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Troy has a loaded roster, a good track record, and one huge coaching variable

Chip Lindsey takes over an experienced and proven Trojans two-deep. Only a shaky transition can keep them from challenging for the Sun Belt title.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Troy
Antione Barker
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

You can legitimately say that Troy hasn’t made a mediocre head coaching hire in more than three decades.

Back in 1988, the Trojans were fresh off of a Division II championship run, and when Rick Rhoades moved up (yes, up) to take the Southern Illinois job, the school promoted assistant Robert Maddox. He went just 13-17 over three seasons, then moved on to a long career of coaching in the Alabama high school ranks.

Here are the hires Troy has made since:

  • Larry Blakeney [takes deep breath] ushered the Trojans to the FCS level, made two national semifinal appearances, moved Troy up again after just eight seasons, won or shared five consecutive Sun Belt titles, and retired in 2014 after 24 seasons and 178 wins.
  • Neal Brown, a four-year Blakeney assistant before taking offensive coordinator gigs at Texas Tech and Kentucky, and immediately arrested a slide that had taken place in Blakeney’s final seasons. After falling to 3-9 and 117th in S&P+, the Trojans improved to 4-8 and 93rd in 2015, then ripped off 31 wins in three seasons, all with rankings in the 60s. WVU hired him away early in 2019.

Granted, going 2-for-2 doesn’t typically constitute a 30-year run of good hires, but the facts remain: Troy hasn’t made a bad hire in a long time.

No pressure, Chip Lindsey.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Auburn
Chip Lindsey
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

A Troy assistant for one year back in 2010, the nomadic Lindsey’s got a very Troy résumé.

  • Alabama high school coaching experience? Check! Six years of it.
  • Previous Troy experience? Check! He was quarterbacks coach in 2010.
  • Power conference offensive coordinator experience? Check! After two years as Southern Miss’ OC, he served a year at Arizona State and two at Auburn. He had just accepted the Kansas OC job when Troy called.

Including the Kansas job, he’s coached in 10 total schools in 14 years. Now he enters one of the most stable jobs in the Sun Belt.

Brown left him a roster loaded with potential. The receiving corps is facing a rebuild, but that’s about it: experienced quarterbacks Kaleb Barker and Sawyer Smith, 1,100-yard rusher B.J. Smith, three all-conference offensive linemen, and seven defensive starters (including dynamic nickel back Tyler Murray and middle linebacker Carlton Martial) all return.

The bar’s awfully high, though. As well as Blakeney did, he never won 10-plus games in a season at the FBS level, and Brown departs having done it three years in a row. Lindsey and his new staff have to navigate a potential quarterback controversy and go through the bumps that new head coaches sometimes suffer, all while still posting a pretty lofty win total. And it would help if he could avoid any further attrition: both star linebacker Tron Folsom and cornerback Marcus Jones have put their names in the transfer portal this offseason. For as much as the Trojans return, it could have been even more.

Troy’s college football journey has been wonderfully unique. Fifty years ago, the Trojans won the NAIA national title. Just over 30 years ago, they won DII. Despite being based in a small town in Southeastern Alabama, they have succeeded at each level of the sport, won conference titles in five different conferences, and produced bounds of pro talent.

Lindsey appears to have been built in a lab to one day become head coach of this specific program. We’ll see what he does with the opportunity.

Offense

Perhaps one favor for Lindsey is that there’s a lower bar for his own specialty, offense. Despite Brown’s offense-heavy pedigree, Troy’s defense ranked higher than its offense in S&P+ in all four of Brown’s seasons, and after peaking at 73rd in Off. S&P+ in 2017, the Trojans slid to 89th.

Quarterback injuries certainly didn’t help in that regard. Troy was 60th in Off. S&P+ when Kaleb Barker was lost for the season with an ACL injury.

Barker beat out Sawyer Smith in a tight battle for the starting job and had just hit a nuclear level of success when he went down: against ULM, Coastal Carolina, and Georgia State, he completed 44 of 53 passes (83 percent!) for 552 yards, five touchdowns, no picks, and a ridiculous 201.6 passer rating.

Troy was well on its way to its fifth win in a row when Barker got hurt, and Smith struggled in replacing him. His passer rating was just 102.6 in a jarring 22-16 loss to Liberty. It was up and down from there: his passer rating spiked at 191.7 over the next three games, then dove to 82.3 in the final two games of the regular season. He was just 17-for-33 for 160 yards, a touchdown, and two picks in a 21-10 loss to App State, a game that handed the Mountaineers the East division title. Smith looked great in the bowl win over a good Buffalo team, though.

NCAA Football: Troy at Nebraska
Kaleb Barker
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Barker and Smith will battle all over again this spring and early fall. It appears that Barker might have the higher ceiling — the numbers he was producing at the time of injury were Tua-level — but you never know what a new coach might be looking for. Barker was the more successful runner of the two, too (8.1 yards per non-sack carry to 4.3), but it might be a while before he can properly show off that mobility.

The run game was dangerous no matter who was behind center. B.J. Smith and backup Jabir Daughtry-Frye combined to rush 21 times per game at 5.7 yards per carry, but it was pretty all-or-nothing: the Trojans were just 111th in rushing marginal efficiency but fourth in marginal explosiveness. Because of the importance of efficiency, that meant just a No. 100 ranking in Rushing S&P+.

Smith and Daughtry-Frye both return, as do four of five starters on the line. The Trojans do have to return all-conference center Deontae Crumitie, but they still have first-team all-conference guard Kirk Kelley and third-teamers J.L. Gaston and Tristan Crowder, all of whom are two-year starters. Maybe there’s room for growth in the efficiency department.

