After facing overmatched UAPB, a Navy team with superior cohesion, an Illinois team with superior talent, and an equally matched Tulsa team, now is a good time to determine what we know about the Texas State Bobcats, and what's still up in the air.
What We Know
Turnovers are no longer a problem (knock on wood)
The Bobcats are on pace to make a massive (and needed) improvement in their turnover margin from last year. Texas State coughed up 6 fumbles and 11 interceptions in 2013, but this year through 1/3 of the season the Bobcats have only committed 1 fumble and 2 interceptions, meaning that they're on pace to only commit 9 turnovers this season.
Granted, they have yet to face two defenses in Georgia Southern and Arkansas State that are solid at generating turnovers, but 8 fewer turnovers than last season would give an invaluable boost to this team.
Playcalling will stay mostly conservative
Dennis Franchione said something that says volumes about his overall strategy at this week's press conference--when Robert Lowe didn't suit up, they didn't change the playcalling at all for Terrence Franks at RB. Franks has speed to burn, but he didn't look nearly as comfortable as Lowe running between the tackles at Tulsa. That comment was one of many signs that the coaches are going to stick with their gameplan regardless of circumstances.
Through all four games, a common theme has emerged. Come hell or high water, the Bobcats are going to try and nickel and dime their opponents with zone reads and options to free up the pass. They likely won't try too many huge passes down field until they're forced to, such as 3rd and long in overtime situations like at Tulsa or if they've fallen behind by a few scores.
This strategy can wear down an opposing defense and mask any conditioning issues on the offense, but it can also be a bit self-limiting as we saw in the second halves of the Tulsa and Illinois games.
Penalties are a problem
An unfortunate truth about Dennis Franchione's second stint in San Marcos is that penalties are and always have been a consistent problem under him and his staff. Penalty yards per game jumped from 42.8 per game in 2010 to 70.4 per game in Coach Fran's first season in the 2011 FCS transitional year, and those numbers only dropped slightly to 67.6 in 2012 and 62.6 last season.
What's worse is that those numbers have spiked to a staggering 88.5 penalty yards per game, which makes the Bobcats the 7th most penalized team in all of FBS and last in the Sun Belt in that metric. Talk about how bad the Navy officiating crew was all you want, that's an astounding lack of discipline and suggests a pattern that's far more pervasive than one rogue group of officials. Given that this team is now mostly made up of Franchione recruits, any attempts to excuse this year's penalty numbers by citing the coaching or FBS transitions rings hollow.
The Bobcats kept penalties at a minimum in the first half of the Tulsa and Illinois games, but the latter halves of both games were littered with untimely mistakes. That suggests a conditioning/concentration issue that may not go away easily.
What We Don't Know
Are the Front Four Developing a Pass Rush?
Bobcat fans know the pass rushing ability of David Mayo at linebacker, but the much fretted about defensive line showed some fight at crucial times at Tulsa. Michael Odiari showed his ability to cause problems for offensive lineman with his speed off the edge against the Golden Hurricane as he tallied 13 tackles, 3 TFL, and a sack.
Perhaps more surprising (and welcome) was Dallas McClarty and Mershad Dillon getting in on the action with sacks of their own. Defensive end Kris Petersen also notched a crucial sack on Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans that played a big role in forcing the Golden Hurricane into a field goal in the third overtime period. The entire line also created an impressive goal line stand in the 4th quarter.
Granted, Tulsa's offense has gone mostly stagnant when it comes to putting up points. That said, when you consider that the d-line couldn't even get much of a push against a much worse UAPB team then the Tulsa game appears to have shown signs of potential improvement for the front four.
Has Running Back Depth Gone From a Strength to a Weakness?
The health of Robert Lowe is obviously the biggest concern for the Bobcats at this point. He is a natural compliment to Tyler Jones's ability to make defenders miss in the zone read/option scheme and will be needed throughout the season. His current injury status is day-to-day and he practiced with the team this week, so last week's injury doesn't appear to be overly serious.
Texas State suffered a blow to their depth at running back this week as backup Chris Nutall has been suspended for the season because of academic issues. He'd previously been suspended for four games, and now it's been extended to the whole season. Not having Nutall around to give Lowe some rest could hurt as the season wears on.
Terrence Franks is a great situational back who can be a major threat on seam routes and as an option compliment to Lowe, but he doesn't quite have the escapability or power to consistently be a threat between the tackles like Lowe. Backup Tim Gay suited up and got a couple of carries behind Franks, but he didn't look full speed after his injury.
The offense with Jones and Lowe should be a force to be reckoned with, but only if both stay healthy. Losing Michael Orakpo has obviously hurt the defense, but if the d-line can get a pass rush going then that should be just enough to win a few shootouts.
Record predicted in preseason: 6-6 (4-4 SBC)
Updated season record prediction: 7-5 (5-3 SBC)