In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
This is where I write a couple paragraphs introducing the 2018 preview by highlighting a couple players, notable position groups and other things. Instead, this is a public service announcement: Watch Troy vs. Boise State in Week 1.
Date: Saturday, Sept. 3 Time: 6:00 p.m. ET Channel: ESPNews
For all the good that happened last year — beating LSU on the road, winning a program-record 11 games, ending the season on a seven-game winning streak — dare I say, Troy's season felt like a letdown? That's how good the 2017 team was and that's how good Neal Brown has made this program in just three years.
They might've upset Boise State in the opener if not for three second-half turnovers and lost to a bad South Alabama team at home, the latter of which kept them from winning an outright Sun Belt championship.
It was the best year in Troy football history but it could've been one of the best years in Group of Five football history.
Head Coach: Neal Brown (3rd Year, 25-13)
Troy won 21 total games form 2011-15. They've won 21 the last two years under Brown.
The former Trojans' assistant returned to southeast Alabama three years ago and has worked magic with a program that was an afterthought's afterthought in the national picture. He has twice set the program record for wins and delivered their first-ever AP Top 25 ranking and back-to-back bowl wins.
Brown, 38, earned a contract extension last spring and will be in line for another one soon as Troy fends off Power Five programs.
QB Brandon Silvers, RB Jordan Chunn, OT Steven Rowzee, DE Jamal Stadom, LB Sam Lebbie, CB Jalen Harris
Four-year starting quarterback Brandon Silvers is gone after leading the program to new heights. He threw for more than 10,000 yards in his career, along with 71 touchdowns (plus 16 rushing touchdowns). Silvers battled spurts of inconsistency but was still one of the best things to ever happen to the Trojans.
Their all-time leading rusher Jordan Chunn is gone, as is lineman Steven Rowzee, who moved from guard to left tackle as a senior (the lone senior starter on the line) and was the offense's only All-Sun Belt First-Team selection.
Defensively, they lost six starters, led by Jamal Stadom and Sam Lebbie, who ranked second and third, respectively, in tackles for loss.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Kaleb Barker, QB Sawyer Smith, RB Jamarius Henderson, RB B.J. Smith, WR Deondre Douglas, WR Damion Willis, G Tristan Crowder, G Kirk Kelley, C Deontae Crumitie
Junior Kaleb Barker and sophomore Sawyer Smith are vying to be Silvers' replacement. Neither separated themselves during spring practice and the competition will go into fall camp.
The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Smith was the 21st-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2016 class, won the backup job as a true freshman and played well in limited time. He redshirted last year as Smith took the No. 2 spot. Both players have game experience and led the first-team offense last spring when Brandon Silvers was out.
“They are both competitors and both are really good,” Brown said after spring practice. “They are both really good runners and they are both really competitive kids. They have done everything we have asked them to do. I knew it was going to be an intriguing and close battle."
Georgia State's Penny Hart. Arkansas State's Justin McInnis. ULM's Marcus Green. Troy's Deondre Douglas. The Sun Belt has some serious talent at receiver.
Douglas, the best No. 80 in college football, has 108 receptions and 10 touchdowns the last two seasons, including the game-winner in the final minutes vs. Akron (below). Also, JUCO transfer Damion Willis averaged more than 13 yards per reception in his first season.
Despite the departure of guard-turned-tackle Steven Rowzee, the line is in great shape, especially in the interior, where three big upperclassmen anchor the group. Crumitie and Crowder allowed three total sacks in nearly 1,500 combined snaps last year.
Jordan Chunn might be gone but they're optimistic with the "stable" of running backs they have returning, led by guys like junior Jamarius Henderson and B.J. Smith. Henderson was briefly suspended last August but played well on special teams and will get opportunities to be their featured back.
"This is as deep as we've been at the running back position," Brown said. "B.J. Smith is ready to take the next step and then you've got Jamarius who is dynamic and can make some explosive plays. Add Kevin Perkins to the mix who was one of the best junior college running backs in the county last year – a bigger kid at 225 pounds."
