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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. 68: Troy

Troy’s faced challengers before, upstarts who wanted to take the Trojans’ place as the Sun Belt’s top dog. First it was the built-in presence of North Texas, which had won three straight conference titles from 2002-4; then came Middle Tennessee State, followed by Florida Atlantic, perhaps followed by Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette. All have tried but failed to hang with the Trojans, putting together fine individual seasons but, more often than not, falling behind Troy when it comes to the long-distance race. Now, Florida International is the latest to throw its hat in the ring. Will Troy shrug aside its latest challenger as it has so many before, or do the Golden Panthers have the sort of staying power needed to keep pace with the Sun Belt’s premier program?

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Troy, Ala.

Nickname
Trojans

Returning starters
12 (4 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 64

2010 record
(8-5, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 66

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Clemson
  • Sept. 17
    at Arkansas
  • Sept. 24
    Middle Tennessee
  • Oct. 1
    U.A.B.
  • Oct. 8
    at La.-Lafayette
  • Oct. 15
    La.-Monroe
  • Oct. 25
    at F.I.U.
  • Nov. 5
    at Navy
  • Nov. 12
    North Texas
  • Nov. 19
    Florida Atlantic
  • Nov. 26
    at W.K.U.
  • Dec. 3
    at Arkansas St.

Last year’s prediction

Yes, I’ve made promises in the past to never pick against Troy, at least until the Trojans fail to win the Sun Belt. Yet here we are, with Troy the defending champs, and I’m picking Middle Tennessee State, not the Trojans, to take the Sun Belt in 2010. To be honest, it all comes down to the simple fact that the Blue Raiders host Troy; while I think these are Trojans more talented, I’m giving M.T.S.U. the edge. Still — get ready to be confused — Troy could very well match last season’s nine-win output, thanks to an easier schedule and the typical six or more wins in Sun Belt play. Let me end this section by saying this: I swore I’d never pick against Troy, at least as long as the Trojans continued to win Sun Belt championships. Now that I’ve done so, I’m having my fair share of doubts.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Another eight-win season for Troy, though it took some work to get there. It actually took a bowl win, of all things, a target that has been elusive for Larry Blakeney and the Trojans since moving to the F.B.S. in 2002. That victory put a fine exclamation point on another successful season, though while the year did find Troy again tied atop the Sun Belt standings it was F.I.U., not the Trojans, who took home the conference crown. So what went wrong — with the term wrong being relative to Troy’s recent success? As has been the case over the last handful of seasons, the defense came up short at times: in losses to U.A.B. and the Golden Panthers, most notably. And there were the requisite B.C.S. conference losses, though Troy played Oklahoma State very tight in September. And the Trojans did take care of business in the Sun Belt, by and large, losing out to F.I.U. due to the head-to-head tiebreaker. This team was very much like the 2009 version, which when considering the personnel changes that occurred prior to last season and last fall’s injury woes is pretty impressive.

High point A 42-13, nationally-televised win over Middle Tennessee State on the first Tuesday of October. I, like most, thought this game essentially decided the Sun Belt — I didn’t think F.I.U. was going to make its run. The win was Troy’s lone victory over a bowl opponent until, well, bowl play: the Trojans dominated Ohio, 44-13, in the New Orleans Bowl.

Low point The loss to F.I.U., of course. Also in the running is a 69-24 loss to South Carolina a week later, though you can see why the Trojans might have been a bit demoralized heading into that one.

Tidbit Last fall’s 8-5 mark gave Troy five consecutive seasons with at least eight wins, a program record on the F.B.S. level. It also ties a program record regardless of affiliation; the Trojans went 10-1, 12-1, 8-4, 11-2 and 10-2 from 1992-96. The rest of the Sun Belt has combined for all of six eight-win seasons as members of the F.B.S.: two each by North Texas and Middle Tennessee State and one from Louisiana-Lafayette and Florida Atlantic.

