Troy (10-2, 7-1) vs North Texas (9-4, 7-1)
Date: Saturday, Dec. 16
Time: 12:00 CDT
Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA
Spread: Troy -7
Series: Troy leads, 8-2
Two former Sun Belt foes square away in the first bowl game of the 2017 bowl season on Saturday as Troy and North Texas meet in the Big Easy for the New Orleans Bowl. There is plenty to play for and much on the line in this contest with the Mean Green searching for their first 10-win season in their 53-year division I history while Troy hopes to garner its first 11-win season in its division I history.
A Troy victory will give the Trojans 21 wins over the past two years, the exact amount of wins Troy had in the five seasons prior. For the Mean Green, a win would be FBS-victory number 250.
Troy and North Texas were frequent foes in the 2000’s when Troy and North Texas each enjoyed runs atop the conference. North Texas won the Sun Belt crown four consecutive years from 2001-2004 while Troy won five in a row from 2006-2010. The two teams have met six times in years where one was crowned a conference champion, with Troy holding a 6-1 advantage in those games.
Littrell has built a high-powered offense in Denton led by sophomore quarterback Mason Fine. The Oklahoma native has taken a big step forward this season, throwing for 3,749 yards through 13 games. He’s second in Conference USA and third nationally among all sophomores in passing yards and leads the conference with 28 passing touchdowns.
Fine is usually complimented by star running back Jeffery Wilson but has been without his services for the past two games and he will not be available against Troy. Instead, freshman tailback Nic Smith will be starting his third consecutive game. Smith has 665 rushing yards on 5.04 yards per carry this season. He tallied 228 rushing yards in his two starts against Rice and Florida Atlantic, with 178 of those yards coming against the Owls of Houston.
On the outside, receivers Jaylon Guyton and Michael Lawrence give Fine two reliable options while five others have at least 24 receptions. Senior receiver Turner Smiley has come alive as of late, catching 13 passes for 287 yards in the last three games.
The only drawback to the #NewDenton offense is the offensive line’s protection of Fine. North Texas is tied for 100th nationally in sacks allowed with 33. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell will have his hands full scheming around a defense that is fifth nationally in tackles for loss with 101 and tied 13th in sacks with 36.
Troy’s defense has lived in the backfield of their opponent’s all season long. The good news for the Mean Green is that Troy’s secondary is vulnerable, especially now with star cornerback Blace Brown doubtful for the game. The bad news for North Texas is that big passing numbers rarely equal success against the Trojans. Under Brown, Troy is 6-1 when allowing over 300 passing yards in a game.
Troy’s success as a defense is founded in a strong bend but don’t break philosophy. Troy has allowed 39 red zone trips but have given up a score on just 23 of them. That 58.97 percent scoring rate is best in the country. In the win against Arkansas State, Troy was outgained 606-293 and the Red Wolves had a 32-14 first down advantage. The difference? Arkansas State scored a touchdown on just two of its eight red zone attempts.
This won’t be the first time Troy defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has seen a Littrell offense. The two were on staff together at North Carolina in 2014, the season before Koenning’s first in Troy.
On the other side, a soft North Texas defense will be tasked with stopping a Troy offense that has been much improved in the second half of the season. Troy averaged 21.3 points per game through the first six games but have averaged 33.1 points a game in the last seven contests.
Senior quarterback Brandon Silvers has etched his place in Troy as one of the top two quarterbacks to come through the south Alabama town but struggled to be any more than a conservative game manager early in the 2017 season. As the year wore on and Brown opened up the playbook, however, Silvers began to flourish. He had an abysmal two touchdowns and three interceptions through six games but has thrown 11 touchdowns since.
The Trojans are deep at receiver, but may be without two targets in Emanuel Thompson and Tray Eafford. Deondre Douglas and big play threat Damion Willis will be Silvers’ top vertical targets while John Johnson and Tavaris McCormick are dangerous in the screen game.
Troy’s key against North Texas, though, will be running back Jordan Chunn. The 235 lb senior running back is two rushing touchdowns shy of setting the Sun Belt’s all-time rushing touchdown record with 47. Reaching 49 against the Mean Green is more than feasible as North Texas has given up 32 touchdowns on the ground this year, good for 12th worst in the country. North Texas opponents have taken advantage of the Mean Green’s weak run defense, with eight teams running the ball 40+ times against North Texas.
North Texas might have one of the top two offense’s Troy has seen all season but on the flip side, Troy’s defense is likely the strongest the Mean Green have faced in 2017. North Texas’ key on offense will be finishing its drives while Troy’s will be establishing the ground game. The difference may come down to special teams, though. North Texas kicker Trevor Moore has knocked in 90.5 percent of his field goals this year and is responsible for 109 points. On the other side, Troy freshman cornerback and kick returner Marcus Jones has been a lightning rod for Troy. The Trojans average starting field position is the 36.5-yard line, third best in the country.
This has all the makings of being one of the most underrated games of the bowl season. Without Wilson, North Texas will lean on the passing game more, allowing the Trojan front seven to get after the quarterback. Once on a short field, the Troy defense has a massive advantage. That, combined with Troy’s propensity for setting its offense up with good field position, is the reason I’m taking Troy. Troy 31, North Texas 20