 yards, 4 touchdowns) has led Troy in rushing in each of his first three years. He’s a back Troy needs to feed: Southward is at his best – in terms of yards per carry, longer runs – when given nine or more carries, as he’s shown over the last few seasons. Southward (27 receptions for 249 yards) is also a gifted receiver with additional room for growth as one of Robinson’s safety valves. While Troy did miss DuJuan Harris last fall, senior D.J. Taylor (367 yards, 6 scores) – all 230 pounds of him, though it may be more – is the bigger, bruising back the Trojans need in short-yardage situations and as a change of pace.

The offense isn’t broken. Last year’s decline was an aberration, even if Troy won’t instantly revert back to its 2006-10 form without first addressing some lingering concerns along the offensive line. If the line does round into form, however, the Trojans have the quarterback, the receiver corps and the backfield punch to move back into the top slice of the Sun Belt. And they’ll need to, seeing that the S.B.C. has suddenly become more defined by offensive excellence than any non-B.C.S. conference in college football.

The Trojans will make a slight tweak on defense in an effort to fix their recent woes. While Troy will continue running a 4-3 system, Rowell will utilize one hybrid end-linebacker instead of starting two traditional ends. While this end will technically be a down lineman, the hope is that moving a speedier, quicker linebacker into the position will give Troy a bit more burst up front, helping out an anemic pass rush. Even with a first-team all-Sun Belt pick at end in Jonathan Massaquoi – an early draft entrant – Troy still finished 7th in the Sun Belt and 88th nationally in sacks. Want to help out a porous back seven? Then get to the quarterback.

Senior Jacoby Thomas, a former reserve at weak side linebacker, will step into the newly-christened hybrid end role. He’s a good fit. Thomas has solid size, at about 250 pounds, and as a linebacker, showed some ability to get pressure in the backfield (19 tackles, 5.5 for loss). Tony Davis (34 tackles, 6.0 for loss) will serve as the more traditional end after being forced to play inside last fall; far too small for tackle, Davis will provide a bigger impact on the outside. Get to know Thomas and Davis; along with junior Brandon Timmons and a slew of redshirt freshman, they’ll be tasked with beefing up Troy’s pass rush.

The interior of the line will have a slightly new look. Davis’ move outside opens up increased roles for juniors John Clark, Aaron Williams and Shermane TeArt, a threesome that split time in the rotation last fall. Two of the three will start, with Clark and Williams the starters at the end of spring ball, but all will play – as will redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson and senior Kyle Lucas. Defensive tackle is also one of several positions due to for an influx of JUCO talent. Two transfers, Xavier Melton and Derrek Upshaw, will have every opportunity to crack into the two-deep.

Rowell will replace middle linebacker Xavier Lamb with senior Brannon Bryan (82 tackles), who moves inside from the weak side. I think that Bryan’s experience at outside linebacker will serve him well in his new spot: He’s inheriting some big shoes, but he has the right size to take on blocks and has shown the ability to make plays in space. Angelo Hadley’s move to safety – permanent, I think – will give Kannoris Davis (60 tackles) the starting job on the strong side. The pair split time last year, with Davis making eight starts but Hadley starting each of Troy’s last three games. With Thomas now moving down to end, the Trojans can go with Dimetri Miles, Wayland Coleman-Dancer or Mark Wilson on the weak side. Miles was the starter heading into the spring game, so here’s guessing that sticks as the Trojans start the regular season.

So: the secondary. It’s not a good situation, even with an all-Sun Belt pick in Brynden Trawick (team-leading 123 tackles) at strong safety. Last fall, Troy ranked 101st nationally in passing plays of 20 or more yards allowed, 117th in passing plays of 30 or more yards, 114th in plays of 40 or more yards and 106th in plays of 50 or more yards. In short, the Trojans did not make things difficult for opposing quarterbacks inside and out of Sun Belt play. This needs to change, of course, but it won’t unless the Trojans get more pressure on the quarterback.

You don’t want your strong safety – or any defensive back – to lead the team in tackles, as did Trawick last fall. But you do like to know that you have a solid last line of defense should the front seven falter; Trawick is a bit of security blanket in the running game, but you’d like him to do less. I also like Troy’s decision to move Hadley to safety, seeing that he was a bit undersized to handle the running game down at linebacker. Speaking of security blankets, Hadley is there for Troy in case senior Barry Valcin can’t return to full health. A major contributor in 2009, Valcin has missed extensive time after a fairly nasty leg and ankle injury suffered prior to the start of the 2010 season.

Without getting too bogged down, here’s what Troy needs: Trawick to do less a run-stopper, more in coverage; Valcin to get back to full strength; and senior cornerback Bryan Willis to recapture his prior form. Willis was an all-conference pick as a freshman, but has been largely unable to build upon his strong debut. Sophomore Ethan Davis, a two-game starter in 2011, is penciled into the starting cornerback spot on the other side. As of now, however, I’m not sure that Troy is ready to give him the keys to the starting job.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Troy did a fine job protecting the quarterback in 2011, which wasn’t surprising: the Trojans had all-conference pick James Brown anchoring the line at left tackle. But the Trojans were abysmal in the running game, exhibiting a passive and unimposing approach to opening up holes on the ground. It gets worse: Brown is gone, along with center Zach Swindall, leaving Troy in a position where it must improve without its two strongest linemen. There’s no reason to think that Troy can continue to do such a nice job keeping Robinson clean without Brown holding down the blind side. In addition, there’s little reason to believe that this offensive line can simply flip the switch and become more physical in the running game while replacing two multiple-year stalwarts.