Tidbit (defense edition) We’re seeing an all-time great run for the Troy offense, which has scored at least 400 points in each of the last four seasons. Unfortunately, this run coincides with the worst stretch for this Troy defense in program history. Only once prior to 2009 had the Trojans allowed at least 300 points in a season — Troy gave up 326 points back in 1994. Troy allowed 387 and 393 points in 2009 and 2010, respectively, an average of 29.8 and 30.2 points per game.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

Two days, two opportunities for 100-word previews — 150 words if you’re Ol’ Rock, who tore apart yesterday’s quiz by correctly picking not just the teams but also the coaches in question. Today’s question is a little easier, in my mind. Troy has shared or won outright the last five Sun Belt titles. Only five other programs in F.B.S. history have won or shared at least five straight conference titles. Can you name the other five?

Teams already spoken for: California (Katster), Iowa (M Meyer), Mississippi (Flint Foster), Northwestern (NUwildcat09), Oregon (Eskynyt), Pittsburgh (htp2012), Texas (Burnt Orange), Texas A&M (Ol’ Rock), Washington (Dr. Klahn).

Former players in the N.F.L.

14 QB Levi Brown (Buffalo), CB Jorrick Calvin (Philadelphia), DT Dion Gates (Kansas City), WR Jerrel Jernigan (New York Giants), LB Brandon Lang (San Diego), CB Elbert Mack (Tampa Bay), S Sherrod Mack (Carolina), 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), LB Bear Woods (Atlanta).

Arbitrary top five list

States with at least three F.B.S. programs
1. Florida (Florida, Florida State, Miami).
2. Texas (Texas, T.C.U., Texas A&M).
3. Alabama (Alabama, Auburn, Troy).
4. Oklahoma (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Tulsa).
5. California (U.S.C., U.C.L.A., California).

Coaching

Larry Blakeney (Auburn ‘70), 161-82-1 after 20 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 8-5 finish gave Troy five consecutive seasons with at least eight wins, the program’s best stretch of play since joining the F.B.S. in 2002. Over this span, Troy has cemented its place as the top program in the Sun Belt. Blakeney, undoubtedly the face of the Trojan program, deserves credit for leading Troy from Division II status to the F.B.S. 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 the last five Sun Belt titles. Troy has appeared in five F.B.S. bowl games, though it has won only two, losing the other three post-season affairs. Blakeney’s 161 wins at his current stop ranks him third among active coaches in the F.B.S., trailing only Joe Paterno and Frank Beamer. The finest coach in school history, the finest coach in Sun Belt history, perhaps the most consistent non-B.C.S. conference coach in the country, no coach fits his program better than Blakeney fits Troy.

Players to watch

How good was Corey Robinson as a redshirt freshman? He was pretty good. But he can be better, and he must be more consistent in order for Troy to offset some significant losses at receiver, which I’ll touch on below. First, the good news: Robinson, a surprise starter coming out of fall camp, showed fairly quickly that he’s the real deal under center. He did so by taking to this offense like a fish to water, spreading the ball around to his receivers and, from time to time, avoiding the sort of turnovers like plague the typical freshman quarterback.

But Robinson was prone to periods of inefficiency: take a five-week span in October and November when he tossed at least two interceptions per game, a period that saw Troy go 2-3. So he needs to avoid those bouts with turnovers, which should come with time. To be honest, I’m really nitpicking Robinson’s performance as a freshman starter; it really couldn’t have gone much better, and now, a year wiser, he’s clearly the best quarterback in the Sun Belt. In a perfect world, we would see senior Jamie Hampton remain injury-free and make a difference as the second quarterback. I’ll be rooting hard for Hampton, who missed much of 2008 and 2010 with leg injuries.

