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Texas State is the right place for a college football start-up. Will 2017 show proof?

New head coach Everett Withers never had a chance in year one.

NCAA Football: Texas State at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If you were placing a start-up football program on a map, Sim City-style, you would give heavy consideration to San Marcos, Texas.

San Marcos’ Texas State University is a couple of minutes from I-35 and sits midway between San Antonio and Austin. Its residence tells you what you need to know about potential commitment to the sport, and its proximity to football-playing athletes is dramatic.

Sure, there’s plenty of competition for kids, but just as a great area steakhouse probably isn’t going to run out of steak, and just as the state school board isn’t going to run out of things to cut from textbooks, Texas isn’t going to run out of college football recruits. The state knows its portion sizes.

Texas State is immaculately accessible, and unlike neighbor UTSA, the Bobcats have their own stadium. Bobcat Stadium holds 30,000-plus and is pretty enough to have wooed Eric Taylor in the first season of Friday Night Lights.

State isn’t running a start-up, either. The Bobcats have fielded a team since 1904, when they were the Southwest Texas State Normal School. They won back-to-back Division II titles in the early 1980s. But in nearly 25 years at the FCS level, they went to the playoffs only twice, losing to Northern Iowa in the semis in the 2005 and bowing out in the first round in 2008.

Still, a well-placed Texas school with a nice stadium, a championship history (technically), and an enrollment over 35,000? Prime FBS potential.

UTSA went bowling in 2016, and other FBS newcomers — Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, South Alabama — have experienced immediate success, or close to it. TXST, however, has labored.

In five FBS seasons, the Bobcats have averaged 4.4 wins. They mistimed a 7-5 season in 2014 — in 2015 or 2016, they'd have been bowling — then fell to 3-9 in 2015 and replaced Dennis Franchione with Everett Withers, who stripped the building to the studs and went 2-10.

The 53-year-old has been around the block. He served as defensive coordinator at Austin Peay in the 1980s, Louisville in the 1990s, Minnesota and North Carolina in the 2000s, and Ohio State (co-coordinator, at least) in the 2010s. After an awkward year as UNC interim head coach in 2011, he rehabbed on Urban Meyer's OSU staff for two years. Then he won 18 games in two season as head man at James Madison, compiling talent for the Dukes’ 2016 FCS title run in his stead.

Withers had to know he didn’t have the pieces last fall. He inherited a team that was reasonably athletic but imbalanced and thin. And it took only a couple of well-placed injuries to bring the Bobcats to the ground.

Texas State was bad. Really, really bad.

The Bobcats pulled off a thrilling overtime upset of Ohio in Withers' first game and whomped Incarnate Word, but that was it. Arkansas and Houston beat them by a combined 106-6, and as the untimely injuries took place, the average score in Sun Belt play was Opponent 40, TXST 14.

The offensive line and secondary got particularly roughed up, and State was either thin, young, or both at basically every position that wasn’t quarterback.

Withers and company had to see this coming, but it isn’t hard to see better things on the horizon. Per the 247Sports Composite, TXST just signed the best recruiting class in the Sun Belt, and the Bobcats return their leading running back, their top six receivers, four offensive linemen with starting experience (including a center who was honorable mention all-conference as a freshman), four of six defensive linemen, six of seven linebackers (plus a key 2015 contributor), and eight of 10 defensive backs.

But Texas State fans have spent a good portion of their history looking to the horizon instead of soaking in the present tense. And after a stark Year Zero situation in 2016 — a rebuilding job that takes a year just to get the cupboard organized — the horizon is still pretty far.


2016 in review

There’s really no way to measure Texas State’s 2016 that ends up kind to the Bobcats. There was little redeeming about either their offense or defense.

Perhaps the most disappointing part was State’s underachievement against fellow bad Sun Belt teams. The Bobcats lost by 40 points to New Mexico State, for goodness’ sake.

Really, that was just timing. Over the first six games, TXST showed hints of potential, especially on offense; over the last six, the Bobcats were toast.

