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Somehow Neal Brown is still at Troy, and he’s got one of the Sun Belt’s best teams again

The Trojans hung onto the coach who led a win over LSU and two double-digit-win seasons.

NCAA Football: Troy at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

A bonus year is rare. When you’re a head coach at a mid-major school, and you have two seasons like Brown just had at Troy, you get snatched away by a power conference program. It is a harsh fact of life. Your reward for making a good hire is having to make another one.

Brown’s still there, though, as are most of last year’s most successful G5 coaches. Thirteen power conference jobs opened up, and five hired current or former P5 head coaches, three hired P5 coordinators, two promoted in-house assistants, and one hired Herm Edwards.

Only two power programs, Arkansas and Nebraska, went the G5 route. And while that was bad news for SMU and UCF, it was great for everyone else.

As tremendous as Larry Blakeney was in Troy, he never did at the FBS level what Brown has done the last two years. The godfather of the program never won double-digit games, as Brown did in both 2016 (10) and 2017 (11). And while Blakeney beat Mississippi State, Missouri, and Oklahoma State, he never beat LSU.

These are boom times for the former Division II powerhouse.

They’re also tricky times, because there’s always a risk of staying too long. Call it the Gary Darnell Rule. WMU’s former head coach won 31 games in his first four seasons and emerged as a candidate for P5 jobs. He didn’t land one, however, and the difficulty caught up to him. He won just 15 games in his last four seasons at WMU, and his window closed.

A massive drop-off is not a concern, but the Trojans might struggle to clear the bar set over the last two seasons. That’s just the way things go when, among other things, you lose a four-year starting quarterback. Brandon Silvers is gone after throwing for 10,684 yards and 71 career touchdowns. Three-thousand-yard rusher Jordan Chunn is gone, as are an all-conference left tackle (Steven Rowzee) and more than half of the starters on the best defense in the Sun Belt.

Mind you, Brown has been recruiting as well as anyone in the conference. Per the 247Sports Composite, Troy’s last three classes have ranked fourth or better in the Sun Belt, and that doesn’t take into account transfers like Louisville receiver Traveon Samuel or Oklahoma safety Will Sunderland, a former blue-chipper. Plus, nobody played more guys than Brown. The backups got lots of reps, and some of the lost starters barely got more opportunities than their replacements.

Athletically, Troy heads into 2018 as loaded as ever, but most of the faces of the Trojans’ surge are gone. The second cycle of stars has begun, and while that could work out just fine, it’s a level of change Sun Belt programs often struggle to survive.

Offense

Troy offensive radar

For Troy, the continuity doesn’t stop with Brown. Offensive coordinator Matt Moore returns for a fourth season as well, and he’s pulled off a tricky feat: improving an offense for three straight years. He inherited a unit that had fallen to 106th in Off. S&P+ in 2014 and has risen to 93rd, then 80th, then 58th.

Troy’s 2017 offense was wonderfully balanced. The Trojans were 32nd in raw success rate, but as importantly, they were 65th or better in nearly every other primary (and unadjusted for opponent) advanced statistic.

The closest thing they had to a weakness was a lack of big-play passing (107th in Passing IsoPPP), but you can get away with that when you suffer almost no negative plays. Troy ranked 18th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and sixth in passing downs sack rate; they converted well in short-yardage, too (17th in power success rate).

Losing Rowzee will hurt, but Moore’s line — he’s also OL coach — should still be one of the best in the conference. Three other second- or third-team all-conference performers are back (center Deontae Crumitie and guards Tristan Crowder), as is right tackle J.L. Gaston. Just about every backup returns, too. Depth, experience, upside ... this line checks almost every box.

A line can be a new QB’s best friend, but there’s no question that Silvers was a big reason for Troy’s consistency. The Blakeney-era holdover basically provided a coach’s presence on the field, and his absence will make this streak difficult to maintain.

His replacements are still pretty intriguing, though. Kaleb Barker only attempted 13 passes last year as Silvers’ backup, but the three-star junior completed eight of them for 143 yards. 2016 backup Sawyer Smith completed 18 of 25 passes for 181 yards as a true freshman before redshirting this past fall. Both did what they could with limited opportunity, and two interesting options is better than one.

The winner of the QB battle will still have weapons, even without Chunn and fellow back Josh Anderson. Jamarius Henderson could be ready for a star turn after averaging 7.9 yards per carry and scoring four times in just 45 carries last year, and big three-star JUCO Kevin Perkins could be asked to play a role quickly.

The receiving corps should be more than fine. Seniors Deondre Douglas and Damion Willis are back after combining for 90 catches, 1,248 yards, and eight scores last year. Whatever big plays Troy generated in the passing game came from these two.

