The Sun Belt’s Wednesday slate for 2019 concludes with the Battle for the Belt rivalry between South Alabama and Troy. Both teams enter this matchup wanting to rebound after losses in Week 6, while also looking for their first win in conference play this year.
Under new coach Chip Lindsey, Troy is off to a bit of a slow start at 2-3. The Trojans started the season by defeating Campbell 43-14 before losing to Southern Miss 47-42 on Oct. 14. Troy went on to defeat Akron 35-7 after the loss to the Golden Eagles but have dropped two in a row with defeats to Arkansas State and Missouri. Considering this program has won 21 games over the last two years, and has plenty of talent still remaining, a manageable second-half schedule should allow Troy to rebound.
South Alabama coach Steve Campbell is in the second year of a rebuilding project in Mobile. The Jaguars finished 3-9 last fall and are off to a 1-5 start through the first six games of 2019. South Alabama’s only win came against Jackson State on Sept. 7, but Campbell’s team nearly knocked off Georgia Southern on Oct. 3. A struggling offense has been the primary culprit for the 1-5 record. The Jaguars rank last in the Sun Belt in scoring and average only 4.95 yards a play.
Troy holds a 4-3 series edge over South Alabama. The Trojans have won two out of the last three meetings against the Jaguars.
South Alabama at Troy
Kickoff: Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Troy -14.5
When South Alabama Has the Ball
Second-year coach Steve Campbell’s background is on offense, but South Alabama is still looking to find the right mix on this side of the ball. The Jaguars averaged 24.2 points a game last season and rank last in the Sun Belt with an average of 16.8 a contest in 2019. Turnovers have also been problematic for Campbell’s group. South Alabama has lost 13 turnovers through six games, which is the most of any team in the Sun Belt.
In South Alabama’s Week 6 defeat to Georgia Southern, most of the offensive production came on two plays – a 75-yard pass to Kawaan Baker and a 60-yard toss to Jalen Tolbert. Finding more play-to-play consistency and efficiency is a must, but that’s a tough assignment for an offense that has concerns up front and at quarterback. Cephus Johnson is a promising sophomore and will get better with more snaps in the 2019 season. However, he’s completed only 53.6 percent of his throws for five touchdowns and five picks. Johnson also ranks second on the team with 199 rushing yards. If Johnson has time to throw, Baker (22.1 ypc) and Tolbert (15.6 ypc) are big-time targets on the outside that can test a Troy secondary ranked 10th in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense.
Running back Tra Minter (477 yards) is South Alabama’s top playmaker, as he enters Wednesday night’s game averaging 6.7 yards per rush. However, Troy has been stingy versus the run this year, giving up only 93.8 yards a game and 2.8 yards a rush.
Campbell and his staff have to find ways to get the ball in space to Baker and Minter – a task that will be easier if Johnson is able to consistently connect on throws to prevent the defense from stacking the box.
When Troy Has the Ball
Some uncertainty surrounds Troy’s offense going into Wednesday night’s game. Starting quarterback Kaleb Barker is questionable due to an injury suffered in the Week 6 loss at Missouri. Through five games this year, Barker has passed for 1,476 yards and 14 touchdowns to only four interceptions. The senior is one of the Sun Belt’s top signal-callers, so if he can’t go on Wednesday night, his absence would be a setback. Backup Gunnar Watson has played in three games this season, connecting on 7 of 11 throws for 59 yards. Three junior college transfers – Kaylon Geiger, Reggie Todd and Khalil McClain – join Tray Eafford and Luke Whittemore as the top targets on the outside. Considering South Alabama’s pass rush has been sluggish (nine sacks), and the secondary has allowed a couple of big plays (five of 40 yards or more), Barker or Watson should be able to find favorable matchups on the outside.
Regardless of which quarterback gets the nod under center, Troy should be able to exploit South Alabama’s rush defense. The Jaguars enter Wednesday night’s matchup allowing 200.8 rushing yards a game and two opponents (Memphis and Georgia Southern) ran for more than 300 yards against this unit. All-Sun Belt running back B.J. Smith was lost for the year due to injury after Troy’s second game, but DK Billingsley (350 yards) and Trevon Woolfolk (162) are a capable one-two punch. South Alabama could have some extra help in the trenches for Wednesday night’s game, as end Tyree Turner (a first-team All-Sun Belt selection by Athlon Sports for 2019) could return after missing the last four games due to an ankle injury.
Troy’s offense enters Wednesday night’s game averaging 34.6 points a game and is generating 5.9 yards per snap. South Alabama has lowered its scoring defense to 29.3 points a contest (down from 38.8 a game last fall). Even if Barker is less than full strength or if Watson has to start, the Trojans should be able to have success moving the ball on Wednesday night.
The winner of this game will take home a unique rivalry trophy and some bragging rights for the next year. Barker’s status looms large for this matchup. If the senior suits up, Troy’s passing attack will be too much for South Alabama’s secondary to handle. However, the gap between these two teams narrows a bit if Barker can’t go. For the Jaguars to win, Baker, Minter and Johnson have to carry the offense with efficiency (and a few big plays) and avoid turnovers. The road team has won the last four meetings in this series, but Troy should end that streak with a victory on Wednesday night.