  • First six games (2-4 record): Average percentile performance: 15% (offense 34%, defense 12%) | Yards per play: Opp 6.4, TXST 4.9
  • Last six games (0-6 record): Average percentile performance: 4% (offense 13%, defense 18%) | Yards per play: Opp 6.0, TXST 3.6

The defense improved a bit, but there just wasn’t much to lean on. The Bobcats were alright at forcing third-and-mediums and preventing huge pass plays, but opponents simply ran and ran once they had a lead, and against this offense, building a lead didn’t take much time.

Texas State was overmatched in every area. It happens in a coach’s first year sometimes. But it adds burden of proof in year two.


Offense

Full advanced stats glossary.

I created this radar so that we could quickly catch on to a team’s strengths and weaknesses. The bigger the surface area of the radar, the more strengths an offense or defense had.

You’ll have to take my word for it because Texas State’s offense radar looks like an upside down bluebonnet. The Bobcats completed a reasonably high rate of passes and occasionally managed a 20-yard gain or two, but the run game didn’t exist, and the pass only worked for so long.

Coordinator Brett Elliott never got a chance to show what he could do in 2016. There just weren't enough toys. He turned quarterback Vad Lee into an All-American at JMU, and he had a decent thrower in Tyler Jones (when healthy) last year, but his top running back was a sophomore, his top three receivers were a sophomore, a freshman, and the sophomore running back, and his offensive line featured one guy who got through all 12 games.

NCAA Football: Houston at Texas State
Elijah King
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It's a good news/bad news situation for 2017. Back Stedman Mayberry is back, and while he didn't prove a lot carrying the ball, he did prove versatile, catching 42 passes and helping Jones to a 64 percent completion rate.

Meanwhile, returnees Tyler Watts and Thurman Morbley are back after catching 74 percent of their passes last year. There is a nice set of efficiency weapons, and if senior-to-be Elijah King can provide a more steady threat, the Bobcats might have a bona fide big-play guy. King began with 19 catches for 295 yards in his first five games, but he caught just nine balls the rest of the way. Throw in Kentucky transfer T.V. Williams, and perhaps three-star freshman Jaylin Nelson, and you've got a nice mix of speed and efficiency.

  • One minor problem: size. Of Mayberry, Watts, Morbley, King, Williams, and Nelson, only King is taller than 5'11, and only Nelson is listed bigger than 190 pounds.
  • One medium-sized problem: the line. As iffy as it was last year, it will be less experienced this time around. Sophomore center Aaron Brewer, a future All-Sun Belt guy, is a keeper, but those responsible for only 26 of last year's 60 starts up front return, meaning some combination of sophomores, redshirt freshmen, and newbies (JUCO transfer Anthony Mayes, Jr., perhaps?) will have to not only step in but one-up their predecessors in at least a couple of positions.
  • One huge question mark: quarterback. Jones is gone, as are backups Connor White and Eddie Printz. The 2017 offense could be led by either Mississippi State graduate transfer Damian Williams or a freshman. TXST signed all sorts of three-star freshmen with potential at quarterback, from Nelson to more quarterback-sized options like Kishawn Kelley, Jaylen Gipson, or Willie Lee Jones III. Potential and athleticism abound, but State is starting over at the position.
NCAA Football: South Alabama at Mississippi State
Damian Williams
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Williams has potential, though. He served as Dak Presoctt's backup in 2014, redshirted in 2015, and got overtaken by Nick Fitzgerald in 2016. But Fitzgerald might be the best quarterback in the SEC next year, so there's little shame.

In three years, Williams has completed 68 of 117 passes (58 percent) for 706 yards, five touchdowns, and two interceptions, and he's rushed for 274 yards and two scores. If he takes to Elliott's offense, we might actually get to find out what Elliott's offense is.


Defense

We at least got to see a little bit of the personality intended from Texas State's defense. Despite a revolving door in the secondary — of the original eight players in the two-deep in the back, two starters missed half the season, and two others missed some time — the Bobcats hinted at bend-don't-break proficiency. They held opponents to 12 yards per completion, 11.3 after the first three games of the year.

