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The Big USF vs. Towson Preview

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The Bulls' first opponent might be the weakest team they play all season... but they're far from pushovers.

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

With the USF season set to kick off tomorrow, let's take a closer look at their first opponent, the FCS Towson Tigers. We covered Towson here already, but this will be the first of twelve in-depth previews I do each week, running up and down the opposing team's roster and seeing how it compares to USF's. We'll do these in a few parts: a brief overview of the opponent, a unit-by-unit breakdown, a look at individual matchups, and a final prediction. Let's dive in!

Overview

Let's start off by looking at how Towson did last year compared to the AAC, to provide some context (generally in these previews I'll use Bill Connelly's tempo-free S&P+ numbers, which is my method of choice for evaluating teams, but it only covers FBS squads. We'll be using the Sagarin rating system here, which includes all of FBS and FCS. It's not my favorite, but it'll work well enough for now.).

Towson went 7-4 last season while playing in what was widely considered the best FCS conference, the Colonial Athletic Association. They weren't a pretty team-- not terribly effective passing the ball (186.7 passing yards/game), but they had a powerful running game and a stingy defense that held opponents to just 21.5 points per contest.

The Tigers had a handful of impressive performances on the season, including a narrow loss to East Carolina in the season opener (28-20, and the Tigers had the ball on the ECU 15 late in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie the game), and a home win against a Villanova squad that more or less played UConn to a stalemate. They were one of the first teams out, so to speak, of the 16-team FCS playoff.

Team Sagarin Ranking
Houston 21
Navy 31
Memphis 48
Temple 52
USF 57
Cincinnati 75
East Carolina 83
UConn 91
Tulsa 97
SMU 128
Towson 150
Tulane 151
UCF 168

So last year, Towson was around the same level as the AAC's bottom feeders. Not horrible, but not terribly impressive. You don't have to go back far to find a really impressive program, though-- the Tigers made it to the FCS National Championship in 2013, and the peripherals on them compared to USF that year... well, observe:

Towson: 66th in Sagarin
USF: 143rd in Sagarin

So as recently as 2013, Towson would've kicked USF's butt. The McNeese State team that whipped the Bulls that year was only 125th! The Western Carolina squad that gave USF a game in 2014 clocked in at 150th that season, while the absolutely sorry FAMU team was 241st last year. With Towson returning a decent chunk of their 2015 team and adding some big-time players, it's pretty reasonable to assume that the '16 Tigers will be the best FCS team that USF has played in the Willie Taggart era... yes, including McNeese. They're not strangers to playing FBS schools, either-- their last five matchups include a blowout of Paul Pasqualoni-era UConn in 2013 and a pretty tough showing against LSU in 2012.

Towson vs. FBS Opponents, Last 5 Years
Year Opponent Result
2015 at East Carolina L, 20-28
2014 at West Virginia L, 0-54
2013 at UConn W, 33-18
2012 at LSU L, 22-38
2012 at Kent State L, 21-41

In so many words: Towson isn't a cupcake, should be much improved from 2015, and they could give USF headaches if the Bulls don't take the Tigers seriously.

Positional Breakdowns

The most intriguing part of this Towson squad is undoubtedly at quarterback. The Tigers' starter last year, Connor Frazier, did little to ignite the passing game (1,883 yds in 10 starts, 7/8 TD/INT), but the team has a big-time athlete taking the reins in four-star Oregon transfer Morgan Mahalak, who beat out last year's backup Ellis Knudson in the summer and was just recently named the starter. Mahalak never played for Oregon, but he's an athletic, dual-threat QB with a better arm than Frazier, though reports from Towson's practices indicate he's far from a finished product with a tendency to get spooked in the pocket and take off.

QB Year H/W 247 Composite Games ('15) Starts ('15) Comp/Att Yards TD/INT Rush Yds Rush TD
Morgan Mahalak rSo 6-3, 205 .9081 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ellis Knudson rSo 6-2, 241 .7000 4 (4) 0 11/21 65 0/1 -1 0

Mahalak likely won't be asked to shoulder much of the load in his first college start, because the heart and soul of this offense is undoubtedly senior tailback Darius Victor. Victor isn't particularly electrifying, but he's a bruising, low-to-the-ground back who's carried the Towson offense for the last two seasons, eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing in each. The Tigers usually aren't tricky on offense: they ran about 75% of the time on first downs against ECU last season, and the majority of those carried went to Victor, who managed 137 yards on 28 carries against an FBS defense. The kid can play.

