2012 Troy Football Preview: Rubber Ball Vs. Dead Cat

After a half-decade of Sun Belt dominance, Larry Blakeney's Troy Trojans fell apart in 2011. Behind an exciting passing game and a solid set of linebackers, they can expect rebound at least a little bit in 2012, but how upwardly mobile are they in what is a rapidly improving conference? Related: Troy's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore.

Through the years at Football Outsiders, our projections have tended to thrive in one specific area: identifying and shooting down overrated teams. Every offseason, a team (usually a previously established power program) that either pulled off a one-year surge or looked good over a late three-game span (and not the entire season) tends to get far too much benefit of the doubt; the bandwagon effect takes over, and what should be a borderline Top 25 team starts the season in the Top 10. In 2011, it was Texas A&M. In 2010, Nebraska. In 2009, Ole Miss. In 2008, Clemson. One year of good play following a series of iffy seasons is probably not sustainable. A half-season of good play? Even less so.

Of the 50 teams that saw their F/+ rating improve by at least 13.4 percent between 2006-10, 33 of them (66 percent) regressed the next season, 12 regressed by at least 10 percent. If that trend continues, two thirds of the following teams will probably take steps back this fall: Bowling Green, Houston, Texas, Texas A&M (yes, they actually did improve last year -- they just didn't have the wins typically associated with such improvement), Temple, Toledo and Vanderbilt.

The question, then, is this: Does it work the same coming from the other direction?

For years, Troy was a stalwart in the Sun Belt. While the rest of the conference experienced silly ups and downs, the Trojans were incredibly consistent. They won either eight or nine games each year between 2006-10 and ranked 53rd, 48th, 55th and 65th in F/+ between 2007-10. Larry Blakeney was the dean of the conference. He won games, produced quality next-level talent (DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora, Leodis McKelvin, Sherrod Martin, Brandon Condren, Jorrick Claivn and Davern Williams have all been drafted in the last 10 years) and charmed people with a folksiness that could give UL-Monroe coach Todd Berry's own Oklahoma charm a run for its money. I spent half of last year's Troy profile celebrating the job Blakeney had done, and was doing, at Troy.

And then, in 2011, the bottom dropped out. As mentioned in Friday's Middle Tennessee preview, the zero-sum game can occasionally take out some heavyweights. If teams in a conference, especially one as regionalized as the Sun Belt, make good hires, improve their lots in life and upgrade their base of talent, it has to come at the expense of someone else. And in 2011, Troy saw its win total sink from eight to three and their F/+ rating sink by 14.5 percent.

Between 2006-10, 43 teams saw their F/+ ratings sink by the same 13.4 percent used above. A solid 26 of them (60.4 percent) improved the next year, 11 by at least ten percent. That means potentially good things for Troy; or at least, it means that the slippage is probably through. But in a conference where Florida International has established itself, where Arkansas State, UL-Lafayette and Western Kentucky did the same in 2011, and where teams like UL-Monroe and North Texas look much sturdier than they did a few years ago, exactly how much can the Trojans rebound?

Their recruiting rankings are still strong, and it would appear that there are quite a few interesting players lined up out wide, but is this a program that can rebound to previous heights? If a bounce is in store, are we talking about a rubber ball or a dead cat?


Related: Check out Troy's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Troy in last year's preview:

Blakeney is a tireless recruiter and brilliant representative of this small school in southern Alabama. (That he has one of the most beautiful Southern drawls imaginable is just a bonus.) He has won games, he has produced 18 NFL draft picks in his 20 years (four in the first or second round), and now he has potentially his most talented offensive player lining up for him for another two to three seasons. There is a lot to celebrate about Blakeney's career, one that has not even begun to approach the homestretch yet. […]

With potential steps backward in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, I'm not sure this will be Blakeney's best team in Troy. But I also don't bet on streaks; if a team wins or shares five straight conference titles, it's probably smart to bet on them to continue until they give you a reason not to. (See also: Kansas Basketball.) In [Corey] Robinson, [Chip] Reeves, [Shawn] Southward and others, there is still infinite potential on the offensive side of the ball, and experience should at least make a dent in last year's poorer-than-average defensive showing.

This is a fun, dangerous and entertaining team. While they might not have enough to take down Clemson or Arkansas in the opening weeks of the season, here's to betting they at least come close against one or the other. And it's a pretty good bet that the October 25 Troy-FIU game on ESPN2 will be for the Sun Belt title.

By "the October 25 Troy-FIU game," I clearly meant "the October 1 Arkansas State-Western Kentucky game."

Things began to go south for Troy in May, when starting receivers Chip Reeves (mentioned above as someone with great potential) and Jamel Johnson were deemed academically ineligible along with linebacker Mark Wilson. That left behind an explosive but woefully inconsistent receiving corps, and after two years of ranking in the Off. F/+ Top 40, Troy fell to 105th. The defense, meanwhile, which had slipped from 45th to 75th to 81st in Def. F/+ in recent seasons, continued the slide to 98th. A reasonably encouraging first third of the season (they lost by just 10 to Arkansas and held on to beat Middle Tennessee and UAB) turned into a discouraging middle and a depressing end. The Trojans lost by a combined 54 points to Western Kentucky and Arkansas State to wrap up their worst season since they went 2-8 under Charlie Bradshaw in 1982. (Fun fact: that was the former Kentucky coach's final year at Troy. He was replaced by, of all people, Chan Gailey, who led them to a Division II national title two years later.)