Returning Defensive Players
DE Marcus Webb, DT Trevon Sanders, DT Antione Barker, LB Hunter Reese, LB Tron Folsom, CB Marcus Jones, CB Blace Brown, S Cedarius Rookard
Troy's staff have done an unbelievable job of talent development, especially on defense, where the unit is laced with former unwanted prospects who've become studs. They ranked first nationally in red-zone defense (by a mile, too; at 61.4 percent, they were the only team who allowed opponents to score on less than 69 percent of their possessions), second in yards per carry (2.9) and 16th in forced turnovers (26).
As good as they were, they weren't good enough, says coordinator Vic Koenning.
“No offense to anybody who played for us last year and was a senior, we feel like we were good. We weren’t good enough,” he said during spring practice “One stat was the only one we were No. 1 in the country in, and that was red zone (defense), so we’ve got room to improve. It was Ricky Bobby that said, ‘Second is the first loser,’ and we’re striving to be great."
Hunter Reese is a former walk-on who didn't even arrive on campus until after fall camp in 2014 and paid his own tuition for three years. Once a 190-pound safety from the tiny town of Wetumpka, Ala., with zero scholarship offers, he's now a 225-pound scholarship linebacker (often used as a "bandit" defensive end) and All-Sun Belt First-Team selection. Reese led the team with 14 tackles for loss and added six sacks.
“We’re fabricating things to try to create pressure because our ability to cover when [we] blitz is something we’ve not done a good job with,” Koenning said last November. “We’re trying to blitz strategically and get pressure. He’s done a good job of finding the gaps and hitting the gaps.”
Marcus Jones, the 2,053rd-ranked recruit in the 2017 class, was the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, partly for his work at corner (49 tackles, two interceptions) and partly for his work as a return man (29 yards per kickoff return, three touchdowns). He had eight tackles and one interception vs. LSU and two kick return touchdowns vs. Coastal Carolina.
“He’s fun to coach. He takes care of what he’s supposed to off the field,” Brown said while also noting that Jones was their best player "period" through the first part of spring practice. “He’s hungry to learn. He’s humble. He’s what you want. I think he’s only continued to get better.”
The secondary and defensive line were hit with departures but both are in decent shape. In addition to Marcus Jones, All-Sun Belt First-Team corner Blace Brown is back, as is Third-Team safety Cedarius Rookard. Rookard had two picks and will smack ball-carriers at the line of scrimmage.
On the line, the onus is on upperclassmen like nose tackle Trevon Sanders, a mobile 300-pounder who had five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last year, and end Marcus Webb.
“I think we bend our knees better as a group. We seem faster,” Koenning said. “We ought to. This is three years’ recruiting here, so we ought to be making strides. We’ve got the new (facilities) coming in, and that’s helped recruiting. Winning’s helped recruiting, so we’re kinda expecting to be better at a lot of positions.”
RB Kevin Perkins, WR Traveon Samuel, WR Demontrez Brown
An already-strong skill group added some instant-impact players.
Traveon Samuel is a grad transfer from Louisville who averaged nearly 16 yards per receptions last year. The 5-foot-7 burner only caught 21 balls in 2017 but had at least one 20-yard reception in five games. He made quite the impression during spring practice.
“He’s a guy that can take a 5-yard pass and turn it into a 95-yard touchdown,” Sawyer Smith said.
Kevin Perkins is a big (6-foot, 230 pounds) JUCO transfer and Demontrez Brown is a big (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) true freshman receiver.
Again: Troy vs. Boise State in Week 1. Can't. Miss. Game.
Other notable games include visits to Nebraska and Liberty — in the Flames' first season as an FBS member — and a trip to App State for the regular-season finale.
They don't play Arkansas State in the regular season, but with divisions this year, they could meet the Red Wolves in the Sun Belt Championship.
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