When they were able to leverage opponents into third downs (a rarity), those were long enough to cause problems, and they allowed just 27 gains of 30-plus yards, 58th in the country. That's a relative strength.

The problem was that basically all of those relative strengths had something to do with big pass plays. Opponents didn't need big pass plays — they were too busy running or completing shorter passes at will. TXST ranked 125th in Rushing S&P+ and 128th in Passing S&P+. Any aerial strengths were negated (and then some) by a 67 percent completion rate and a paltry three interceptions. Big plays or no, opponents managed at least a 145 passer rating in 10 of 12 games, at least a 174 in four.

None of this says any good things about State's talent or experience, but the latter will improve in 2017. The top three tacklers on the line were two freshmen and a sophomore. Among the top four at linebacker were two sophomores and a freshman. And the secondary is now a mix of sophomores who got more playing time than expected and seniors who didn't get as much. Outside of the secondary, barely any seniors will have an impact.

NCAA Football: Houston at Texas State
Gavin Graham
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The talent part of the equation, however, is still unknown. The linebacker trio of Bryan London, Gabe Loyd, and Frankie Griffin combined for 20 tackles for loss, and ends Ishmael Davis and Jordan Mittie combined for 9.5. Plus, sophomore nickel back Gavin Graham broke up a couple of passes and made 4.5 stops behind the line himself.

One problem: Almost none of these TFLs were sacks. Texas State had probably the worst pass rush in the country. And while the 2017 signing class appears to have bolstered depth, especially at defensive tackle (JUCO transfer Sam Award and 315-pound, three-star freshman Gjemar Daniels will join the rotation), there's no guarantee anyone will help to sack the quarterback.

The defense will improve because it can't get much worse and because a more stable front seven will handle the run at least a little bit better. But without a pass rush, the improvement will only be marginal.


Special Teams

This unit was Texas State’s strongest. Unfortunately, the two main reasons are gone. Lumi Kaba was a decent kickoffs guy and an excellent punter, but he graduated. Brandon McDowell was an excellent punt returner (fumbles aside), but he transferred. Guess offense and defense will have to carry more weight this year.


2017 Outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Houston Baptist NR 19.6 87%
9-Sep at Colorado 50 -30.0 4%
23-Sep UTSA 91 -12.6 23%
30-Sep at Wyoming 80 -21.9 10%
TBA Appalachian State 62 -22.5 10%
TBA Georgia State 113 -7.4 33%
TBA New Mexico State 124 -3.9 41%
TBA UL-Monroe 121 -4.5 40%
TBA at Arkansas State 83 -20.4 12%
TBA at Coastal Carolina 114 -13.3 22%
TBA at Troy 79 -22.5 10%
TBA at UL-Lafayette 112 -13.8 21%
Projected S&P+ Rk 129
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 127 / 120
Projected wins 3.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -27.8 (128)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 101 / 94
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -14 / -6.3
2016 TO Luck/Game -3.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 68% (68%, 68%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 1.6 (0.4)

The most likely time for a surge comes in a coach's second year. His culture is more fully in place, he's got a couple of his own recruiting classes, and everybody knows what to expect from each other.

If the rebuild is big enough, however, it might take until the third year to get all ducks in a row.

Call it the Eastern Michigan rule: Chris Creighton went 3-21 in his first two years before leaping to 7-6 in 2016.

It's not impossible to see Texas State taking a healthy step forward in 2017. Williams might be a gem at quarterback, the receiving corps could be too efficient and speedy for much of the Sun Belt, and the defense has depth and experience that it couldn't even pretend to have in 2016.

Still, the Bobcats were really far from the rest of the pack in Withers' Year Zero. In 2016's S&P+ rankings, Sun Belt mate ULM finished 126th, third to last, with an adjusted scoring average of minus-17.9 points per game. Texas State was 10 points behind that awful pace. The Bobcats were as close to ULM as ULM was to No. 101 Army. Could a surge happen? Sure, but let's set a higher bar for 2018 and give Withers, his interesting young recruits, and his flawed roster another year to gel.


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Texas State’s 2016 statistical profile.