Trojans look to win back-to-back SBC Titles

Published 7:38 am Friday, December 1, 2023

This Saturday, Dec. 2, the Troy Trojans have the chance to win back-to-back Sun Belt Conference Crowns for the first time since 2010 as they host the Appalachian State Mountaineers in the SBC Championship.

In Troy’s 19 years in the Sun Belt, the Trojans have won seven conference titles, the most of any SBC school. In the past, Troy won conference titles in back-to-back seasons last in 2009 and 2010. In fact, the Trojans won five straight conference titles between 2006 and 2010.

Troy has won nine straight games coming into the conference championship, while Appalachian State is on a similar upward swing. The Mountaineers started off the season rough, going 3-4 in the first seven weeks before winning five straight to secure the SBC East Division Championship.

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While much controversy has surrounded that division championship due to James Madison – who is in its second year of FCS to FBS transition – appealing its postseason ban, the Mountaineers defeated James Madison on Nov. 18 during their winning streak.

“They’re playing their best football of the year the last 4-5 weeks,” Troy coach Jon Sumrall said of Appalachian State. “They really caught fire. They’re playing really good defensively, it looks like a different team the last month or so with how they’re playing on defense. They create a lot of negative plays and lead the conference in takeaways.

“Offensively, they are very versatile and have a lot of weapons. They’re good at running back, the offensive line is as good as anyone we’ve played all year, they have a dynamic quarterback and the receivers are deep. The entire offense is capable and they’re also really sound in the kicking game.”

Some of the more entertaining matchups in any championship game – at any level of football – is when a top defense faces off against a top offense. The Sun Belt Championship will deliver just that. Troy comes into the game ranked No. 1 in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense along with being second in rush defense. Meanwhile, the Mountaineers are first or second in virtually every statistical category on offense.

Much of Appalachian State’s success on offense is centered around SBC Newcomer of the Year quarterback Joey Aguilar, who has thrown 3,271 yards and a Sun Belt best 33 touchdowns. He has weapons all over the field, as well. His top receivers are Kaedin Robinson (53 catches, 717 yards, 10 TD) and Christian Horn (29 catches, 502 yards, 6 TD), while running backs Nate Noel (787 yards, 5 TD) and Kanye Roberts (595 yards, 5 TD) have been a dominant duo in the backfield.

The Appalachian State defense is ranked sixth in scoring defense, seventh in total defense, 11th in rush defense and fifth in pass defense, but is tops in the conference in forcing turnovers. The Mountaineers also lead the SBC in interceptions and both Tyrek Funderbunk and Jordan Favors have four interceptions, which is tied with Troy’s Reddy Steward for the most in the conference.

The most ferocious pass rush in all of the Sun Belt leads Troy’s defense as the Trojans are ranked sixth in the entire country in sacks and eighth in tackles-for-loss. The Trojan defense boasts All-Sun Belt defenders Javon Solomon (44 TKL, 15 TFL, 14 sacks) and Richard Jibunor (53 TKL, 16 TFL, 9 sacks).

Troy’s defense also features All-Sun Belt players Dell Pettus, Irshaad Davis, O’Shai Fletcher, Caleb Ransaw, Reddy Steward, Buddha Jones and TJ Jackson.

Meanwhile, the Troy offense features the SBC Offensive Player of the Year Kimani Vidal (1,349 yards, 9 TDs), who has set the single game, single season and career rushing records this season. Troy’s offense also features All-Sun Belt quarterback Gunnar Watson (3,147 yards, 26 TDs), All-Sun Belt receivers Jabre Barber (60 catches, 855 yards, 5 TDs) and Chris Lewis (29 catches, 637 yards, 9 TDs) and offensive linemen Grant Betts and Daniel King.

Another storyline going into the game is the way last season’s matchup between these two teams ended. Appalachian State beat Troy in week three on a last-second “Hail Mary.” Troy isn’t concentrating on any “revenge” factors, however, and the Trojans looked at that loss as being a key turning point in the 2022 Championship run.

“While we didn’t see the tangible results of a victory there was growth and change that occurred (in that game),” Sumrall said. “It is never okay to lose. I don’t ever feel good about losing but I did see growth in a loss. When I talked to our team in that moment, I said that loss – or moment – would not define us, how we responded would.

“We’ve gone 21-2 since that game. Since that loss our guys have responded and it showed the character of our locker room. It’s a full circle moment to play these guys again. They’re really good and I think they’re a better team by a lot than they were last year in so many areas. It’s neat to see how we come full circle the last two years.”

Troy will host Appalachian State in the Sun Belt Championship at Veterans Memorial Stadium at 3 p.m. in a game that will air nationally on ESPN.