NCAA Football: New Orleans Bowl-Troy vs North Texas
Damion Willis
Montgomery Advertiser- USA TODAY Sports

The major strength of this receiving corps was variety. Silvers targeted 12 guys at least 14 times, and while six of those targets are gone, that means six are back. Sophomore Tray Eafford and junior Sam Letton could both be ready for larger roles, 6’3 freshman Demontrez Brown was the jewel of the recruiting class, and the 5’7 Samuel, who caught 21 of Lamar Jackson’s passes for 339 yards last year, is a ready-made slot weapon.

If either Smith or Barker is ready, there’s more than enough to field one of the SBC’s better attacks.

Defense

Troy defensive radar

Vic Koenning’s had one hell of an up-and-down career. The Kansas State grad and former USFL linebacker was excellent as Wyoming’s defensive coordinator, terrible as Wyoming’s head coach, and excellent in leading Demarcus Ware and company as Troy DC in 2003-04.

He spent four years as Tommy Bowden’s DC at Clemson and did pretty well, and he was Bill Snyder’s co-DC at KSU in the legend’s first year back in charge. He fielded two excellent defenses for Ron Zook at Illinois, but like at Clemson, it wasn’t enough to save his boss’ job.

A three-year stint at UNC finished poorly, which made him available in 2015. And like Moore, Koenning has a three-year improvement streak: from 120th to 78th in 2015, then 45th in 2016, then 17th.

Seventeenth! Troy had a top-20 defense last year! Appalachian State tends to set the defensive standard in this league, but the Trojans were top-notch in both efficiency and explosiveness.

2107 Troy defensive efficiency & explosiveness

This was a bend-don’t-break defense with attitude. The Trojans prevented big plays and held opponents to 3.1 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the 40), first in the country. But they had their aggressive moments, too — they were fifth in stuff rate and eighth in overall havoc rate.

As with the offense, balance and variety were the key. Twelve Trojans recorded at least four tackles for loss, 17 took part in at least three run stuffs, and 10 defensed at least three passes. Koenning was able to call whatever he wanted, and Troy had the pieces to make it work.

The Trojans return five linebackers and seven defensive backs who made at least 12 tackles last year; depth is still solid in these units, and the class balance is startling — of these 12 players, three are seniors, four are juniors, and five are sophomores. And the addition of Sunderland (who recorded 12 tackles with two passes defensed for Oklahoma in 2016) and three-star freshman linebackers KJ Robertson and Antonio Showers should assure that Koenning’s got all the depth and athleticism he needs in the back.

So what about the front? This might have been Troy’s best line since Koenning’s 2004 unit, and the top three contributors are gone. End Seth Calloway and tackles Jamal Stadom and Baron Poole II combined for 22.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, and five passes defensed. That’s a remarkable amount of disruption for a three-man line.

Hope is not lost. The top four backups — tackles Marcus Webb and Trevon Sanders and ends Antione Barker and Kelvin Lucky — are all back, and since Koenning played so many guys, this foursome had a chance to combine for 24 TFLs and 11 sacks of their own. Webb led the way with 8.5 and four, respectively.

NCAA Football: New Orleans Bowl-Troy vs North Texas
Marcus Webb
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The starters should be strong, but depth was enough of a concern that Brown signed three JUCO transfers for support up front. Maybe that patch will work, but the line isn’t nearly as much of a surefire success as the rest of the D.

Special Teams

Troy won 11 games despite its special teams unit, one that played a role in both losses. The Trojans gave up an 81-yard punt return in the defeat at Boise State, and the stunning loss to South Alabama was a masterpiece in special teams disaster — Evan Legassey missed two short field goals, and Marcus Jones fumbled two punt returns.

Jones is an awesome return man overall, but despite his three kick return touchdowns, Troy still ranked a woeful 125th in Special Teams S&P+. But at least you could blame youth for a bit of it — Jones was a freshman, as was punter and part-time kicker Tyler Sumpter.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Boise State 26 -8.6 31%
8-Sep Presbyterian NR 40.8 99%
15-Sep at Nebraska 60 -5.6 37%
13-Oct at Liberty 115 8.2 68%
TBD Coastal Carolina 118 13.5 78%
TBD Georgia State 113 12.5 76%
TBD Texas State 123 16.0 82%
TBD UL-Lafayette 121 14.7 80%
TBD at Appalachian State 63 -5.5 38%
TBD at Georgia Southern 106 4.8 61%
TBD at South Alabama 109 5.9 63%
TBD at UL-Monroe 107 5.4 62%
Projected S&P+ Rk 78
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 103 / 41
Projected wins 7.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -4.8 (93)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 97 / 102
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 7 / 4.7
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 52% (44%, 60%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 8.8 (2.2)

Brown’s done an incredible job of building and taking advantage of depth. He played a ton of skill guys and even more defenders last year, and that should pay off this year.

When you lose a star quarterback, a couple of important running backs, and your starting defensive line, doom is supposed to follow. And to be sure, regression is likely in Troy.

But Brown seems to be building a sustainable Sun Belt behemoth, and even if the Trojans are merely a good-for-the-Sun-Belt team, they should stay ahead of a handful of lower-tier teams that seem set to improve.

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