Compared to South Alabama*, a program that was just a glint in the eyes of athletic administrators five years ago, Texas State's rise to the FBS level has been positively glacial. The Bobcats have fielded a team for more than a century, and despite steady progress through the years -- they rose from NAIA to Division II (where they were a national power) in the 1970s, then to 1-AA in the 1980s. Now, after a steady run of decent recent success, they are taking the leap. They announced in 2007 that they would aim to join the FBS ranks within five years, and five years later, here they are. They nearly doubled the size of Bobcat Stadium, from about 16,000 to almost 30,000, they hired a head coach (Dennis Franchione) with lengthy FBS experience, and aside from a game against Stephen F. Austin, they are taking on a full slate of FBS opponents this fall.
With quite a young team, Franchione's Bobcats struggled down the stretch last season, losing four of their last five games to fall from 5-2 to 6-6. But aside from some scary inexperience in the trenches and the departure of by far their best pass rusher, TSU should be a more well-seasoned, athletic group this fall. Not that it will be enough to create success in their FBS debut, of course.
* Hey! Read all about South Alabama here.
Texas State isn't joining the Big 12, but they played in quite a few exciting, high-scoring games last year. They scored at least 34 points in five of 12 games in 2011, and they allowed at least 26 points in seven. The Bobcats' offense was dangerous for both opponents and the Bobcats themselves -- TSU's top two running backs combined to gain 1,500 yards on the ground, and their top three receivers all averaged at least 13.6 yards per catch. They averaged a healthy 5.2 yards per play, but they fumbled 33 times, losing 17.
Meanwhile, for all the big plays they were capable of gaining, they were prone to giving up just as many. Nine different players in the Bobcats' 4-2-5 defense racked up at least five tackles for loss, yet opponents still gained 5.4 yards per play. TSU was aggressive and explosive but far too error-prone to succeed, even at the FCS level. After blowout losses to Texas Tech and Wyoming, the Bobcats won their first five games versus FCS teams, but injury troubles and an increasingly glitch-prone defense proved too damaging. They lost to Southeastern Louisiana, Northwestern State, Central Arkansas and Sam Houston State late in the season; none of those are humiliating by any means, but it really isn't what you want to see when you are about to transition to a schedule with teams quite a bit better than Southeastern Louisiana.
We'll see what changes are in store as TSU makes the jump to FBS, but if last year's trends hold, they will enter as one of the more run-heavy non-service academies at the FBS level. The Bobcats ran the ball on 64 percent of their plays in 2011, and when you take a look at their backfield, you quickly see why. Sophomore Terrence Franks and former Navy slotback Marcus Curry combined to average a robust 5.5 yards per carry and catch a pass or two out of the backfield each game. They scored a combined 13 touchdowns, and they formed a lovely combination with run-first quarterback Shaun Rutherford.
A senior, Rutherford will likely preserve his starting job in 2012, but he won't keep it without a fight. Tyler Arndt, a starter as a high-three-star freshman in 2010, struggled through much of 2011 after combing back from knee surgery, then injuring a hamstring. Rutherford took over and gave Franchione little reason for worry -- he averaged almost 8.0 yards per pass, threw three touchdowns for every interception, and rushed for nearly 500 yards despite a shoulder injury of his own. With Rutherford behind center, TSU's run percentage increased from 57 percent in 2010 to 64. (With the option prevalent in the Bobcats' attack, fumbles were frequent; that has been a focus in the spring.) Arndt is back at full-speed this spring, but he has some work to do to catch up. Franchione said they would have probably redshirted Arndt last year if they had more than two quarterbacks on the roster, but they did not. Thanks to some early enrollees from the 2012 recruiting class, quarterback depth should be much improved this fall, though the name atop the depth chart probably won't change.
Two of the Bobcats' three best receivers return in 2012. Darius Bolden departs after catching 30 passes for 473 yards, but Isaiah Battle and tight end Chase Harper should pick up the slack. They will get help from running back-turned-recever Tim Hawkins and incoming junior college transfer Rodney Woodland. In all, the skill position talent is strong.
