The 2017-18 college football bowl season officially kicks off on Dec. 16 in the Big Easy, as Troy and North Texas meet in the New Orleans Bowl. The first matchup of the bowl season features two teams with rising star head coaches and plenty of offensive firepower on both sidelines. The Mean Green and Trojans each average at least 30 points a game and over six yards a play. There should be no shortage of offensive highlights on Saturday.
Seth Littrell inherited a North Texas team that won just one game in 2015. But the Mean Green showed immediate improvement in his first season, finishing 5-8 overall and earning an appearance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl due to APR score. The encore was even better than the first act in Denton for Littrell. North Texas finished 9-4 and claimed Conference USA’s West Division title. The Mean Green lost 41-17 to FAU in the C-USA title game, but this program is clearly trending up under Littrell’s direction. Quarterback Mason Fine has been the catalyst behind North Texas’ high-powered offense and earned first-team All-Conference USA honors after throwing for 3,749 yards and 28 touchdowns this year.
After a two-year stint as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator from 2013-14, Neal Brown had the tough task of replacing Larry Blakeney at Troy. After a 4-8 debut in 2015, Brown has guided the Trojans to back-to-back 10-win seasons and claimed a share of the Sun Belt title in 2017. Troy only lost two games this fall, as it fell in the opener against Boise State and dropped a five-point game to South Alabama in October. The highlight of the 2017 campaign for the Trojans took place on Sept. 30 in Baton Rouge. Troy knocked off LSU 24-21, which was the second victory over a ranked team in program history.
Troy leads 8-2 in the all-time series against North Texas. These two teams have not played since 2012. The Mean Green are 1-3 in four previous trips to the New Orleans Bowl. The Trojans are 2-1 in three appearances in this bowl.
New Orleans Bowl: North Texas (9-4) vs. Troy (10-2)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 16 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Troy -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. QB Mason Fine Against Troy’s Secondary
North Texas’ hopes of winning this game rest on the right arm of quarterback Mason Fine. The sophomore had a standout 2017 campaign, earning first-team All-Conference USA honors after throwing for 3,749 yards and 28 touchdowns and completing 64.3 percent of his passes. In addition to the overall accuracy, Fine delivered big plays for the offense with 18 completions of 40 yards or more.
When Fine looks to throw, he’s got one of Conference USA’s top receiving corps at his disposal. The Mean Green have six players with at least 24 receptions, including No. 1 target Jalen Guyton (48 grabs) and Michael Lawrence (56). Guyton leads the team with nine touchdown catches and an average of 15.9 yards per reception. Pass protection has been an issue at times for North Texas, as the offensive line has surrendered 33 sacks through 13 games. However, if Fine has time to throw, the Trojans rank fourth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense and allowed opposing quarterbacks to connect on 60.6 percent of their throws.
While the Trojans may bend and allow up some yards through the air, this defense doesn’t give up much in the way of big plays. Coordinator Vic Koenning’s group has allowed just seven passes of 40 yards or more and surrendered just 17 passing touchdowns through 12 games. Cornerback Blace Brown is the headliner for Koenning, earning first-team All-Sun Belt honors after picking off five passes and taking one back for a touchdown in the regular season. However, Brown won't play in the New Orleans Bowl after suffering an injury in the season finale against Arkansas State. Safety Cedarius Rookard picked up third-team All-Sun Belt honors after finishing second on the team with 65 tackles, and freshman Marcus Jones is a rising star to watch in the secondary.
Overall, Troy is only giving up 4.88 yards a play and 17.5 points a game. In addition to being stingy in points allowed, the Trojans have generated 36 sacks and forced 21 takeaways.
Can Fine find room to throw against a standout secondary? And if Troy gives up some yardage, how many takeaways can this unit produce?
2. The Rushing Attacks
North Texas ranks sixth in Conference USA in rushing offense, but senior running back Jeffery Wilson is unlikely to play due to a foot injury suffered against Army on Nov. 18. Prior to the injury, Wilson rushed for 1,215 yards and 16 scores. It’s no secret Wilson is going to be missed, but the cupboard isn’t totally bare for Littrell. Freshman Nic Smith flashed potential in limited snaps, rushing for 665 yards and six touchdowns on 132 carries. The true freshman rushed for 50 yards on 14 attempts against FAU in the C-USA Championship but gashed Rice for 178 yards and a touchdown on Nov. 25. He will be backed up by fellow freshman Evan Johnson (213 yards this season) and senior Andrew Tucker (78).
Wilson’s absence is going to be a storyline to watch against a Troy defense holding opponents to just 114.8 rushing yards a game. The Trojans have allowed just seven rushing scores all year and limit offenses to only 3.03 yards a carry. Linebacker/end Hunter Reese (11.5 TFL) leads the way in havoc plays behind the line of scrimmage, with tackle Jamal Stadom (9.5 TFL) and linebacker Tron Folsom (9.0) also expected to play a key role in stopping the run.
Troy’s rushing attack hasn’t been as prolific as the one from North Texas, but the Trojans are still averaging 150.1 yards a game and 4.8 per carry. Senior Jordan Chunn missed two games due to injury and finished the season with 774 yards and 10 touchdowns. Fellow senior Josh Anderson (331) and Jamarius Henderson (330) are capable options to spell Chunn as needed. Additionally, all three are prominently featured in the passing game.
Chunn, Anderson and Henderson could be primed for a huge performance in the New Orleans Bowl. North Texas ranks 13th in Conference USA against the run, allowing 208.1 yards per game. Those numbers are slightly skewed due to giving up 534 yards to Army and 447 to FAU in the regular season. However, this group has still been generous in giving up yards to opposing ground attacks. Will North Texas have better success against the run this Saturday? Or will Chunn eclipse 100 yards for the fourth time this season and continue the trend of the Mean Green struggling to stop the run?
3. Troy QB Brandon Silvers
Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers probably hasn’t had the statistical season most envisioned entering 2017, but the senior has been a steady hand in leading one of the Sun Belt’s top offenses. Silvers – a four-year starter – has passed for 2,985 yards and 13 touchdowns to just six interceptions. The senior threw 43 combined scores from 2015-16 but hasn’t found the end zone as often in 2017. When Silvers throws, his favorite receiver has been Deondre Douglas (48 catches), with Damion Willis (31), Tevaris McCormick (32), Tray Eafford (17) and Emanuel Thompson (38) filling in secondary roles. Injuries will sideline Eafford and Thompson, but Silvers still has enough weapons to take advantage of a secondary that has allowed 27 passing plays of 30 yards or more.
Will Silvers close out his career with a big performance? Or can North Texas’ defense limit Chunn and the Troy ground attack on early downs, forcing Silvers to win this one through the air? Through 13 games, the Mean Green are allowing 33.8 points a game. That’s a bad recipe against an offense that has proven it can win via the ground game or by asking Silvers to throw 35-40 times.
This game won’t be short on offensive fireworks. With running back Jeffery Wilson sidelined, North Texas is going to ask even more of quarterback Mason Fine. The sophomore is certainly up for the job, but Troy’s secondary has been opportunistic, and the defense has been holding opponents to less than 20 points a game. The Trojans also have their share of firepower, starting with running back Jordan Chunn and continuing with senior quarterback Brandon Silvers. With both teams possessing their share of talent on offense, the team with the better defense is going to come out on top. Look for Troy’s defense to be the difference, as the Trojans win 11 games for the first time since moving to the FBS level.