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Texas State is young, exciting, and probably still a year away from bowling

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Everett Withers’ Bobcats should double their win total, even if they’re not quite ready to make a run at the postseason.

NCAA Football: Texas State at Colorado Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The effects of NCAA scholarship reductions are pretty clear. If you have, say, 75 scholarship players instead of 85, then recruiting misses are more magnified, walk-ons are a little higher up the depth chart, you can’t redshirt as many guys, and you perhaps play a smaller core of players, increasing risk of fatigue and injury.

Often when a new head coach takes on a rebuilding job, he basically inherits voluntary scholarship reductions. If it’s a rebuild, that means things haven’t been going very well, and it’s quite conceivable that either a lot of players have already left, or they’ll leave after you arrive.

When Justin Fuente arrived in Memphis, for instance, the Tigers had about 50 players on scholarship. Fifty! Poor evaluation, recruiting, development, and coaching led to spectacular attrition, and while Fuente would end up a success, he would win only seven games in his first two seasons.

At least Fuente had recent success to sell. His Tigers were, after all, only four years removed from four bowls in five years. Texas State has yet to bowl.

A consistently decent (and rarely great) FCS program until 2011, the Bobcats made the jump with Dennis Franchione in charge, and while he steered pretty well for a while — they went 17-19 with two top-90 S&P+ finishes in their first three FBS seasons — his control waned. TXST plummeted to 3-9 and 117th in 2015, his final season, and attrition left his successor in a tight spot.

Withers has spent his first two seasons in San Marcos trying to build a foundation. It’s taken a while. At the start of last season, the TXST roster had barely 40 non-freshmen on the roster and not even 65 scholarship players overall.

Including his abbreviated first recruiting year, his first three classes have ranked seventh, first, and sixth in the Sun Belt. Withers signed 10 three-star prospects last year, and he has either signed or earned commitments from another seven this time around. He boasts intriguing redshirt freshmen or sophomores at quarterback, running back, offensive line, defensive tackle, and cornerback. More importantly, he’s going to enter 2018 far closer to the 85-scholarship limit. The cupboard is fuller than it was when he arrived.

Great. So now it’s time to start winning, right?

Withers’ first season was as much of a Year Zero situation — in which you’ve got far too many fires to put out and can’t really worry about actually winning games — as you’ll ever see. The Bobcats bottomed out, ranking 128th (dead last) in S&P+ and Off. S&P+, and after a season-opening upset of Ohio, they stayed within single digits of just one other FBS opponent.

Most of my 2017 TXST preview was focused on 2018 and beyond.

It’s not impossible to see Texas State taking a healthy step forward in 2017. [Mississippi State transfer Damian] 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. 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.

There wasn’t just a ton of gelling going on last year, but things did improve. The offense was slightly less awful despite starting a new quarterback (Williams) and a sophomore running back (Anthony D. Taylor) and handing 48 of 60 line starts to freshmen and sophomores.

The defense took a definitive step forward despite injury and attrition on the line and in the secondary. Only two linemen and two defensive backs played in all 12 games, but the Bobcats still improved to 95th in Def. S&P+, their best FBS ranking. They limited big plays, stiffened in short yardage situations, and got off the field once they had leveraged opponents into passing downs.

They didn’t win any more games, though. As with 2016, they defeated an FCS opponent, and they won at a fading Coastal Carolina. They let a couple of upset opportunities slip through their grasp against Appalachian State and Georgia State, dealt with a few blowouts, and went 2-10.

The Bobcats were so young that they’ll still be a young team in 2018. They could start as few as three seniors on defense and two on offense. Withers and his coordinators (Parker Fleming and Zak Kuhr on offense, Randall McCray on defense) will attempt to find leaders among a sea of young quarterbacks, linemen, and DBs.

We should begin to figure out if Withers is the right guy for the job. Texas State probably isn’t ready to win yet, but the Bobcats should begin to find some answers, and we’ll get a sense of potential.

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 22 UL Lafayette at Texas State
Everett Withers

Offense

Texas State offensive radar

If you’re a Texas State fan, you should lean hard into the marginal efficiency concept, i.e. the difference between a player’s success rate and the expected success rate of each play based on down, distance, and yard line.

While Williams took the starting role at QB, backup Willie Jones III — one of four three-star 2017 signees at the position — saw action, primarily against UL-Lafayette.

For the season, Jones completed just 49 percent of his passes, nearly 10 percentage points below Williams’ output, and his sack rate (14 percent) was nearly double Williams’ (7.5 percent). That sounds like the definition of low efficiency, but once you account for down, distance, and field position, Jones might’ve produced more efficient play than Williams.

  • Marginal efficiency: Jones plus-3.6 percent, Williams minus-0.1 percent.
  • Yards per pass attempt (including sacks): Jones 5.5, Williams 5.1
NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Incarnate Word at Texas State
Tyler Watts
Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This is a small sample size, of course, but when you factor in Jones’ rushing ability — 37 non-sack carries gained 213 yards (5.8 per carry) — there might be something there.

The 6’3 Jones looks the part, but he will face quite a bit of offseason competition from three-star redshirt freshmen Kishawn Kelley and Jaylen Gipson and incoming three-star freshman Tyler Vitt. Jaylin Nelson, one of the most athletic members of TXST’s 2017 signing class, is listed as a QB/RB and rushed 24 times last year.

