USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Larry Blakeney's first career win came on Sept. 14, 1991, when Troy was a Division II independent. The following active Football Bowl Subdivision had yet to graduate from high school in 1991: Bob Diaco, Justin Fuente, Willie Taggart, Kliff Kingsbury, Pat Fitzgerald, Matt Wells and Mark Helfrich.
Career win No. 50 came on Oct. 5, 1996, when Troy was a first-year member of the Football Championship Subdivision's Southland Conference. Also on Oct. 5, 1996: Boise State's first game against a current Pac-12 foe as a member of the FBS – a 56-7 loss to Arizona State.
Blakeney's 100th win came on Sept. 14, 2002, when Troy was in its first season as an FBS independent. Win No. 150 came on Oct. 31, 2009, in the midst of the Trojans' fourth of five consecutive seasons atop the Sun Belt Conference. Win No. 175 came in last year's finale, a 42-28 victory against Texas State that secured Blakeney's 17th non-losing season in 23 tries.
Blakeney has seen it all: Division II independent from 1991-92, FCS independent from 1993-95, Southland from 1996-2000, back to FCS independent in 2001, FBS independent from 2002-3, Sun Belt since 2004. He brings 175 victories into 2014, all at Troy; in comparison, his 10 Sun Belt coaching peers have combined for 117 victories at their current stops.
The dean of Sun Belt coaches nears the quarter-century mark eyeballing a similar surge, mirroring his program's similar efforts across a wide swath of NCAA levels, divisions and conferences. After ceding the SBC to Louisiana-Lafayette – the league's newest power – do Blakeney and Troy have another run in the tank?
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
But I can't see the Trojans notching a road win against Mississippi State, Duke or Ole Miss. Worse yet, the Trojans must take on the Ragin' Cajuns, Red Wolves and Hilltoppers on the road, putting them behind the eight ball in the conference chase. From top to bottom, I can't convince myself that this team will finish in the top half of the Sun Belt.
In a nutshell: A better season, at least: Troy returned to bowl eligibility after finishing a combined 8-16 from 2011-12. It was nonetheless a frustrating season, one defined by nail-biting wins – four decided by single digits – and a handful of frustratingly narrow defeats. Four losses came by 12 points or less: Arkansas State, Duke, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette. Three wins came against bowl-eligible competition: South Alabama, Western Kentucky and Texas State. The offense delivered, scoring more than 400 points for the first time since 2010, but the defense was the worst in program history. Troy allowed a program-worst 431 points and 35.92 points per game. Given the productive nature of the offense and the general incompetence of the defense – one asset, one weakness – it's entirely fitting that Troy finished an even 6-6.
High point: The three-game conference winning streak against South Alabama, Georgia State and Western Kentucky. Troy was the only Sun Belt team to defeat both the Jaguars and Hilltoppers.
Low point: Losses to Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette by a combined 13 points.
Tidbit: Blakeney is tied for sixth among active FBS coaches in career wins, matched by Gary Pinkel but behind Frank Beamer (266 wins), Steve Spurrier (219), Brian Kelly (208), Dennis Franchione (203) and Bill Snyder (178). In terms of wins at his current stop, however, Blakeney trails only Beamer (224).
Tidbit (scoring edition): Troy is 72-7 under Blakeney when scoring 35 or more points. The losses: Alcorn State (49-44) in 1994; Central Michigan (44-41) in early 2010; Oklahoma State (38-31) and Florida International (52-35) in 2010; Tennessee (52-48) in 2012; and Louisiana-Monroe (49-37) and Louisiana-Lafayette (41-36) in back-to-back weeks in 2013.
