Troy, which lost a close game at Clemson two months ago, will take a 7-1 overall record and 4-0 league mark into its Sun Belt Conference showdown with Appalachian State on Saturday.
In some respects, the only blemish signaled that the Trojans were back.
“I think, from the outside, it put us back on the national map,” second-year coach Neal Brown said of the 30-24 loss.
The Trojans’ unbeaten record since then has set up a highly anticipated home game against Appalachian State (7-2, 5-0) with first place at stake.
Troy has its own proud football tradition, starting with an NAIA national championship in 1968 and continuing with two Division II titles in the 1980s. The Trojans lost 33-30 against Appalachian State in a 2000 FCS playoff game, and they earned at least a share of five consecutive Sun Belt championships from 2006-10.
Four straight seasons without a winning record contributed to the retirement of longtime coach Larry Blakeney and the hiring of Brown, who was a Troy assistant before working as an offensive coordinator at Texas Tech and Kentucky.
Brown, 36, had a 4-8 debut that included a 44-41 road loss to Appalachian State in three overtimes. Sun Belt coaches voted Troy fifth in their preseason poll, but a team led by junior quarterback Brandon Silvers and junior running back Jordan Chunn made a strong impression despite having three passes intercepted at No. 2 Clemson on Sept. 10. The Tigers took a 13-10 lead into the fourth quarter, built a 27-10 lead and allowed a touchdown with 44 seconds remaining.
“Internally, all it did was solidify what we already knew,” Brown said. “We knew we had the makings of a good football team.”
Clemson, which is still undefeated, dropped three spots in the Associated Press after playing Troy. The Trojans picked up their first Top 25 vote in the coaches poll two weeks later, after they won 37-31 at Southern Miss (now 5-4) and claimed a 52-6 home win against New Mexico State.
Sun Belt wins against Idaho (34-13), Georgia State (31-21) and South Alabama (28-21) preceded a 52-31 nonconference win against Massachusetts last weekend.
The level of competition rises with a visit from the Mountaineers.
Appalachian State has used one-sided wins to increase the profile of a defense that ranks sixth nationally in rushing defense (105.6 yards per game) and 10th in scoring defense (16.9 points per game). Troy ranks fourth in rushing defense (97.8 yards), 23rd in scoring defense (21.3 points) and 18th in scoring offense (39.4 points).
The Trojans have allowed only four 20-yard rushes, one more than national leader San Diego State, and the 231-pound Chunn ranks second in the Sun Belt with 899 rushing yards, 131 fewer than league-leading Jalin Moore (1,030 yards) of Appalachian State. Silvers, a 6-foot-3 quarterback, has thrown a league-leading 18 touchdown passes while averaging 259.9 yards behind a much-improved line.
“They’re probably the hottest offense out there, maybe, in the Group of Five,” Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield said. “It all starts with the quarterback — he makes all the throws. They have a really great running back, and what they’re doing scheme-wise is hard to defend.”