The biggest cause for concern (aside from fumbles): an offensive line that is suddenly light on experience. Tackle Thaddeus Watkins and center Charlie Will Tuttle both started a majority of games last season, but the Bobcats saw four players with 105 career starts depart when 2011 ended. FCS All-American guard D.J. Hall, in particular, will be tough to replace. If the line cannot open holes for Rutherford, Franks and Curry, they will face quite a few more passing downs … at which point a quarterback like Arndt might be a better option.
The 4-2-5 defense, as run by TCU, is about reaction and swarming. The Horned Frogs do not pile on the tackles for loss, but they allow more three-yards-or-fewer gains than just about any other team around. In 2011, TCU racked up a reasonably respectable 74 tackles for loss, good for 56th in the country. Texas State, on the other hand, racked up a healthy 83 tackles for loss and 31 sacks. Thirteen Bobcats registered at least 2.5 tackles for loss, six broke up or intercepted at least three passes, and eight forced at least one fumble. And yet … TSU ranked just 89th overall in yards per game allowed. Yes, teams in Texas run at a higher pace -- TSU opponents averaged 73 plays per game -- but on a play-for-play basis, the Bobcats very much left something to be desired.
The going will get rougher in 2012, and not only because the competition gets better. Though the Bobcats return eight defensive starters, they must find a replacement for defensive end Michael Ebbitt, who was by far their most accomplished defensive player. Though they made a practice of attacking from quite a few different directions, Ebbitt was the leader with 15.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. A passing down for a Texas State opponent either resulted in a big gain or an Ebbitt sack … and now Ebbitt is gone. Every primary member of the secondary returns, including aggressive cornerbacks Darryl Morris and Craig Mager (combined: 98.0 tackles, two interceptions, 18 passes broken up), but defense doesn't usually work very well if a defensive back has to cover his man for a long time because there is no pass rush.
If a restored pass rush is key for TSU, that puts a lot of pressure on returning starting end Jordan Norfleet (5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks), Jarrett Haywood (2.5 tackles for loss) and three-star junior college transfer Thomas Evans. There is promise at linebacker, where both strongsider Brian Lilly (6.5 tackles for loss) and middle linebacker Joplo Bartu (four sacks) are accomplished play-makers. But all eyes will be on the line. Without steady play up front, the Bobcats will be allowing all sorts of big plays. If Prairie View A&M and Central Arkansas can consistently burn you, then to say the least, you might struggle with the Houstons and Louisiana Techs of the world.
Picked clean by the Mountain West, the WAC is certainly a semi-friendly environment for a new program to find success. In their inaugural FBS campaign, Texas State will face an FCS program (Stephen F. Austin, whom they beat by nine last year), fellow FBS newbie UTSA, and four FBS programs projected 107th or worse. If, somehow, the TSU defense is shored up, and if the offense can stay in standard downs, then there are opportunities for wins on the table. Still, one would have to figure Franchione and company would find a 3-9 or 4-8 season rather successful during this first go-round.
It appears that, moving forward, part of TSU's success will be drawn from a single factor: did they beat UTSA? The Roadrunners and Bobcats are already annual rivals in other sports, and with the fledgling UTSA program taking the FBS leap along with TSU, a natural rivalry should not take long to fester.
Good luck. A home game versus Stephen F. Austin should make sure that, at worst, TSU does not go winless in their FBS debut; plus, the Bobcats do get a chance to host what were two bottom-rung WAC teams in Idaho and New Mexico State.
But it doesn't appear the defense will be equipped to withstand a large slate of FBS offenses. The offense will be fun, especially if the offensive line gels, and it is worth noting that the Bobcats have a potentially great special teams unit that could help tip close games in their favor. But expectations should be low for this first go-round. While Franchione was not a rousing success by any means at Texas A&M, he is a potentially strong program builder, and he could eventually create something interesting in San Marcos. But it won't happen quickly.