Troy @ Middle Tennessee
Troy cemented its legacy of dominance in 2009, as the Trojans claimed the Sun Belt Conference Championship for the fourth consecutive year. The Trojans also compiled a spotless 8-0 league record for the first time in school history en route to a 9-3 finish. Arguably the most impressive of these wins came on October 6, when Troy dominated rival Middle Tennessee 31-7 in a nationally televised contest on ESPN2. As conference champs Troy elected to accept an invitation to the GMAC Bowl, where its season drew to a conclusion with a hard-fought 44-41 loss to No. 25 Central Michigan in double overtime.
As its Sun Belt brethren can attest, the Trojans typically have little trouble reloading their roster from season to season. For 2010, however, this task appears daunting even for Troy. The most glaring losses are on defense, where eight starters must be replaced.
All-Sun Belt linebackers Boris Lee and Bear Woods, the heart and soul of the Trojans the last few years, have both moved on. So has the entire defensive line for Troy; ends Brandon Lang and Cameron Sheffield and tackles Kevin Dixon and Eugene Kinlaw all landed in NFL camps over the Spring and Summer. Add the departure of veteran safeties Courtland Fuller and Chris Bowens and the Trojan defense will be a blank slate in many ways in 2010.
The offensive side of the ball will see more continuity, but will have to replace a few key pieces as well. RG Steven Adams and C Danny Franks have graduated from an offensive line that helped the Trojans rack up nearly 500 yards of total offense per game. TE Dustin Boyd is also gone after starting the past two seasons.
Arguably the most noticeable departure for Troy is that of QB Levi Brown, who became the most prolific single-season signal caller in conference history in 2009. Brown's performance earned him SBC Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year, and his statistics will be difficult to match.
As you might imagine, however, the cupboard is far from bare in Troy.
A group of three candidates are vying to replace Brown behind center in 2010. The spring leader is junior Jamie Hampton, who opened the 2008 season as the starter before a knee injury sidelined him for the year. After taking a redshirt year last season, Hampton has to be considered the favorite to reclaim the job.
Hampton will be pushed in fall camp by mid-term JUCO Greg Jenkins, a former Mississippi Gulf Coast CC standout who head coach Larry Blakeney has described as similar to former Troy quarterback Omar Haugabook. Also in the mix is Corey Robinson, who greyshirted in 2008 and redshirted last season.
One reason for the Trojans to breathe easy in 2010 should be the amount of talent returning at skill positions. Both top running backs, senior DuJuan Harris and reigning SBC Freshman of the Year Shawn Southward, return for the Trojans. The tandem combined for 1,254 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. They will be joined in the backfield by JUCO returner Chris Anderson and sophomore T. J. Mitchell. The Trojans also boast a true fullback in sophomore D.J. Taylor, who averaged a staggering 8.9 yards per carry in 2009.
The star of the show at wideout will be senior Jerrel Jernigan, who will likely finish his career as the top receiver in Trojan history. Last year Jernigan amassed 1,101 receiving yards to go along with 266 yards on the ground in an H-back role. Expect the senior to line up in various positions on the field, including quarterback on occasion.
The rest of the receiving corps is stacked, with seniors TeBiarus Gill and Austin Silvoy, junior Chip Reeves, sophomore Josh Jarboe and redshirt freshmen Felton Payton and Anthony Williams all expected to contribute. A trio of tight ends has the opportunity to replace Boyd, including backup Matt Stidham, senior Donnie Crosby and redshirt freshman Gavin Ellis.
The holes on the defensive side are glaring, but the Trojans believe they have the pieces to fill them in, and they are usually right.
The lone returning linebacker, Daniel Sheffield, was sidelined in spring after undergoing shoulder surgery but expects to be ready to go. Faced with the tall order of replacing Woods and Lee are talented backups Xavier Lamb and Donnell Golden, who would have likely started on a number of other squads last year. Also in the linebacker mix will be sophomores Jacoby Thomas and Kanorris Davis.
Depth on the ends will be of huge concern to Troy in 2010. Mario Addison and Jonathan Massaquoi should be solid starters, but there is little experience behind that tandem. Newcomer Jonathan Robertson will be expected to produce immediately.
The interior should be a bit more settled, with LSU transfer Sidell Corley and former Alabama commit Jeremy Elder expected to be key contributors. Seniors Emmanuel Dudley and Riley Flowers will be back after injury-plagued campaigns, and sophomore Tony Davis also looks to be in the rotation.
Freshman All-American Bryan Willis anchors one side of the field at cornerback, but the other starter last season has changed positions. Senior Barry Vaclin started 11 games at corner in 2009, but has shifted to safety. He will be joined by senior Willard Ross, who saw considerable action last season. The likely starter opposite Willis will be JUCO transfer Jimmie Anderson, though junior Chris Blanton and sophomore KeJuan Phillips could both see the field.
The kicking unit returns intact, with juniors Will Goggans and Michael Taylor assuming the punting and placekicking duties, respectively. Jernigan, Southward, Harris and Gill shared the return duties last season, and all are back in the fold for 2010.
How They'll Fare
The Sun Belt's FBS tenure can be divided into two eras: the reign of North Texas, and the dominance of Troy. The Trojans are unquestionably the class of the conference, though many preseason observers have tabbed Middle Tennessee as the team to end their reign in 2010.
Troy has suffered mass defection before and survived just fine. One tends to believe that 2010 might be a bit different, however; Woods and Brown were the unquestioned locker room leaders of the defense and offense, respectively. Still, the Trojans have been able to consistently out-talent their conference foes, and even a "down" year for Troy should be enough to secure a winning record.
The guess here is that the newcomers rise to the occasion, and Troy battles tooth-and-nail with MT for its fifth consecutive Sun Belt crown. There's just no reason to believe otherwise.
9-3 (7-1 SBC)
Know Thine Enemy: Troy
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