Outside of receiver, the biggest issue facing this offense is the loss of three starters up front. The biggest is center Tyler Clark, who started 44 games over his career in the middle of Troy’s line. But Troy does return a sure thing in senior left tackle James Brown, who is one of the Sun Belt’s best. The second returning starter is guard Kyle Wilborn, who missed the spring with a shoulder injury but will reclaim a major role, whether at left or right guard, come September. There is a slight lack of experience at guard otherwise, unfortunately: sophomores abound, though the Trojans are high on Jacob Creech, Jay Stansberry — who’s a little small — Jimmie Arnold and Cody Jenkins.

Back to center: the job looks like senior Zach Swindall’s to lose, but JUCO transfer Andrew Phillips is another option. Perhaps the loser of this competition could move to guard, but Troy will tackle that situation once either Swindall or Phillips steps forward. It’ll be redshirt freshman Terrence Jones at right tackle: he looks like a lineman who will get his feet wet on the strong side before replacing Brown at left tackle in 2012.

Troy seems a little thin at running back. DuJuan Harris, last year’s second-leading rusher, has moved on, and Troy is experimenting with moving another key back to receiver. So the onus is on junior Shawn Southward to take on an even larger role than the one he held a year ago, when he paced Troy with 623 yards rushing and 7 score. Southward also made an impact as a receiver: his 19 receptions in 2010 lead all returning players. But he’ll need to be spelled on occasion, and the Trojans hope junior D.J. Taylor can provide a good change of pace. He’s the bigger back to Southward’s elusiveness, so they could compliment each other well.

The defense will be better. It will be better merely if Troy avoids the injury bug that plagued last year’s team: only three players started all 13 games, which says much about the in-and-out rotation that pervaded the depth chart throughout the season. There is a silver lining to last year’s injury struggles, however. Several returning players destined for reserve roles earned meaningful playing time in the starting lineup, which will yield dividends in 2011.

Troy was due to return four cornerbacks with starting experience, but Kejuan Phillips was suspended in May, costing him the season. So that total drops to three, but Troy is still in pretty good shape in the secondary. LaDarrius Madden (49 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Barry Valcin bring starting experience into 2011, though Valcin is still recovering from the ankle injury that cost him last season. He’s a valuable part of this secondary, partly thanks to his ability to slot in both at safety and cornerback. There’s more depth at safety with JUCO transfer Brynden Trawick — currently a starter while Valcin recovers — and sophomores Cam Hudson and Angelo Hadley. Take note that Troy is not going with a free and strong safety but a left and right safety, so all four safeties are interchangeable, to an extent.

Phillips was either going to start or play a key role, so his departure does hurt the depth at cornerback. It also opens back up the starting role to sophomore Chris Pickett (37 tackles), who started nine games a year ago. He’ll join senior Jimmie Anderson (28 tackles, 3 picks) in the starting lineup, with junior Bryan Willis and redshirt freshman Dionte Ponder serving as the reserves.

The real star of this defense is end Jonathan Massaquoi, who led the Trojans and the Sun Belt in tackles for loss (20.5) and sacks (12.5), finishing eighth and fourth in the F.B.S., respectively. He’ll have to go it alone in 2011, now that Troy has lost his running mate at end in Mario Addison. The Trojans do think that seniors John Robles (16 tackles) and Brandon Boudreaux can help pick up the slack, though the team lost another reserve when R.J. Roberts was dismissed from the team. The interior of the line is led by undersized junior Tony Davis, with JUCO transfer Tony Gillespie providing some heft on the second line. Seniors Emmanuel Dudley (27 tackles, 1 sack) and Sidell Corley return at nose tackle, with Dudley missing the spring while recovering from surgery.