If Victor isn't getting the ball, the Tigers love to run zone read out of a shotgun, one-back look, which means Mahalak will probably be carrying the ball upwards of ten times-- and with his skill set, he could be dangerous there. The Tigers also have an FBS-level athlete in Shane Simpson, who was explosive in 2015 (7.7 YPC) before an injury sidelined him for the season. He's a change-of-pace back who can line up in the backfield or the slot, and could be a breakout candidate on the Towson offense. Even if you don't trust Mahalak as a passer, there are enough weapons in the Tigers' backfield to make for a pretty dangerous running game.

RB Year H/W Composite Games ('15) Starts ('15) Att-Yards TD Rec-Yards TD
Darius Victor Sr 5-8, 217 .7300 38 (11) 24 (11) 207-1021 (4.9) 15 7-42 0
Shane Simpson rFr 5-9, 185 .8111 4 (4) 0 14-108 (7.7) 0 3-17 0
Marquel Dickerson Jr 5-9, 186 7667 18 (10) 0 52-252 (4.8) 0 0 0

The passing game looks much less threatening. The Tigers were ineffective through the air with Frazier, and while Mahalak should be an improvement, he's still entirely unproven throwing the ball. Towson returns just two receivers who eclipsed 150 yards last season in Christian Summers and Andre Dessenberg, both of whom are tall, lanky targets who will probably be counted on to win a few jump balls. As far as a player with game-breaking speed and athleticism, though, there's not much here.

WR Year H/W Composite Games ('15) Starts ('15) Rec-Yards TD
Christian Summers Sr 6-3, 217 N/A 10 (10) 10 (10) 26-386 2
Andre Dessenberg Sr 6-3, 195 .7800 38 (11) 19 (10) 28-392 2
Sam Gallahan rSo 6-1, 193 .7000 11 (11) 2 (2) 11-113 0
Romeo Harris rSo 6-2, 218 N/A 11 (0) 0 5-34 0
Jay Galloway rFr 6-2, 180 N/A 0 0 0 0

The offensive line isn't terribly imposing. The Tigers return a piecemeal unit with a ridiculous nine players with starting experience, but none with 10 starts or more last season. Towson could certainly craft a good FCS unit here, but they don't have the size or athleticism to match up man-on-man to USF's defensive front. I'd imagine the Tigers will try to avoid doing that and will use zone blocking techniques to avoid one-on-one matchups and get their talented backfield players in space; against a relatively green USF defensive line, this could work.

OL Year H/W Composite Games (2015) Starts (2015)
Antonio Harris (LT) rJr 6-4, 300 .7300 13 (4) 11 (4)
Amos Campbell (LG) rJr 6-3, 300 N/A 16 (8) 16 (8)
Shawn Flaherty (C) rJr 6-2, 280 N/A 1 (1) 1 (1)
Sam Evans (RG) Sr 6-2, 286 N/A 31 (8) 20 (3)
Matt Kauffman (RT) rSo 6-5, 299 N/A 11 (11) 8 (8)
Samuel Edmondson Sr 6-5, 295 N/A 10 (10) 7 (7)
Brady Stup rJr 6-6, 288 N/A 17 (7) 12 (6)
Jesus Barrio rSo 6-5, 310 N/A 12 (0) 10 (0)
Fred Santarelli rSr 6-6, 309 N/A 9 (4) 3 (3)
Nick Carnesale rFr 6-1, 282 N/A 0 0

Towson runs a pretty stout 3-4 defense that allowed less than 130 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry in 2016. They return a decent chunk of a defensive line that was probably their biggest strength last year. They've got a lot of experience, good size, and are just talented enough to give USF some headaches. The Bulls have gashed much better run defenses than this before, but the Tigers aren't pushovers up front.

