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Troy almost beat national champ Clemson in 2016 and could be even better in 2017

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The Trojans have a chance at a Sun Belt title and a couple more chances at statement games.

Dollar General Bowl - Ohio v Troy Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

From last year’s Troy preview:

Troy is shaping up as an optimist-vs.-pessimist team. An optimist can point out that the Trojans have a two-year starting quarterback and most of a defense that was too thin last fall but boasts quite a bit of experience this time around.

A pessimist, meanwhile, will point out that the only explosive skill position weapons are gone, as are the best pass rusher and two best defensive backs.

If you're looking for the Sun Belt team most likely to overachieve compared to last year's results, the energized Trojans might be a solid choice.

This past January, Dabo Swinney’s program experiment at Clemson hit its pinnacle when Deshaun Watson and the Tigers came from behind to take down mighty Alabama. It might have been the game of the year.

2016 ended up defined by the Bama-Clemson rematch, but it almost never came to fruition. The Tigers flirted with danger through the season, needing a missed field goal from NC State to beat the Wolfpack at overtime, eking by awesome Louisville and Florida State teams, and eventually losing to Pitt.

The title bid almost never got off the ground from the start, however. In Week 2, the eventual champs nearly lost to an upstart from southern Alabama.

Troy v Clemson Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images

Troy took the champ to the brink. Jabir Frye's 66-yard touchdown run made the score 10-10 midway through the second quarter, and the refs blew a fumble call early in the fourth quarter that swung the game. The Tigers' Tyson Dye was stripped near Troy's goal line, and the Trojans would have returned it for a touchdown had the refs not incorrectly insisted Dye's forward momentum was stopped.

Clemson took a 20-10 lead on the next play, then scored again. But Troy scored two touchdowns in the last three minutes, and Clemson needed to recover an onside kick with 43 seconds left to ice a 30-24 win.

This was nearly a momentous win for Troy, but the level of play wasn't particularly abnormal. The Trojans were a very good team in 2016.

The team's form became scattershot late in the season. But overall, Troy went from 4-8 to 10-3, and two of the three losses were by a touchdown or less.

I thought I was taking a bit of a chance by putting Troy ahead of teams like Georgia State and UL-Lafayette in last year's Sun Belt pecking order. I thought I was being optimistic by suggesting the Trojans were only a play-maker or two away from challenging for the conference title; instead, they doubled down on efficiency. Brandon Silvers completed 64 percent of his passes, and each of his top five targets had at least a 65 percent catch rate. And a defense that ranked 120th in Def. S&P+ just two years earlier, surged to 45th because of efficiency.

Troy dinked and dunked its way to its most successful FBS season, and the story was what could have been.

What might be now? Well, let’s see:

  • Three-year starting quarterback Silvers is back. If he replicates last season's numbers (which is conservative, as he's improved dramatically each year), he will finish his career with 10,200 passing yards and over 75 touchdown passes.
  • Those responsible for every rushing yard and every receiving yard are scheduled to return. That includes Chunn (1,516 combined rushing and receiving yards), 800-yard receiver Emanuel Thompson, 700-yard receiver Deondre Douglas, 400-yard slot receiver Tevaris McCormick, and three interesting sophomore running backs. You can add a couple of three-star freshmen (receiver Luke Whittemore, athlete Terence Dunlap), too.
  • Two starting offensive linemen, plus a projected 2016 starter (left tackle Johnathan Boring) who missed the season with injury.
  • Defensive tackles Seth Calloway, Baron Poole II, and Trevon Sanders are back; they combined for 16.5 tackles for loss and keyed a No. 38 Rushing S&P+ ranking.
  • Safeties Kris Weatherspoon, Cedarius Rookard, and Tyque Russell are back. They combined for 10.5 tackles for loss and 17 passes defensed. Corners Blace Brown and Kamryn Melton combined for 20 passes defensed; they're back, too.
  • Explosive kick returner Jabir Frye and efficient punt return Cedarius Rookard are back to theoretically key another top-50 Special Teams S&P+ ranking.

There are some holes to fill on the offensive line and at linebacker, sure. But basically, Troy was efficient, versatile, and a year ahead of schedule in 2016. The sky could be the limit in 2017.


2016 in review

2016 Troy statistical profile.

Vegas and S&P+ didn’t see Troy coming in 2016 but honed in pretty quickly.

