The Transition from I-AA to I-A Football: Troy Trojans

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The State of the Program Entering I-A

In the span of 14 years, Troy climbed the ranks of college football rapidly. In 1984, Chan Gailey led Troy to their first NCAA football national championship, beating North Dakota State 18-17 in the Division II championship game. Three years later, new coach Rick Rhodes and the Trojans claimed their second Division II title in four years, beating Portland State 31-17 at Tom Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Alabama.

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TROY TROJANS

YEAR OF TRANSITION: 2001

CONFERENCE HISTORY:

  • Independent (2001-2003)
  • Sun Belt (2004-present)

I-A RECORD: 77-69-0 (.527)

In 1991, Larry Blakeney took over as head coach as Troy played out their final year in the Division II ranks. Transitioning to the I-AA level in 1992, the Trojans were already a powerhouse by their second season. That year they would reach the national semifinals as an independent before falling to Marshall 24-21. They would bow out in the first round of the playoffs in 1994 and 1995, but Blakeney had laid the foundation for the Trojans’ steady rise.

The team would join the Southland Conference in 1996, immediately winning the conference crown with a 10-1 regular season. Back in the playoffs for a fourth straight season, Troy knocked off Florida A&M and Murray State to reach the semifinal once again. But their trip to Montana on December 14 would offer only dejection, as the Grizzlies claimed the berth in the title game with a 70-7 trouncing of the Trojans.

Blakeney’s crew would miss the playoffs in 1997 for the first time since their transition year of 1992. Returning to the postseason in 1998, Troy quickly fell by the wayside as Florida A&M got their vengeance for 1996. After several years of setbacks, the Trojans would regain their place among the elite in 1999.

Their final two seasons in the Southland Conference proved fruitful for Troy… at least on a conference level. Winning the league in both of their final two seasons of I-AA play, the Trojans were once again bounced from the bracket by Florida A&M in the 1999 quarterfinals and then by Appalachian State in the first round in 2000.

Though the Trojans failed to win a I-AA national championship in their nine-year tenure on the second rung of the NCAA divisional ladder, they were a perennial postseason threat over that span. They entered the new millennium and another new division with their longtime head coach, as Blakeney entered his second decade with the team during the transition year of 2001.

 

The First Season

The Trojans faced a tough test immediately upon entering the I-A ranks. For their first opponent, Blakeney and his charges traveled to Lincoln to face the vaunted Nebraska Cornhuskers on the first weekend of September. With that year’s Heisman winner, Eric Crouch, guiding the offense, Nebraska bullied the visitors throughout the 42-14 mismatch to kick off a campaign that would end in a trip to the BCS championship game in Pasadena.

A trip to Middle Tennessee offered up another blowout defeat to the Trojans, the future Sun Belt rivals at different points in their I-A development. After regrouping during a bye week, Troy shut out I-AA Nicholls State 26-0 at home to earn their first victory as a top-tier team.

Another bye week led into a showdown against the other team that would play in the BCS championship game. Traveling to Miami, the Trojans were no match for the undefeated Hurricanes. With Ken Dorsey lobbing the ball around the Orange Bowl, the home team easily dismissed the I-A neophytes 38-7. In their maiden voyage at the top, Troy had endured the misfortune of being the only team to face both title-game participants that season.

The trip to Starkville on October 13 would prove much kinder to Blakeney’s crew. Facing off against Mississippi State, the Trojans earned their first win over a fellow I-A school by knocking off the SEC cellar-dweller 21-9. Wins over I-AA Northridge State and Southern Utah closed out the month of October, and Troy had climbed back above .500 with two of their defeats coming to the top two teams in the BCS standings.

November started roughly, as a trip to College Park ended the three-game winning streak. Maryland proved too much for the Trojans, as Ralph Friedgen’s Terrapins handily dealt with the visitors 47-14. It would be the last game Blakeney’s team would lose in 2001. Facing future conference rival Louisiana-Monroe on the road, the Trojans walloped the Warhawks 44-12 on the 10th. The season concluded with home wins over I-AA Jacksonville State and Sun Belt champion North Texas.

 

How Have They Fared Since?

The Trojans would play out the next two seasons as an independent, posting 4-8 and 6-6 records as they fought through the growing pains of their transition. Ahead of the 2004 season, they would join the Sun Belt Conference and continue their climb up the I-A ladder.

That first season in the new conference, Troy would finish second in the league standings behind North Texas, who was wrapping up their fourth straight Sun Belt title. Finishing the regular season 7-4, the Trojans earned the first bowl berth in school history as the Silicon Valley Classic invited them to San Jose as a postseason reward. Though Troy would fall 34-21 to Northern Illinois, the trip to California continued the team’s progress toward respectability.

2005 would be a step backward, as the Trojans fell to a tie for fourth in the Sun Belt and finished the year below with a losing record at 4-7. It would prove only a minor setback, though, as Troy rebounded to finish the regular season above .500 at 7-5. More importantly for Blakeney’s squad, though, was the fact that all but one of their losses came against out-of-conference competition. At 6-1 in Sun Belt play, the Trojans won the head-to-head tiebreaker over Middle Tennessee to claim their first conference crown. Matched up against Rice in the New Orleans Bowl as their reward, Troy won their first bowl game 41-17 over the Owls.

The 2006 breakthrough was a catalyst for a half-decade of dominance by the Trojans. Breaking North Texas’ record, Troy would win at least a share of the Sun Belt title for five years straight. In 2007, they would share the league championship but miss out on a bowl berth as co-champion Florida Atlantic defeated them on the first day of December to swipe the automatic berth in New Orleans.

Troy would return to the postseason in 2008, as they finished 6-1 in Sun Belt play and 8-4 overall for their first outright league title. Pitted against Southern Mississippi in the New Orleans Bowl, the Trojans would lose the tightly-matched contest 30-27 to the Golden Eagles.

Troy capped a five-year run of Sun Belt dominance in 2010 with a 48-21 beatdown of the Ohio Bobcats in the New Orleans Bowl.

Troy would win five straight Sun Belt titles from 2006 to 2010, capping their run of dominance with a 48-21 beatdown of the Ohio Bobcats in the 2010 New Orleans Bowl.

The Trojans would sweep their Sun Belt schedule en route to a fourth straight conference crown in 2009, their only losses in the 9-3 regular season coming against Bowling Green on opening day and on the road to SEC powers Florida and Arkansas. They would visit a new destination in their bowl game, pitted against MAC champion Central Michigan in the GMAC Bowl in Mobile. Playing in their home state, the Trojans once again lost a tight contest by a field goal, 44-41.

With a 6-2 conference record in 2010, Troy would eclipse North Texas’ mark with their fifth straight share of the Sun Belt championship. A loss to FIU at home on November 13 would give the Golden Panthers the tiebreaker, but the Trojans would still be invited to the New Orleans Bowl where they would face Ohio. The Bobcats, having missed out on a trip to the MAC championship game with a loss to Kent State on the final day of the regular season, looked listless in Louisiana as Troy trounced them 48-21.

And then the winning stopped. Plummeting suddenly to 3-9 in 2011, the streak of conference championships broken, Blakeney was forced to deal with a rebuilding project. The Trojans would improve to 5-7 in 2012, but it would be the first time in the team’s I-A history that they would post back-to-back losing seasons. As the Sun Belt deals with fluctuating membership in an era of realignment, though, Troy has the potential and the pedigree to vault back up the ranks and return to their winning ways.