DL Year H/W Composite Games (2015) Starts (2015) Tack TFL Sacks
Max Tejada (NT) Sr 6-2, 301 N/A 38 (11) 12 (11) 38 5 3
Clifton Jones (DE) rJr 6-2, 268 N/A 20 (11) 6 (6) 29 5 1.5
Zain Harps Upshur (DE) Jr 6-1, 283 N/A 11 (11) 0 27 7 4
Reece Burnett rSo 6-2, 350 N/A 5 (5) 0 5 0 0
D'Sean Cummings rJr 6-5, 252 N/A 21 (10) 1 (1) 23 2.5 2
Kanyia Anderson rJr 6-2, 256 .7887 13 (0) 0 5 1 1

This is a pretty nasty linebackers corps. Jordan Mynatt had serious interest from ACC schools as a recruit, and Bryton Barr was a former Penn State walk-on who's been plagued by injuries at Towson. Add in a pair of promising underclassmen who started the final six games of the year as freshmen, and you've got a solid bunch. This is far from the best defensive front USF will face this season, but it's definitely not the worst.

LB Year H/W Composite Games (2015) Starts (2015) Tackles TFL Sacks INT
Diondre Wallace So 6-0, 249 N/A 10 (10) 6 (6) 45 1 1 0
Chris Tedder So 6-0, 215 N/A 11 (11) 6 (6) 55 1 1 1
Bryton Barr rJr 6-0, 222 .8079 13 (0) 13 (0) 0 0 0 0
Jordan Mynatt rSr 6-2, 209 N/A 23 (11) 20 (11) 60 11.5 1.5 0
Eric Handy Sr 6-0, 248 N/A 29 (11) 14 (5) 58 2.5 1 0
James Scott rSo 6-1, 230 N/A 2 (0) 0 2 0 0 0
Malik Jackson Sr 5-11, 239 N/A 23 (11) 5 (5) 41 1.5 1 0
Robert Heyward rFr 5-10, 210 N/A 0 0 0 0 0 0

The good news: Towson wasn't great against the pass last season, and they don't return much at all. The bad news: There's a lot of potential in this unit, with UConn transfer Jordan Floyd likely to start right away alongside a handful of former three-star recruits. This is a promising group of players that I would expect to see become something pretty impressive by the end of the season. As of now, though, Quinton Flowers should be licking his chops.

Secondary Year H/W Composite Games (2015) Starts (2015) Tackles TFL Sacks INT
Troy Jeter (CB) Sr 5-11, 186 N/A 21 (10) 0 21 0 0 0
Lyrics Klugh (CB) So 5-10, 175 .8156 3 (0) 0 3 0 0 0
Monty Fenner (FS) rSo 6-0, 190 .7000 11 (11) 6 (6) 41 1 0 1
Jordan Floyd (SS) rSr 6-0, 206 .8185 29 (0) 0 0 0 0 0
Justice Pettus-Dixon rFr 5-10, 179 .8316 0 0 0 0 0 0
Juleon Killikelly-Lee rJr 5-11, 187 N/A 19 (0) 1 (0) 0 0 0 0
Romell Haley Sr 5-11, 185 N/A 7 (7) 0 5 0 0 1
Keon Paye rFr 6-0, 190 .8435 0 0 0 0 0 0


Summary & Prediction


When Towson runs the ball... Advantage: Towson
When Towson throws the ball... Advantage: USF
When USF runs the ball... Advantage: USF
When USF throws the ball... Advantage: USF

I don't love matching up USF's inexperienced defensive line with a very competent power running game led by a borderline FCS All-American and a former four-star athlete. I think Towson will be able to move the ball on the ground, but I'm highly skeptical that Mahalak is going to be able to get much going in the passing game against a good FBS secondary in his first career start.

On the other side, Towson's defense might be one of the best in FCS, but they don't have the horses to match up with USF's running game. That's kind of how I see this one going-- no matter how effectively the Tigers move the ball, they don't have the quick-strike ability that the USF offense does. And eventually, the USF defense will tighten, especially if the Towson offense is as one-dimensional as they seem to be.

There are ways Towson wins this game. USF could get carried away with trying to exploit a relatively weak Towson secondary, and force themselves into a game they don't want to play. Mahalak could be as good as advertised right off the bat, and could get the Towson passing game going. USF could have an implosion of turnovers (to be fair, this will lose you a game against 80% of teams).

I don't think any of those things are going to happen. If USF matches up strength-for-strength against Towson's defense and runs their usual game plan, they should find some breathing room the second half. But they're up against a legitimate lower-tier FBS-level team, so seriously, don't panic if Towson is able to move the ball against the Bulls' defense early and is still hanging around after the first half. USF should gradually pull away and win this one by a few possessions. Most USF fans probably expect the Bulls to eviscerate the Tigers from the opening whistle-- I don't think that's realistic, but it would be very, very encouraging if they did.

USF 37, Towson 17