Offense

Here are five things you need to know about Troy's 2012 offense:

1. The bones of the passing game, which Troy utilizes almost as much as anybody in the country (they throw 15 percent more than average on both standard downs and passing downs), are strong. Quarterback Corey Robinson completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,411 yards and 21 touchdowns last fall, and he was sacked only 3.8 percent of the time. Last year's brutally young receiving corps is now wonderfully deep. All six players targeted 34 or more times in 2011 return, including three with solid stats -- Eric Thomas (9.0 adjusted yards per target), Corey Johnson (8.0) and Chandler Worthy (9.0). With the return of Reeves and Johnson, Robinson, still only a junior, has a wealth of options available to him. But he will still need to figure out how to limit his own mistakes. You cannot pin 15 interceptions simply on an inexperienced receiving corps. And even during a dominant performance in Troy's spring game, he still threw a bad pick six.

2. The skill positions should see a bit of a recruiting boost. Three-star receiver B.J. Chitty is entering his sophomore season (he did not do much last fall), while three three-star players enter the fray in 2012: receivers Brandon Brooks and Bobby Walker, and running back Andre Allen.

3. The offensive line is an enormous question mark. Quite a bit of shuffling went on last fall, and because of that, five players with starting experience return. But only one has started more than eight games (guard Kyle Wilborn), and three of the four most experienced players, including all-conference tackle James Brown, have departed. The line ranked 95th in Adj. Line Yards and 36th in Adj. Sack Rate; looking at the rest of Troy's stats, one gets the impression that the line was a huge part of the little success they managed.

4. The run game was a disaster in 2011. The Trojans ranked 110th in Rushing S&P+ and 117th in Rushing PPP+ (an explosiveness measure). Shawn Southward, D.J. Taylor and Chris Anderson all had their moments, but there was simply no big-play threat here whatsoever. That only means so much in an offense that passes as much as Troy, but it would still be nice to get something out of this unit.

5. Troy basically gave up on passing downs last year. Yes, they passed 82 percent of the time on such downs, which suggests a level of aggressiveness, but … no. A good portion of those passes were dump-offs to running backs Southward and Anderson or quick passes for little gain to receivers like Chitty. Quick passing keeps the sack rate low, but it doesn't get you downfield very often.

Defense

And here are five things you need to know about Troy's 2012 defense:

1. Troy gave up far too many big plays last fall. Despite reasonably decent success rates (85th overall, 74th versus the run), they were far too susceptible to home runs. They ranked 107th in overall Def. PPP+, 113th versus the pass, and 104th on standard downs. The bend-don't-break routine only actually works if you don't break. Troy's best mess-cleaner, strong safety Brynden Trawick, does return, but he was asked to do far too much last year. He and fellow safety LaDarrius Madden, a senior in 2011, combined to make 23.3 percent of Troy's tackles. That is an absurdly high number. You can get away with safeties making that many tackles in a good 4-2-5. Troy runs a 4-3.

2. The gameplans were decent. Troy ranked a healthy 63rd in First Quarter S&P+. It was everything that happened AFTER the first quarter that was the problem. Per-quarter, the Trojans ranked 110th, 98th and 82nd the rest of the way.

3. Six defensive linemen made at least 5.0 tackles in 2011; five are gone. Tackle Tony Davis is now, by default, the cagey old veteran of the line, and while he had a solid season last year (26.5 tackles, six for loss, two forced fumbles) … he needs help. Let's just say that reading headlines like "Offense steals show in T-Day scrimmage" does not necessarily lead me to believe the offense is looking great. A hot knife always looks great versus butter. (Unless it's that thicker Irish butter, anyway.) Blakeney has recruited reasonably well on the line, and he has several players who look the part (especially if sophomore tackle and former four-star Arkansas signee, Lonnie Gosha is deemed eligible this fall), but this is going to be an incredibly inexperienced unit. Don't be surprised if Troy lines up quite a bit with a three-man line, partially because they have been known to do that at times, and partially because they might not have a choice.

4. Though it might be pressed because of a possibly porous line, the linebacking corps is exciting. The Trojans must replace middle linebacker Xavier Lamb, but between Brannon Bryan, Kanorris Davis, Angelo Hadley and one-time high three-star signee Jacoby Thomas, Lamb's production can be replaced.

5. To both give them a boost after years of sliding and to counteract some of this year's losses in personnel, Blakeney and company doubled down on the junior college transfers. That has always been a feature of the program, but if there is defensive improvement this fall, it will likely be due to JUCOs filling holes. You've got end Braylon Williams and tackles Xavier Melton and Derrek Upshaw (who might be forced to make contributions whether they are ready or not), plus an interesting defensive back in Zach Miller. Freshmen like defensive backs Juan Neloms and Shaq Beverly might also find the rotation quickly.

Defining Success

Blakeney has set the bar rather high at Troy, which might backfire. The Trojans were bowl-eligible in six of seven years between 2004-10, and one has to figure fans will expect them to rebound. The schedule has enough cake to make that at least somewhat realistic (it is worth noting, however, that their five opponents projected 106th or worse all play host to the Trojans), but only if Troy ranks better than 107th this time around.

Prognosis

One way to judge how likely it is that a given team will succeed is by counting the "ifs" it takes to make them good. It takes quite a few to get Troy back to bowl eligibility:

  • IF ... the mixed bag of newbies and reserves can form a competent defensive line (this is worth about three ifs all by itself)...
  • IF ... Corey Robinson makes fewer mistakes...
  • IF ... a couple of offensive linemen with minimal experience come through...
  • IF ... the safeties can improve in terms of big-play prevention...
  • IF ... Troy can replace its departed place-kicker and punter without a huge dropoff...

...then Troy can rebound. But with five ifs, they are quite possibly still behind ASU, WKU, FIU (teams with fewer ifs), and either or both Louisiana schools in the pecking order. There's some work to do in Troy -- more than Larry Blakeney has seen in a while.

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