Jon Sumrall’s first season as Troy coach hardly got off to an auspicious beginning.
The Trojans were 1-2 and reeling from a demoralizing loss on a Hail Mary by Appalachian State.
“I think it’s really, really hard to get people to get up off the mat after a gut-wrenching defeat like that and lay it all on the line again,” Sumrall said.
But the Trojans did get up, and they haven’t lost since — riding a nine-game winning streak into Saturday’s Sun Belt Conference championship game against Coastal Carolina (9-2) at Troy’s Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Sumrall isn’t sure Troy (10-2) would have reached this point otherwise. The onetime league power is seeking a record seventh Sun Belt title and its first since 2017.
Sumrall returned to a school where he once worked as an assistant after three years at Kentucky, taking over a Troy program that had won just 10 games over the past two seasons. Now, the Trojans are on the cusp of their longest streak since winning 11 in a row in 1995.
Troy got a boost when players like left tackle Austin Stidham, safety Craig Slocum Jr. and linebacker Carlton Martial — the FBS career leader with 554 tackles — opted to return for a sixth year and try to help Sumrall turn things around.
“They’re a Hail Mary away from being 11-1 and just dominating this league,” Chanticleers coach Jamey Chadwell said. “That shows you how good they are and how much they’ve bought into what he’s doing.”
Martial was named Sun Belt defensive player of the year on Thursday, while Sumrall won coach of the year honors. Injured Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall was named league player of the year for the third time.
The Trojans have done it with the Martial-led defense and, lately, a resurgent running game. Kimani Vidal has posted back-to-back 200-yard games, accounting for nearly half of his 1,008 yards on the season.
The Trojans have a top-10 scoring defense and are only the sixth FBS team since 2000 to win four times when scoring no more than 17 points. Only four opposing teams have rushed for more than 100 yards against them.
“They’re tremendous. Best defense in this league,” Chadwell said.
But the season got off to a rocky start, with a 28-10 loss to Mississippi. Two weeks later came that 32-28 heartbreaker to Sun Belt rival Appalachian State, when Christian Horn caught a tipped ball at the 5-yard line and ran it in for a 53-yard touchdown on the final play.
The Trojans have since won five games by seven points or less. One reason for all that success: a 128-38 scoring advantage in the fourth quarter of games.
It’s made for a memorable head coaching debut for the 40-year-old Sumrall.
“I don’t take it lightly that they’ve bought in and done what we’ve asked them to do in so many ways,” he said. ”Some of those things we asked them to do early on were not very comfortable for anybody. They’ve accepted the new and the change.”
They’ll happily accept the results so far.