Midweek college football returns on Tuesday night, as Troy heads to Mobile to take on South Alabama in the “Battle for the Belt” in a key Sun Belt matchup for both teams. In addition to what’s at stake on Tuesday night and for the 2018 season, the Trojans are also out for revenge. After picking up a huge win in Baton Rouge against LSU on Sept. 30 last year, Troy was upset 19-8 against South Alabama on Oct. 11.
Troy is off to another strong start behind rising star coach Neal Brown. The Trojans are 5-2 and 3-0 in Sun Belt play entering Week 9 but lost 22-16 at Liberty in their last game. Missed opportunities summed up that performance for Brown. Troy lost three turnovers, committed 10 penalties, went 4 of 15 on third-down attempts, kicked three field goals instead of scoring touchdowns and allowed an 89-yard drive to Liberty with less than four minutes remaining. The Trojans opened 2018 with a loss to Boise State but scored a huge upset win over Nebraska in Week 3 in Lincoln. Brown’s team has picked up victories in league play against ULM, Coastal Carolina and Georgia State, with three out of their final five contests coming away from home. Troy's path to a conference title got a little tougher in early October, as starting quarterback Kaleb Barker was lost for the year due to a torn ACL.
South Alabama is a program in transition under new coach Steve Campbell. The Jaguars sit at 2-5 through seven games, earning victories over Texas State and Alabama State. Campbell’s team lost by four to Louisiana Tech in the opener, but its other losses all came by 27 points or more. In addition to for an opportunity earn back-to-back victories over its in-state rival, South Alabama needs a win to keep its bowl hopes alive. With trips remaining against Arkansas State and Louisiana, along with home dates versus ULM and Coastal Carolina, the margin for error is very small on a path to six victories.
The all-time series between Troy and South Alabama is tied at three wins apiece. As mentioned above, the Jaguars won last year’s matchup and have claimed three out of the last four games between these two teams.
Troy at South Alabama
Kickoff: Tuesday, Oct. 23 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Troy -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Troy’s Quarterbacks
Tuesday night’s matchup will be the second career start for Troy quarterback Sawyer Smith. Kaleb Barker edged Smith in the battle to replace Brandon Silvers this offseason and started the first six contests. However, Barker suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Oct. 4 victory over Georgia State.
With Barker sidelined, Smith moved into the No. 1 role and threw for 135 yards and a touchdown on 13 completions in the loss to Liberty. However, Smith also tossed one interception and lost a fumble. True freshman Gunnar Watson received limited snaps against Liberty, completing three of four passes for 25 yards. He could see action on Tuesday night as well.
Troy’s offense ranks second in the Sun Belt by averaging 33.7 points a game, but this unit sputtered in its only game without Barker. Will Smith have a better encore in his role as the team’s starter? Brown won’t expect Smith to carry the offense, especially with a potent ground game that features junior B.J. Smith and Jabir Daughtry-Frye leading the way. However, there should be plenty of opportunities to throw against this defense. South Alabama’s secondary ranks seventh in the conference in pass efficiency defense and has allowed quarterbacks to complete 60.9 percent of their passes this year. Additionally, the Jaguars have allowed seven completions of 40 yards or more in 2018.
With extra time to prepare after his first start, along with a deep group of weapons on the outside in a favorable matchup, Smith should have Troy’s offense operating at a higher level this week.
2. South Alabama’s Offense Against Troy’s Defense
It’s strength versus question mark when these two units take the field on Tuesday night.
Troy’s defense is one of the best at the Group of 5 level, as coordinator Vic Koenning’s group limits offenses to just 5.2 yards a play and 24.6 points a game. The Trojans rank second in the Sun Belt against the run, fourth in pass efficiency defense and have generated 22 sacks through seven contests. Troy surrendered 56 points to Boise State in the opener but has not allowed an opponent to score more than 27 points in a contest since the first game of 2018.
On the other sideline, new South Alabama coach Steve Campbell is searching for the right answers to help the offense take a step forward over the team’s final five games. Senior quarterback Evan Orth has flashed potential in the new offense, completing 117 of 174 throws for 1,366 yards and seven touchdowns to three picks. He’s also completing 67.2 percent of his passes and has just three interceptions in 2018. Orth’s favorite target is All-Sun Belt candidate Jamarius Way (39 catches), with Kawaan Baker (21) and Jordan McCray (18) next up.
While South Alabama’s passing game has showed promise, the ground attack has struggled to generate positive yardage. The Jaguars rank last in the Sun Belt by recording only 130.7 yards a game and average 3.5 per rush. Troy can counter with a defense that ranks second in the Sun Belt against the run and is only giving up 3.3 yards a carry, which only adds to the uncertainty of how effective the ground game will be on Tuesday night. Tra Minter paces the offense with 263 yards (3.1 per carry), with Baker next up with 179 yards, followed by Deonta Moore with 168.
Considering the strength of Troy’s defense up front and the struggles of the ground game, it makes sense for Campbell to put this game in Orth’s hands. While the Trojans have one of the Sun Belt’s top defensive backfields, this unit has allowed seven plays of 40 yards or more. Opposing quarterbacks are also completing 62.5 percent of their throws versus the Troy secondary.
3. Turnover Margin
Despite outgaining South Alabama 299 to 224 last season, Troy came up short on the scoreboard. Turnovers are largely to blame, as the Trojans had four giveaways, which the Jaguars converted into 10 points. Troy coach Neal Brown has lost only 15 games since taking over as the program prior to the 2015 season. Of Brown’s 15 losses, 12 came with a negative turnover margin.
Troy is plus-two in turnover margin so far this year, while South Alabama checks in at minus-two. Just like last season, can the Jaguars create a couple of takeaways to convert on short fields for points? If so, South Alabama will be in position to pull off the upset once again. If the Trojans dominate the turnover margin on Tuesday, it’s tough to find a path to victory for the Jaguars.
The recent history between these two teams suggests Tuesday night will be close. Each of the last five matchups have been decided by 14 points or less, including three by a touchdown or less. Campbell is a good hire for South Alabama and will continue to get this program on track over the next couple of seasons. However, Troy is the better team and should find a way to win on Tuesday night. Smith should be sharper in his second start, and the Jaguars will have trouble putting together enough drives to secure the victory.