Options abound in the backfield, both at QB and RB. Junior Anthony D. Taylor didn’t light the world afire as TXST’s leading rusher, and he could get competition from a pair of sophomores, Robert Brown Jr. and Anthony Smith. Smith produced the most interesting stats and saw his workload increase down the stretch — he rushed 12 times for 70 yards in the win over Coastal, then had 13 for 88 in the season finale against Troy.

They’ll be running behind a line with infinitely more experience than a year ago. Third-team all-conference tackle Aaron Brewer leads up front, and in theory the Bobcats won’t have to rely on freshmen this time around. They allowed stuffs (run stops at or behind the line) on 29 percent of rushes in 2017, most in the country. It goes without saying that that has to improve.

Assuming fewer negative rushes, that could put Jones or the QB of choice in more favorable passing situations. Will he have someone to pass to? Only two returning wideouts had more than eight catches a year ago. Tyler Watts is a ready-made slot (5’8, 165 pounds) with a high catch rate on mostly short passes, while Hutch White was pretty efficient in a secondary role. This could be where the 2018 signing class makes its quickest impact: Withers signed five receivers in December, including mid-three-star Jacoby Hopkins.

Lots of candidates, few known commodities. Aside from perhaps the line, expect quite a bit of shuffling on the depth chart.

Defense

Texas State defensive radar

Texas State was solid in two statistical categories: passing downs efficiency and limiting big rushing plays. That’s a good place to start. McCray generated progress with his 3-4 despite major instability. Now, in theory, the two-deep stabilizes.

This defense is defined by its linebackers, and TXST does have a couple of exciting players to replace. Gabe Loyd and Easy Anyama combined for 16.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, and six breakups; they’re both gone, but the trio of seniors Frankie Griffin and juniors Bryan London II and Hal Vinson (combined: 19.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, eight PBUs) are back, and other juniors like Nikolas Daniels and Gavin Graham got solid playing time. It appears the Bobcats will have the depth McCray requires here.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JUL 24 Sun Belt Conference Media Day
Bryan London II
Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Actually, that could go for the other two units of the defense, too. Thanks to all the injury and turnover, five linemen and nine defensive backs recorded at least eight tackles — all five linemen and five of the DBs are back. That includes junior tackle Jordan Mittie and senior safety A.J. Krawczyk.

Add in the presence of some three-star 2017 recruits (sophomore tackle Gjemar Daniels, sophomore safety Josh Newman, redshirt freshman Kieston Roach), and you might have yourself one of the better defensive two-deeps in the Sun Belt.

So where does the next line of improvement come? Well, as solid as the Bobcats were on passing downs (52nd in PD S&P+), they were still pretty bad at forcing passing downs (120th in Standard Downs S&P+). The run defense was solid, but they allowed a 68 percent completion rate on first down.

Experience at corner could be key. Juniors JaShon Waddy and Anthony J. Taylor and sophomore Kordell Rodgers were tasked with more than they could handle, but Waddy broke up five passes and forced a fumble, Taylor was strong from a marginal efficiency standpoint (the big plays he gave up were enormous, though), and Rodgers proved sturdy in run support. The seasoning they got last year could be huge, especially if they get pushed by youngsters like Roach or sophomore Tyler Robinson.

Colorado vs Texas St.
JaShon Waddy
Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Special Teams

It was a mixed bag. Hutch White ranked a solid 27th in punt return efficiency, and punter Marcus Ripley was solid, but the Bobcats gave up ground in the kickoffs department (both in kicks and returns), and neither Foster Hilborn nor James Sherman were reliable at place-kicker, missing four PATs and three under-40 field goals between them. Everybody’s back; we’ll see if that’s a good thing.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent 2017 S&P+ Rk
1-Sep at Rutgers 110
8-Sep Texas Southern NR
22-Sep at UTSA 56
27-Oct New Mexico State 72
TBD Appalachian State 18
TBD Arkansas State 24
TBD Georgia Southern 120
TBD UL-Lafayette 113
TBD at Georgia State 96
TBD at South Alabama 98
TBD at Troy 31
TBD at UL-Monroe 105
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -15 / -7.3
2017 TO Luck/Game -3.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 61% (54%, 68%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 2.6 (-0.6)

There is upward mobility in the Sun Belt, where the difference between 7-5 Georgia State and 2-10 Texas State was only about 5.5 adjusted points per game, per S&P+. That was basically the difference between Penn State and Notre Dame — not much of one, in other words.

That means anyone in the bottom half of the conference can raise its win total quickly under the right circumstances.

In theory, Texas State could be that “anyone.” The Bobcats return a ton of last year’s production, and some of the production they lose — namely, that of Damian Williams — was replacement-level. They have all the experience and warm bodies they lacked in recent years.

I’m going to punt, however, on any broad improvement claims. There are lots of exciting pieces, but we’ll assume they won’t all come together for a bowl run until next year.

Still, with exceedingly winnable home games against Texas Southern, NMSU, Georgia Southern, and UL-Lafayette, plus less-than-intimidating road trips to Georgia State, South Alabama, ULM, and maybe UTSA, the chances of four or five wins are solid. When you’ve only won four in two years, that’s definitive growth.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.