One belt down, one belt to go for Troy.
After winning the inaugural Battle for the Belt against state rival South Alabama on Saturday, the Trojans are intent on winning the Sun Belt’s title belt. It would be their sixth but first since 2010 (shared with FIU).
Troy improved to 6-1 this season and 4-0 in the conference with a 28-21 victory against the Jaguars. The Trojans rallied from a 21-10 deficit, scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter.
“That was a big win,” said Troy second-year head coach Neal Brown said. “This game meant something, it’s a rivalry game. It meant something for us to get to six wins.”
It means Troy is bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. But that’s not the only notch in their belt.
The Trojans are the first Sun Belt team to reach bowl eligibility this season and they did it at the earliest mark in school history (Oct. 20). It’s also the first time Troy has won six games in a season since 2013 (6-6).
“We haven’t been bowl eligible in a while, that was important to our fans as well,” Brown said. “Everything we worked on in the offseason was overcoming adversity, and I really think that paid off.”
Like Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, another rising star in the Group of 5’s coaching ranks, Brown was a wide receiver in college — Fleck at Northern Illinois and Brown at Kentucky. Brown was offensive coordinator at Troy in 2008-09, at Texas Tech in 2010-12 and at Kentucky under Mark Stoops in 2013-14 before taking over as Troy’s head coach in 2015.
The Trojans finished 4-8 last year but turned a corner in their last game, a 41-17 victory against UL Lafayette.
“Over the last five, six games last season we really started playing quality football,” Brown said earlier this month. “Our guys started buying in and it showed. We went on the road and soundly beat Louisiana-Lafayette in the last game of the season. And that momentum kind of grew over the offseason.”
Running back Jordan Chunn, a nominee for ASN FBS #GameChanger, rushed for 143 yards on 23 carries against South Alabama. He topped 100 yards and leads the Sun Belt with 116.6 rushing yards per game and seven rushing touchdowns. He’s 14th in FBS with 816 yards on 156 carries.
Quarterback Brandon Silvers passed for a career-high 395 yards against South Alabama and is second in the conference with 1,834 yards. He also leads the Sun Belt with 15 touchdowns passes with only six interceptions.
The defense stifled South Alabama quarterback Dallas Davis. Rashad Dillard had two of Troy’s season-high six sacks against South Alabama, giving him 4.5 this season. The Trojans have 18 sacks on the season, 16 in Sun Belt play.
So why haven’t we heard about the men from Troy? The Sun Belt’s strength of schedule might be a factor. But consider: South Alabama won at Mississippi State and Appalachian State nearly won at Tennessee. Not too shabby.
And did you know the Trojans nearly beat No. 3 Clemson this season?
The Tigers, ranked No. 2 at the time, escaped with a 30-24 victory on Sept. 10. The Trojans trailed 13-10 at halftime and rallied for two touchdowns after falling behind 27-10 in the third quarter. The defense registered 5 tackles for loss and held Clemson to 3.8 yards per carry. The Tigers averaged 4.9 last season.
“Our players competed and fought all the way to the very end,” Brown said. “We played the No. 2 team in the country and gave them everything they wanted.”
This week, Troy earned some national recognition. The Trojans didn’t make the Top 25 of the Associated Press or Amway Coaches polls, but they did join others receiving votes. Troy tallied six votes in in each poll — more than Southern Cal and Pitt in the AP Top 25 and ahead of Miami (Fla.) and Mississippi in the Coaches Poll.
Just another notch in their belt, and another notch for the Sun Belt.
The 11-team conference will become the last in FBS to add a championship game in 2018. By then, the Sun Belt will include 10 teams. Idaho and New Mexico State are leaving after the 2017 season and Coastal Carolina joins in 2018.
“The fall of 2018 really is the new era for Sun Belt football,” Commissioner Karl Benson said in June.
At Troy, a new era is already under way.