It’s a brand new day at linebacker. This group was an enormous question mark heading into last season, when Troy had to replace two all-conference starters. A year later, the Trojans are in great shape. The starting lineup is set in stone: Kanorris Davis (43 tackles, 9 for loss) is on the strong side, Xavier Lamb (team-best 91 tackles, 2 sacks) in the middle and Brannon Bryan (24 tackles) on the weak side. Lamb in particular is a player to watch; he took on a leadership role last fall, helping bridge the gap with a new-look linebacker corps. Lamb’s a heavy contender for conference defensive player of the year honors. Bryan stepped into a starting role late last season and really made a difference.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver The losses were significant prior to May 23. Just off last year’s team, Troy had to replace all-time leading receiver Jerrel Jernigan — one of the program’s greats — and fellow starters Tebiarus Gill and Jason Bruce. This trio led the way by example, combining for 183 receptions, or more than half of Troy’s season total. So the news was bad at this point; it became worse on that May date, when Troy announced that would-be starters Chip Reeves (30 receptions for 515 yards, 5 scores) and Jamel Johnson (23 for 258) were academically ineligible for the 2011 season. Both may return, should they get their work in order, but not until next spring. So a worrisome situation is now dire, and Troy must dig deep to find quality targets for Robinson to work with in the passing game. For now, it’s about promoting would-be reserves into larger roles: take sophomore Felton Peyton, who was working behind Reeves during the spring but is now a starter. Likewise for Brett Moncrief (16 for 214 and 2 scores), who takes over for Johnson. It’s not a great situation. But it’s not as if Troy doesn’t have athletic ability to work with: Blakeney and his staff always find talent — talent that needs some fine-tuning, to be honest — so a youngster like Peyton could have a big year. As could a few other sophomores, like Sam Haskins, who at 6’4 presents a nice mismatch option, or redshirt freshman B.J. Chitty. Keep an eye on former running back Chris Anderson, who Troy might put into a Jernigan-like role as a pass-catcher and running option split out wide. As a whole, however, the receiver corps is unpolished, unproven and an unknown. Still, Troy’s not going to struggle to score points.

Game(s) to watch

The year starts with road dates with Clemson and Arkansas, which should both end in defeat but will provide a slight barometer for where Troy stands heading into Sun Belt play. In terms of conference games, it’s all about that trip to F.I.U. in October. Of course, I thought that the game against Middle Tennessee State would decide the Sun Belt last fall, so I could very well be wrong. I probably am wrong.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I see the Sun Belt remaining Troy’s playground. Yes, Florida International is a program on the rise, and yes, Troy does have some issues to address as look ahead to 2011. But no other Sun Belt team can quite match what Troy brings to both sides of the ball: offensively, it’s a group that can score early, quickly and often; defensively, the Trojans have terrific athleticism and conference-best depth along the back seven. In my mind, picking anyone else would be foolish — and I’ve picked against Troy in the past, only to regret the error. Not that Troy looks good enough to make a run towards 10 wins, however. The non-conference slate will probably find Troy finishing 2-2 at best, with the very real chance at a 1-3 mark — losses to Clemson, Arkansas and Navy. 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 conerns I have no doubt that this year’s team will get there in the regular season.

Dream season Troy goes 3-1 outside of the Sun Belt and 8-0 inside the Sun Belt. That spells 11-1 and a national ranking, not to mention another step forward for the program.

Nightmare season The Trojans fully cede the conference to F.I.U., combining a 1-3 record in non-conference play with a 4-4 Sun Belt mark to finish below .500 for the first time since 2005.

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.

Word Count

Through 53 teams 152,803.

Up Next

Who is No. 67? Tomorrow’s program absorbed $2.92 million in losses from unsold tickets at its bowl game a year ago.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. BobJ says:

    In 1969, Troy State, as it was then known, picked apart the secondary of my Willamette University Bearcats in an NAIA semifinal game, winning 63-10. We really didn’t belong on the same field as them.

  2. Rookierookie says:

    Doesn’t Chris Ault have a 219–97–1 record at Nevada, or does it have to be accumulated in one stint?

  3. Monty says:

    I think the answer to the preview trivia question is Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State, Boise State, and [REDACTED] (think Reggie Bush). If correct, can I claim Boise State?

    Paul: Not quite there on the quiz answer. But you got at least one right.