From where I’m standing, the offensive line is a significant concern. The new leader up front will be senior left guard Kyle Wilborn, though he missed spring ball due to injury. Wilborn is key for two reasons: one, he’s the most experienced returning lineman; and two, his experience will come in handy with a new starter at left tackle. Brown’s replacement will be long-armed senior Jarred Fleming, who made three starts at right tackle last fall. Obviously, Troy is going to see a drop in production at the position – even though it would be foolish to say that Fleming, a former JUCO transfer, doesn’t have the potential for a nice senior season.

The right side of the line returns intact, with sophomores Zach Johnson at guard and Terrance Jones at tackle, leaving Troy only needing to fill Swindall’s shoes at center. No competition here: Andrew Phillips, last year’s understudy, will move into the starting lineup. In all, Troy’s line will feature three seniors – two former JUCO transfers – and two sophomores. The youngsters have promise, Wilborn is a keeper and Fleming is intriguing, if nothing else. But the line is a worry. Can a slightly new group become more physical overnight? The health of the offense hinges on the answer.

Game(s) to watch

There are winnable games on this schedule, though a few come on the road: U.A.B., North Texas, Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee, for example. Seeing that Troy has some worries on both sides of the ball, would the Trojans rather get those teams at home and the Sun Belt’s upper half on the road? The non-conference slate is predictably fierce, though Mississippi State does come to Troy.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell This won’t last. Troy won’t stay down for long. I refuse to believe that after two decades of rampant success – and five years as the Sun Belt’s top dog – the Trojans are entering a long, extended slide into bottom-of-the-league territory. That’s not going to happen. What I do think will occur, however, is another season of atypical results: Troy again has issues to address, and given the lingering concerns, it’s safe to say that the Trojans don’t quite match up with the Sun Belt’s upper crust. But I can’t quite write this team off – though I am predicting a fifth-place finish in the S.B.C. and another bowl-less season. The offense has tremendous talent and athleticism at the skill positions. Likewise, there is some speed on defense. But three factors loom large: the offensive line, the pass rush and the secondary. The Trojans need the first to provide some much-needed balance on offense. The second pair go hand in hand; if the pass rush improves, the secondary might be a bit more stingy than it was a year ago. This is me hedging my bets, and I’d only lean towards the side of optimism when it comes to a program – like Troy – that has experienced only one down year after five such strong seasons. Troy will be back, because Troy is built too well and coached too well to disappear entirely. Unfortunately, the Sun Belt’s top quartet are stronger in 2012.

Dream season The Trojans look better from the start. After rolling past U.A.B. in the season opener, Troy knocks off Mississippi State and Louisiana-Lafayette at home, setting the tone for a nine-win season complete with the Sun Belt title.

Nightmare season The offense remains unbalanced and the defense again fails to mount any sort of resistance against strong Sun Belt foes like Florida International, Arkansas State and Western Kentucky. Troy continues its swoon, even dropping one win off last year’s total.

In case you were wondering

Where do Troy fans congregate? The premier site for Troy football chatter is Go Troy Trojans, which leads the pack by leaps and bounds. You can also find recruiting coverage at Troy Insider. And please don’t forget about Drew Champlin’s blog for The Dothan Eagle.

Troy’s all-name nominee LB Wayland Coleman-Dancer.

Word Count

Through 25 teams 84,147.

Up Next

Who is No. 99? The head coach with the most career wins in the history of tomorrow’s program wasn’t elected into his own conference’s hall of fame until five years after he was named to the College Football Hall of Fame, which should tell you quite a bit about the latter’s puzzling election practices. As discussed ad nauseam in this space.

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Comments

  1. Cole says:

    Rice?

  2. David says:

    Central Michigan — Herb Deromedi inducted into College Football Hall of Fame in 2007; just announced as inductee into MAC Hall of Fame.

    Another member of his MAC induction class: Mike Schmidt. Yes, the guy who was a first-ballot inductee to the Baseball HOF more than a decade ago.

  3. Dave says:

    OJ sure did slash his way through would-be tacklers, and cut up opposing defenses. He positively murdered Pac-10 opponents.

  4. Joe says:

    CMU. Very interesting. It will be a very interesting year for Troy. Will they make it to a bowl. Mississippi State at home will be very intriguing.

  5. Matt R says:

    This years MAC-HOF class was the first one since 1994. Not sure why.

  6. southwvboy says:

    Dave that is offensive, the PAC 10 only had 8 teams then, jeez.

  7. schedule nit says:

    The MAC has a Hall of Fame? Seriously?

  8. Dave says:

    @ southwvboy –

    haha, you got me – I wasn’t even alive back then.

    All through the trial, my dad (who is a huge ND fan and HATES USC) just kept saying, “no matter how this turns out, he’s still the best college running back I ever saw.”

  9. Bobak says:

    The proper term for the PAC-8 in those days was “USC and the 7 Dwarves.”

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