MOBILE, AL (WSFA) - Saturday, Dec. 22, is the destined day that Troy and Buffalo are to meet for the first time on the gridiron. The setting? The 2018 Dollar General Bowl in Mobile, Alabama’s Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
The bowl will bring together 9-3 Troy and 10-3 Buffalo. Both are in the midst of historical seasons for their programs. But how have they gotten here?
Let’s start with Troy. They hail from the Sun Belt Conference and have done nothing but win over the last three seasons. Combined, to this point, they are 30-7 since 2016. They recently had a string of 13-consecutive conference wins snapped, and are going for their third 10-win season in a row - a would-be first in program history.
A big part of the three-year boom has been the defense spear-headed by Vic Koenning.
Among the country’s best, the Troy defense ranks 10th in sacks, fifth in interceptions, 23rd in red zone defense, 23rd in scoring defense and 28th in total defense. Most of these numbers place them at or near the top of the Sun Belt Conference.
Individually, Cedarius Rookard sits at the top of the Sun Belt in interceptions with four, good enough to rank him 13th nationally.
It hasn’t been just a defensive resurgence for the Trojans. Head coach Neal Brown’s offensive mind has worked wonders for both the passing and running game. This season, his offense has been led by B.J. Smith, who leads the Sun Belt in rushing yards with 1,093 and has 12 rushing touchdowns.
Smith’s rushing yards land him 32nd nationally and his touchdowns place him at 27th among all rushers.
The tag team of Damion Willis and Deondre Douglas lead the Trojan receiving corps. Even though both have missed time this season for the Trojans, they still rank in the top four in receptions per game in the conference. Willis ranks second in the SBC in receiving yards and is tied for first with 8 receiving touchdowns.
Put together, the Trojan offense can pose problems for a Buffalo defense with the weapons it possesses.
The Bulls are no slouch though. They played in the Mid-American Conference Championship game and were well on their way to an 11th win before blowing a 19-point lead to Northern Illinois.
Buffalo is under the direction of Lance Leipold for the fourth year. He’s recorded a record of 17-24 in that time. Buffalo’s 10 wins are the most in a single season in the school’s history.
They are led by junior quarterback Tyree Jackson. He’s third in passing yards per game in the MAC. His 2,857 passing yards put him at just outside the top 30 nationally, and he also brings along 27 touchdown passes. Along with his rushing stats, he’s accounted for the second most all-purpose yards in the MAC this season with over 3,000.
If Willis is Troy’s big threat, then Anthony Johnson is his counterpart for the Bulls. Johnson’s 11 receiving touchdowns are 11th best in the nation and his 18.2 yards per catch rank tops in the MAC and 23rd nationwide. A few spots behind him sits Troy’s Willis at 26th.
At tailback, a freshman leads the stampede. Jaret Patterson has rushed for 946 yards on the season and has 13 touchdowns to go along with them.
Their defensive presence exists in the form of senior linebacker Khalil Hodge. Hodge’s 138 tackles are third-best in the MAC.
Hodge is part of a defensive group that ranks 36th in sacks with two fewer sacks than Troy, 32nd in total defense and tied at 21st with 14 total interceptions.
Offense won’t come easy for either team and it should shape up to be a fun Dollar General Bowl to watch.
The Trojans aren’t new to the bowl nor are they new to the stadium they’ll be playing in. The Trojans play every other year in Ladd-Peebles Stadium when they battle in-state rival and Sun Belt Conference opponent South Alabama. The Trojans also played in the 2016 Dollar General Bowl, taking down the Ohio Bobcats out of the MAC.
Buffalo’s making its third bowl game appearance in school history while Troy is appearing in its third-straight bowl game and looking for its fourth-straight bowl victory.
Buffalo’s other bowl appearances include the 2008 International Bowl and 2013 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Both games resulted in losses for the Bulls.
The two teams will lock horns at 6 p.m. on ESPN on Dec. 22.