  4. Monty says:

    Hmmm… on second thought, it appears that I’d forgotten Florida State. Since [REDACTED] has in fact been stricken from the history books, is it permissible for me to swap FSU in for them in my guess? (I may still be wrong anyway, but I thought it was worth a shot….)

  5. schedule nit says:

    $3 mil in losses from unsold tickets? Can’t be Virginia Tech or Stanford, right?

  6. Newt says:

    Nebraska, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Florida State, Alabama. I think.

    Paul: You’re hurting yourself by taking both Nebraska and Oklahoma. You know one of those two weren’t winning five straight with the other team in the picture.

  7. schedule nit says:

    Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Michigan, Boise State

  8. Papa John says:

    Hmm, this is a confusing question, since FBS was only used starting in 2006. So I’m guessing we can go back to 1978, when we started using Divisions 1-A and 1-AA? If so, then I’m going with:

    Boise State (WAC, 2002-06)
    BYU (WAC, 1977-85, 1989-93)
    Michigan (Big Ten, 1988-92)
    Ohio State (Big Ten, 2005-10)
    University of Southern California (Pac 10, 2002-08)
    Florida State (ACC, 1992-2000)

    Of course there are others if we look prior to 1978, such as Alabama in the early 1970s.

    If I’m somehow correct, I’ll take Stanford.

  9. Newt says:

    I guess I’m confused how far we can go back. Alabama did it from 71-75. Ohio State 2005-10. Florida State 1992-2000. Nebraska did it from 1910-17, and again from 1991-95 in the Big Eight. Oklahoma did it from 1946-59, and again from 1973-80. Boise State did it from 2002-06. USC from 2002-08. BYU won the WAC every year from 1976-85.

    Some of those came before football split into division I-A and I-AA, but more than five came after. OSU, FSU, BYU, Nebraska, Boise State, and USC all did it in five years that came entirely after the split.

  10. John Irons says:

    One could argue that USC’s vacated wins from 04 – 05 broke their streak.

    In this light I think the list should read: Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State, Boise State, and ugh… BYU.

    100 words on the Utes if it pleases the court your honor!

  11. Alex Payne says:

    Oklahoma, Boise St., Ohio St., Florida State, and BYU. If correct, I’d love Nebraska.

  12. Alex Payne says:

    Oh, and UCONN should be up next.

  13. Hokieshibe says:

    Definitely UConn. No way VT or Stanford are ranked this low.

  14. Ed says:

    Yeah I guess my own Uconn Huskies are up next. I guess I’m partly to blame for the huge bowl loss. I got my fiesta bowl tickets for 20 bucks on stubhub and the cheapest Uconn was offering was $105, but Come on what would anyone else do when they are already spending $500 to get out to Arizona

  15. Bob Markey says:

    Troy and FIU tied for first place last year, according to the Sun Belt Conference. That makes five consecutive years that Troy either won outright or tied for the conference title. There is no tie-breaker. Previously, when the conference had only one bowl tie-in and two teams were tied with the best record, the winner between the two would get the bid.

    Look for the Trojans to upset Clemson and take out Navy, while playing Arkansas tough.

  16. Joel says:

    I’ll assume the preview question is still unresolved. I get a lot more than 5:
    Alabama (1971-75)
    Arizona State (1969-73)
    Boise State (2002-06)
    Brigham Young (1976-85, 1989-93)
    Florida State (1992-2000)
    Michigan (1988-92)
    Nebraska (1991-95)
    Ohio State (1972-77, 2005-10)
    Oklahoma (1946-59, 1973-80)
    Southern Cal (2002-08)
    Texas (1968-73)
    Tulsa (1980-85)
    I’m not sure if Tulsa was considered a major program in the ’80s, but that still leaves 11 if it wasn’t.
    My mind needs resolution!

  17. trojanbrutha says:

    TROY will have unproven talent at WR to begin the season, but the rotation looked very good in the spring. I don’t forsee a drop off in production. The defensive struggles should be a distant memory by the end of the season…keep right on laughin’ Clemson fans…

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