Troy vs. Vegas
  • Troy’s first 4 games (3-1) — Average percentile performance: 63% | Performance vs. S&P+ projection: +24.7 PPG
  • Troy’s last 9 games (7-2) — Average percentile performance: 46% | Performance vs. S&P+ projection: -9.4 PPG

The Trojans still had high points after a wonderful first five weeks, but there was inconsistency. A 21-point win at Idaho was followed by a 10-point win over Georgia State and a touchdown win at South Alabama. A huge 28-24 win over Appalachian State was followed by a 35-3 loss to Arkansas State. An easy win over Texas State was followed by a narrow loss at a bottoming-out Georgia Southern.

Still, the high points were high and multiple, and they brought Troy back to the level it established during the high point of the Larry Blakeney era. The Trojans' average S&P+ ranking was 56 from 2007-09; they finished 63rd in 2016. And now they have an excellent chance of topping that.


Offense

The Troy offense improved in 2016, but it still didn't have the edge it had during Peak Blakeney. The Trojans ranked 80th in Off. S&P+, riding a couple of strengths as far as they could go.

Troy offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Troy completed a high percentage of passes, mostly avoided negative plays, and created third-and-shorts. That’s what they did. They didn’t produce many big plays, and while running back Jordan Chunn had his moments, they didn’t last. Against Austin Peay, Idaho, and South Alabama, he rushed 58 times for 441 yards (7.6 per carry); against everybody else: 221 carries for 847 yards (3.8).

The quality has fluctuated, but this has long been Troy's offense under Kenny Edenfield. Troy spreads the field, throws the ball quickly, and plays at a high tempo. There's no reason to think that will change.

Troy entered 2016 needing to unearth some new weapons. The Trojans returned only two of their top six receiving targets (John Johnson and Emanuel Thompson) and lost a potential breakthrough option (H-receiver Clark Quisenberry) to injury. That's hard for a blueblood to account for, much less a Sun Belt team. But account for it, Troy did.

Johnson and Thompson combined for 105 catches, mostly from Thompson. 2015 reserve Deondre Douglas caught 60 balls. Chunn pitched in 30 catches. JUCO transfers Tevaris McCormick and Hiram Velez caught 45 balls. Running back-turned-slot receiver Andre Flakes caught 10, as did freshman Ismail Saleem.

Troy v Wisconsin
John Johnson
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

They're all scheduled to return. So is Quisenberry. Troy returns 11 guys who caught at least 10 balls in their last season of play, and eight are seniors. Between Silvers, Chunn, and this receiving corps, the seniors are legion. That may be a problem in 2018, but you worry about that in 2018.

The quick-passing attack mitigates the risk of the opposing pass rush, which perhaps means that Troy can also account for the loss of two all-conference tackles in Antonio Garcia and Tyler Lassiter, as well. (Hell, they may have been all-conference because of the system.)

Really, the only question here is the run game. Chunn has looked the part at times and plays a nice role in the passing game, but he’s a 235-pound efficiency back who wasn’t very efficient. If he and an experienced interior line can give opponents something else to think about between the tackles, this could be a top-50 offense. This will always be a pass-first attack, but the lack of a run game still slowed Troy down at times.

And if Chunn can’t pick up the pace a bit, then give sophomores B.J. Smith or Jabir Frye or, more likely, Memphis transfer Jamarius Henderson more of a look. Smith and Frye averaged 5.8 yards per carry but didn't average even four carries per game. Henderson showed a nice balance of efficiency and explosiveness as a freshman at Memphis in 2015.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Kansas
Jamarius Henderson
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Troy entered 2016 having to replace its best attacker (bandit end Tyler Roberts) and top two defensive backs from a unit that’d improved quite a bit a year earlier. The Trojans had risen from 120th to 78th in Def. S&P+, which was significant enough to wonder if it was sustainable.

Oh, it was. The Trojans rose another 33 spots in Def. S&P+, combining aggressive efficiency with enough big-play prevention to rank 38th in Rushing S&P+ and 25th in Passing S&P+. Nine Trojans had at least 4.5 tackles for loss, seven had at least two sacks, five had at least two interceptions, and 12 had at least two breakups. Because of a wonderful defensive front, opponents primarily threw the ball. But that just played into the hands of a feisty secondary.

Troy defensive radar

Troy allowed more than 5.5 yards per play just three times all season, and once was against New Mexico State during a 52-6 win.

