The records say one thing and the reputations say something else entering Texas State’s football opener 6 p.m. Saturday at Southern Mississippi.
The Bobcats finished 4-8 in 2012, their first year of bowl level football. Southern Miss, a long-time mid-major contender from Conference-USA, slipped badly in 2012 and finished the season 0-12. Now, Southern Miss is working under a first-year coach, Todd Monken, while the Bobcats are in their third year of the Dennis Franchione regime.
Presumably, the Bobcats are on sounder footing at the moment. But that’s not how the gamblers see it. The betting lines opened with Southern Miss as a 9 1/2-point favorite, and they have fallen only to 8 1/2 after a week of wagering.
So, the Bobcats are in position to pull their second opening week upset in two years of bowl-level football, following their 30-13 win at Houston to open the 2012 season.
See, opening day is unpredictable in college football. Nobody really knows who they are or what they’re about, yet. At worst, it’s a day of discovery. At best, a day of victory.
“Opening games are unique creatures in a football season,” Franchione said this week. “They’re different than any other game during the season. You don’t know as much about your opponent or yourself. We’ve got about 20 players who will play their first college football game at this level. I counted about 10 freshmen or redshirt freshmen that might play in this game for us. We don’t have the benefit of scrimmages against another opponent in college football. You learn a lot about your team in the first game and the first half and you learn as much about your opponent in the pregame warmup as any other time.”
One aspect of their team about which the Bobcats expect to learn a lot Saturday is quarterback, where playing time figures to shift between three-year letterman Tyler Arndt, a senior from Cuero who goes back to Brad Wright’s last season as head coach, and redshirt freshman Jordan Moore from Aldine.
Arndt is back in the mix after Shaun Rutherford usurped the position and set the school’s completion percentage record for a single season at 64.5 (193-of-299) in 2012. Arndt, playing sparingly last season, completed 22 of 56 passes (39.3 percent).
But Moore has been neck-and-neck with Arndt in the preseason quarterback competition, and Franchione has consistently said throughout fall camp that the position is up in the air. At least in the early going, neither man stands to monopolize playing time.
“I think it’s a fair statement to say both players will play in the game,” Franchione said. “I think both have earned the right and deserve to do that. The separation between them is very small, if any. I think as coaches, we’ve gone back and forth between them. Somebody’s got to go out for the first snap and we’ll see how they do and go from there and be prepared to adjust. We went through this last year with Shaun Rutherford and Tyler. We went out with Shaun and he was on fire and never relinquished it.”
Whoever plays quarterback, he will have experienced resources at his command. The Bobcats return three of their top four receivers from last season — Isaiah Battle, Andy Erickson and Brandon Smith. Additionally, the offensive line returns four starters — Charlie Will Tuttle, Matt Freeman, Devin Baker and Zach Crawford.
The running game could be a bit of a challenge. The top returning rusher, Tim Gay, carried for 279 yards last year, though he did it in only 27 carries. The depth chart indicates that nothing has been decided with respect to the two running back positions. At one back, Robert Lowe and C.J. Best are even, and at the other running back Gay is even with Chris Nutall and Terrence Franks.
The crucial areas where the Bobcats need to show improvement are on defense. Last season, the Bobcats played six games in which they allowed 200 or more rushing yards and they lost all of them. They also played four games in which they allowed 300 or more passing yards and they were 1-3 in those games. All together, the Bobcats allowed 484.8 yards per game last season.
Improvements will have to come, more or less, from the outside. The top returning starter is cornerback Craig Mager, who made four interceptions last season. The other returning corner, Xavier Daniels, has been among the team’s top two tacklers for two years running. Blake McColloch, Jamie Clavell-Head and Jordan Norfleet return as starters on the defensive line. David Mayo is back as a starting linebacker, Justin Iwuji is back as a starting safety, and Kamu Taulelei is back as an experienced nose tackle behind McColloch.
The Bobcats are counting on two transfers to bolster the defense. D.J. Yendrey, a three-year starter at Texas Christian who played in the 2011 Rose Bowl, will start at one defensive end, and Mike Orakpo, a transfer from Colorado State, will start at a linebacker position.
One area where the Bobcats know they’re strong is special teams. Punter Zach Robinson averaged 46.2 yards per punt last season. Place kicker Will Johnson was 43 of 44 in points after touchdown and he nailed 10 of 13 field goal attempts from inside 50 yards. Between Erickson and Mager, the Bobcats ranked third nationally last season with 20.2 yards per return. Kick returner Jafus Gaines ranked eighth nationally in 2012 with 28.9 yards per return.
That’s what we know so far about the Bobcats. It’s not very much, since it’s almost all about last year. As of 6 p.m. Saturday, this year is here. We’ll learn a lot more then.