Tidbit (dominance edition): Troy won five Sun Belt titles in a row from 2006-10. This run of five consecutive conference championships has been matched by only five other programs in FBS history: Brigham Young in the Western Athletic Conference from 1976-85, USC in the Pac-10 from 2002-8, Ohio State in the Big Ten from 1972-77, Alabama in the Southeastern Conference from 1971-75 and Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference from 1996-2000.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Sun Belt teams (2001-13)
1. 2009 Troy
2. 2011 Arkansas State
3. 2006 Middle Tennessee State
4. 2008 Troy
5. 2004 North Texas
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The Sun Belt's most impressive offensive line spent the spring dealing with injuries to three returning starters, but that's a good thing: Troy was then able to audition a younger cast with the first-team offense, a development that will yield a vastly deeper and more trustworthy rotation come August. From top to bottom – in terms of the starting quintet and the likely reserves – this is the league's best offensive front. But there are still battles to be had: Terrence Jones will start at right tackle, where he's an all-conference lock, and former Mississippi transfer Ethan Hutson will start at left guard, but the remaining three spots will be decided during fall camp. One interesting competition is brewing at center, where former left tackle Dalton Bennett, a junior, is tussling with senior Caleb Carbine. Bennett's position move leaves the blind side for sophomore Antonio Garcia, a six-game starter last fall, but Garcia must outduel senior Chris Hawkins to return to the starting lineup – and it may just be a matter of proving his health. Senior Tommy Stephens should get the nod at right guard, but not before fending off sophomore Luke Lawrence. I really like the top group; I really love the competition across the board.
This line's strength comes in pass protection, an enormous asset for the Trojans' to-be-named starting quarterback. But the Trojans are steady on the ground, particularly when running behind Jones and Stephens on the strong side. It'll be the same pair leading the charge: Brandon Burks (675 yards) and Jordan Chunn (514 yards, 14 touchdowns) are an exciting backfield duo, essentially splitting carries and touches down the line as the Trojans' go-to backs. But there should be a role for senior Khary Franklin, a smaller ball-carrier with the potential to make plays in the passing game. This will be your top three, and it's a good group.
The receiver corps will lose some star power without Eric Thomas, one of the top pass-catchers in program history. The focus now shifts to a quartet of trustworthy targets: junior Bryan Holmes (40 receptions for 676 yards), a field-stretcher; senior Chandler Worthy (25 for 403), who moves to the outside in 2014; senior B.J. Chitty (23 for 187), a reliable upperclassmen with the ability to flex between multiple spots; and K.D. Edenfield (19 for 251), a brainy junior who should start on the inside. While this group leads, look for redshirt freshman Jalen Harris, impressive JUCO transfer Jarvis Bentley and sophomores Brandon Brooks, Michael Lindsey and Clark Quisenberry to earn touches in Troy's share-the-wealth system.
Defense: Three starters are gone up front, leaving Troy and coordinator Wayne Bolt rebuilding around junior end Tyler Roberts (49 tackles, 5.5 sacks), a likely all-conference selection. This is of vital importance: Troy needs to beef up its pass rush, so getting pressure from Roberts, senior Brandon Timmons, junior Deon Lee and redshirt freshman Jamal Stadom – the latter a really promising young talent – might place a crucial role in determining whether this defense moves forward after a distressingly unproductive season. It's a better situation inside, where Troy will team senior Billy Dobbs, a former JUCO transfer, with ex-Arkansas transfer Lonnie Gosha (27 tackles, 4.5 for loss) – with Gosha aiming for a breakthrough as the full-time starter. What you see today might be drastically different than the Trojans' makeup in September: Troy adds four JUCO linemen during the summer, two set for the interior.
The strength of this defense lies at linebacker, where seniors Mark Wilson (58 tackles, 5.0 for loss) and Wayland Coleman-Dancer (43 tackles, 6.0 for loss) serve as the anchors of the second level. There are two positive factors to consider: one, Troy will lean heavily on a pair of promising sophomores, Mitchell Roland and Terris Lewis, as well as redshirt freshman Sam Lebbie, in an effort to add speed and aggressiveness to certain packages; and two, the second level as a whole is more familiar with Bolt's 4-2-5 system, a scheme he instituted last fall to diminished results. That second factor stands for the entire defense as a whole: Troy should be more comfortable in the nuts-and-bolts basics of this unorthodox look, one that should – on paper, at least – take advantage of the roster's inherent speed and athleticism along the back seven.