NCAA Football: Dollar General Bowl-Buffalo vs Troy
B.J. Smith
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Whoever wins the QB job will have to work to build a rapport with a new receiving corps. Last year’s top three — Damion Willis, Deondre Douglas, and Sidney Davis — all depart after combining for 147 receptions, 1,747 yards, and 20 touchdowns last year.

The new returning leaders are junior Tray Eafford (24 catches, 292 yards) and Luke Whittemore (12, 200), and there’s certainly quite a bit of young potential here. Redshirt freshman Demontrez Brown was a mid-three-star recruit, and Lindsey/Brown signed three three-star freshmen and two mid-three-star JUCOs (Khalil McClain and Reggie Todd). It certainly seems like there’s potential here, if also a lack of continuity.

We’ll see if Lindsey and offensive coordinator Ryan Pugh work to involve senior tight ends Richard Hallman and Sam Letton more.

Pugh’s a young dude. He was the center for Auburn’s 2010 national title winner, and he bounced around at Auburn, Cincinnati, LSU, Virginia Tech, and BYU. You figure Lindsey will be a co-coordinator of sorts.

Defense

After getting torched by Boise State to start the season, Troy played some of the most consistent defense in the country. Over the final 12 games, they allowed just 19.2 points per game and 4.9 yards per play, and they finished 48th in Def. S&P+, their third straight top-50 season.

Lindsey retained outside linebackers coach Brandon Hall and made him defensive coordinator. The former Jacksonville State co-coordinator has a lot of success on his résumé, going all the way back to his time as a student assistant for Oklahoma’s 2000 national title.

Losing Folsom and Jones hurts, though you can’t really blame them for maybe wanting to try something new in their final years of eligibility. Tackle Trevon Sanders, edge rusher Hunter Reese, safety Cedarius Rookard, and corner Blace Brown are also gone.

It says a lot about Troy’s star power, though, that the Trojans also return a lot.

Troy v Georgia Southern
Carlton Martial (38) and Melvin Tyus (12)
Photo by Chris Thelen/Getty Images

They were quite good at rendering opponents one-dimensional last year, finishing 14th in Rushing S&P+ and stuffing opponents at or behind the line on 24 percent of carries (13th overall).

Sanders and the departed linebackers had a role to play in that, but so did returning ends Jarvis Hayes and Antione Barker (combined: 20 tackles for loss, nine sacks, and 23.5 run stuffs) and a foursome of other tackles led by sophomore Will Choloh Jr. Middle linebacker Carlton Martial played a key role, as well, despite the pressure of playing the defense’s QB position as a freshman.

NCAA Football: Troy at Nebraska
Tyler Murray
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

There’s still experience in the back despite the loss of Jones, Rookard, and Brown. Senior safeties Melvin Tyus and Kyler Knudson were heavily involved, and while this conference has quite a few good nickel backs, junior Tyler Murray is as strong as anyone. He combined 5.5 TFLs and 8.5 run stuffs with eight passes defensed, and at 6’1, 209 pounds, he’s big enough to handle life near the line of scrimmage.

At cornerback, junior Terence Dunlap is still around, and former Oklahoma blue-chipper Will Sunderland has one more year to prove his four-star potential. And once again, newcomers could help. JUCO safety Koby Perry and mid-three-star freshman Reddy Steward might be asked to contribute sooner than later.

Special Teams

Troy ranked ninth in Special Teams S&P+ last season thanks to extremely consistent play. The Trojans didn’t rank in the top 20 in any one category but ranked between 25th and 43rd in four. The only efficiency weakness here was in punt returns (94th), but Cedarius Rookard somewhat made up for that with explosiveness.

Rookard is gone, and Marcus Jones was the kick returner, but in Tyler Sumpter, Troy returns one of the primary sources of success. He was 8-for-11 on field goals longer than 40 yards (granted, he was also just 10-for-13 under 40), and he averaged a booming 45.1 yards per punt. He threatened to outkick his coverage at times, but he’s still a keeper.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Campbell NR 43.3 99%
14-Sep Southern Miss 74 3.8 59%
21-Sep at Akron 124 18.8 86%
28-Sep Arkansas State 70 2.9 57%
5-Oct at Missouri 16 -18.6 14%
16-Oct South Alabama 127 24.7 92%
26-Oct at Georgia State 114 14.1 79%
2-Nov at Coastal Carolina 116 14.4 80%
9-Nov Georgia Southern 81 5.4 62%
16-Nov at Texas State 102 7.6 67%
23-Nov at UL-Lafayette 99 6.1 64%
30-Nov Appalachian State 31 -6.6 35%
Projected S&P+ Rk 69
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 94 / 42
Projected wins 7.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -3.5 (85)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 83
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 10 / 7.2
2018 TO Luck/Game +1.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (59%, 76%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 8.8 (1.2)

Man, coaching changes are tricky.

On paper, Troy should have a great year. S&P+ projects the Trojans 69th overall, favorites in 10 games and two-touchdown favorites in five. Aside from App State (another team breaking in a new head coach), they are as sturdy and well-established as anyone in the Sun Belt. There’s upside and star power throughout the two-deep, and between Brown’s work and Lindsey’s, Troy just signed maybe its best recruiting class ever.

But a new coach is obviously a huge new variable, and for every seamless coaching change, there’s a Western Kentucky situation. (The Hilltoppers went 22-5 in 2015-16, replaced Jeff Brohm with Mike Sanford, and went 9-16 in 2017-18.)

If there’s any encouragement, though, it’s that you tend to regress toward your historical mean when you change coaches, and Troy is a pretty proven entity at this point. I’m assuming the Trojans will be just fine, but you never know for sure.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.