Nearly out of nowhere, Troy had an awesome defense. But while play-makers definitely return, there's less continuity on this side of the ball than on the offense.

For starters, the linebackers are all gone. William Lloyd, Justin Lucas, Terris Lewis, and Demetrius Cain combined for 157.5 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, three picks, and two breakups. Their job was made pretty easy by a dominant set of defensive tackles -- all of whom return in 2017 -- but seasoned linebackers allowed Troy to combine aggressiveness and big-play prevention. Those tackles will be trying to free up tackling opportunities for a brand new two-deep; plus, once again, the two best ends are gone.

Of course, the backbone of this defense should still be sturdy. Those tackles -- Jamal Stadom, Seth Calloway, Baron Poole II, and Trevon Sanders -- are the Sun Belt's best, and youngsters like sophomore Michael Robinson and three-star freshman Travon Mathis will still have to wait their turn.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spine, safeties Kris Weatherspoon, Cedarius Rookard, Tyquae Russell, and Melvin Tyus are solid, too.

NCAA Football: Dollar General Bowl-Ohio vs Troy
Baron Poole II
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

This has been a hell of a late-career rebound for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. After a failed stint as Wyoming's head coach, he did impressive things as Troy's coordinator in 2003-04, and he produced four years of rankings between 19th and 32nd in Def. S&P+ at Clemson from 2005-08. He helped to improve Kansas State's ranking from 112th to 68th in 2009, then helmed two awesome Illinois defenses in 2010 (31st) and 2011 (20th).

Koenning oversaw a total collapse in his last year of a three-year stint at North Carolina, though. After ranking 29th in 2013, UNC plummeted to 110th. So Koenning went back to Troy, and damned if he hasn't pulled off another strong job. One awful season in Chapel Hill wrecked Koenning's reputation, but Troy fans probably don't mind much.


Special Teams

Troy was neither great nor terrible at any one aspect. The Trojans ranked between 44th and 61st in three of five primary categories (kickoffs, place-kicking, and punting) and finished 45th in Special Teams S&P+.

In Ryan Kay, however, Troy loses both a solid punter and a place-kicker who was mostly automatic inside of 40 yards. Punt returner Cedarius Rookard is solid, but we'll see if Troy can pull off another top-50 ranking without Kay.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Boise State 29 -15.6 18%
9-Sep Alabama State NR 42.5 99%
23-Sep Akron 122 14.8 80%
30-Sep at LSU 4 -30.1 4%
TBA Georgia Southern 98 8.2 68%
TBA Idaho 119 13.2 78%
TBA South Alabama 108 10.5 73%
TBA Texas State 129 21.5 89%
TBA at Arkansas State 83 -1.3 47%
TBA at Coastal Carolina 114 5.7 63%
TBA at Georgia State 113 5.6 63%
TBA at New Mexico State 124 9.1 70%
Projected S&P+ Rk 79
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 74 / 76
Projected wins 7.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.9 (63)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 94 / 104
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 10 / 4.0
2016 TO Luck/Game +2.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 74% (93%, 56%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.1 (0.9)

I’ve been avoiding mentioning it, because it’s where we always go when talking about a potentially awesome mid-major team, but I do have to say it: prepare for your last year with Brown, Troy fans. After a slide at the end of the Blakeney era, Brown needed only two years to bring the Trojans back to life, and he’s got the pieces to make another run at 10 wins in 2017.

They've got at least a 63 percent chance of winning in seven of eight conference games (in part because they miss Appalachian State), and they have a chance to make a statement in non-conference. They begin at Boise State and head to Baton Rouge at the end of September. Split those two games, and 11-1 is possible. But even at 9-3, Brown and Troy will have proven quite a bit.

Brown is recruiting well — his 2016 class ranked fourth in the Sun Belt, and the Trojans improved to second in the conference in 2017 — and he won 10 games with a bunch of sophomores and juniors last year. There are always disappointments (hell, if I was always right about this stuff, UL-Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth would have become an SEC head coach about three years ago), but it will take a surprise and a disappointment for Troy to not be a solid team this fall.

That means Brown will probably get pulled away. The 36-year-old will be a hot commodity because of all he’s already proved and all he probably will prove this fall.

But if you’re a Troy fan, there are worse things in the world. If Brown is gone a year from now, that means you had a hell of a lot of fun in 2017.


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