The secondary is a concern. Of particular worry is the back end, where Troy will look to replace Camren Hudson and Chris Pickett with some combination of sophomore JaQuadrian Lewis – a one-game starter last fall – junior Montres Kitchen and incoming JUCO transfer Ta'Jarvis Fuller. Another JUCO addition, John Knight, could also be used at safety; Knight is big enough to patrol the back end, for one, and the Trojans are thick with experience on the outside. With senior Jeremy Spikner (33 tackles) entrenched at nickel back, Troy can turn cornerback over to junior Chris Davis and seniors Ethan Davis, Keion Payne and Jacquez Young, with the latter a surprise starter coming out of spring drills. At the very least, Troy should feel confident in its depth at the position. But can the same cast improve upon last year's inept performance? Not without a healthy pass rush.
Special teams: Troy's general athleticism makes itself felt in the return game, where Holmes and Worthy are among the most dangerous returners in the Sun Belt. But here's the trouble: Troy will have a new kicker, a new punter and a pair of new snappers. Look for sophomore Ryan Kay to take over at punter and challenge for the kicking job, though I'd be surprised if that task doesn't fall to junior Jed Solomon.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: It's strange to even consider, seeing that Corey Robinson was one of just four quarterbacks in FBS history with four 3,000-yard seasons, but Troy should feel confident in its plethora of options under center. Perhaps only a seasoned, battle-tested coaching staff could have tackled Robinson's departure with such aplomb: Blakeney augmented two quarterbacking holdovers, junior Dallas Tidwell and redshirt freshman Brandon Silvers, with a pair of JUCO transfers, Dontreal Pruitt and Connor Bravard – and gave each contender the opportunity to grab the starting job during spring drills, with Silvers and Pruitt tied atop the two-deep as the Trojans prepare for fall camp.
Seeing Pruitt make an early mark isn't overly surprising; he might have been the Southeast's top JUCO quarterback in the recent recruiting cycle, if not the top option nationally. But Silvers could be viewed as a surprise: Troy loved him coming out of high school, as did a few recruiting services, but he's clearly developed ahead of schedule.
Now, is it too soon to write Tidwell and Bravard out of the conversation? I'm not sure about Bravard, currently running fourth, but Tidwell's game-day experience – if limited – does keep him in the competition, set to resume once the Trojans retake the field in August.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
South Alabama: It's easy to point to the finale against Louisiana-Lafayette, but let's not sleep on the Jaguars' chances of sneaking to the top of the Sun Belt. A matchup with South Alabama comes in the middle of a friendly stretch: Troy sandwiches USA with New Mexico State, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Idaho, so you're looking at the potential for an extended winning streak in advance of a date with the Ragin' Cajuns.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: This is an easy bowl team with the potential to rocket back to the top of the Sun Belt, should the defense deliver. Well, that's a major question mark: Troy might be better defensively – it couldn't be much worse – but I still wonder if the defense has the cohesiveness needed to shoulder past Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama – let alone Duke and Georgia – and claim six or more wins during league play. One issue is the pass rush, or lack thereof; another is the play in the secondary, where experience alone might not be enough to justify a healthy degree of optimism. It's really on this defense to make a night-and-day improvement.
Just a slight improvement should lead to at least six wins during the regular season. One advantage is this schedule: Troy faces seven teams ranked lower in this preview series, if that means anything, and should likely take four or five of six games during the midseason. In a big-picture view, the Trojans should be favored in at least seven games – and as many as nine – during the regular season. But the team's biggest asset is this offense, which shouldn't suffer any major decline in production despite the changing cast at quarterback. The backfield is strong. The receiver corps is steady, if not more. The offensive line has the potential to be terrific, in my mind. All told, the Trojans' offense ranks near Louisiana-Lafayette as the best in the Sun Belt.
But I'm not picking Troy to reclaim the SBC. Yeah, blame the defense: Troy's group has much to prove. I'm thinking upward of eight wins during the regular season, however, with likely losses to Duke, Georgia and Louisiana-Lafayette joined by toss-up games against Louisiana-Monroe and South Alabama. A faulty defense should lead to at least one avoidable loss; a stronger defense could place Troy in the Ragin' Cajuns' path to the SBC crown.
Dream season: Troy sweeps through the Sun Belt unbeaten and notches 10 regular-season wins.
Nightmare season: The Trojans disappoint with a 4-8 regular season.
Who's No. 76? As of 1:30 p.m. ET on June 16, this school's YouTube page had as many subscribers as a Detroit Tigers' Hall of Fame inductee had career doubles.
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