The 2015 offseason has been one of restlessness for everyone involved with Texas State Bobcats football.
After an unjust bowl snub in 2014 where lesser deserving teams received bowl invites purely because of geography, the coaches and players are angry and want to take their rage out on the Sun Belt. But the fans are restless too.
Calls for patience and accepting slow improvement within Texas State's program have been the official party line, but those pleas are starting to ring hollow for a fanbase unbound by history, teeming with ambition, and increasingly frustrated over spending another postseason sitting at home. Bobcat fans are casting a jealous eye towards reigning Sun Belt champ and recent move-up Georgia Southern as well as (to a much lesser extent) Appalachian State, who are both receiving plenty of preseason hype.
Although both GSU and ASU were in a far better position both program-wise and roster-wise before the FBS jump than Texas State was in 2012, the expectation will be for Texas State to take the next step into the top tier of the 'Belt within the next two years. Whether that's a realistic expectation or not is in question. Just about every pundit ranks Texas State far behind the designated top tier of teams in Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Arkansas State.
Many questions have been raised this offseason about the Texas State Athletic Department's ability to sell the program to fans and prospective bowl committees, but the focus will soon shift to the head man in charge of the team itself. This is the first season that Dennis Franchione is working exclusively with players he recruited, so any excuses about Brad Wright's players holding the team back are no longer valid (and in many cases, were never valid to begin with). Coach Fran has improved the win column in FBS from 4 to 6 to 7 in San Marcos, but he needs to get to a bowl game and start making 8+ win seasons an expectation, otherwise the program's momentum will stall.
Attendance is the canary in the coal mine. The first home game of the year is often well attended, and a game against a big name opponent such as Navy or Texas Tech will often sell out. But games later on in November against Sun Belt teams--of which Texas State has three this year--usually see attendance drop like a stone, such as last year's poor showing of 12,264 against conference power Arkansas State. A half-full Bobcat Stadium is hardly what alumni who pushed through the Drive to FBS envisioned.
The patterns under Coach Fran
We've seen a few trends develop under Dennis Franchione during his time at Texas State. The most obvious trend is that of a run-heavy option attack, although that option attack has evolved from a slow-paced, clock-killing venture in 2013 to a no huddle, zone read/triple option hybrid under quarterback Tyler Jones. This system has facilitated excellent rushing numbers for the running backs and quarterback, but it's arguably come at the cost of a reliable passing game.
The receiving corps has been, to put it charitably, inconsistent. Although many of the targets to receivers are spread out to multiple players by design, Texas State hasn't had a true standout receiver during Franchione's tenure. In fact, no receiver has even crested 500 yards in a season under Coach Fran. Many of the routes have been quick slants, short crosses, or outs to the flat, and the Bobcats have had trouble finding a consistent threat to get open when they do decide to try some deeper routes.
That needs to change if the Bobcats want to maximize ways to spread the field and keep opponents from playing closer to the line of scrimmage. CJ Best, Jafus Gaines, and Brandon Smith have all shown flashes of brilliance, but someone needs to emerge as a playmaker.
Nailing down defensive trends under Coach Fran has been tougher. Aside from a couple of individual standouts, no unit was particularly good in 2012. 2013 arguably saw the best defense in Texas State's Division 1 history, as an incredibly tough front seven buoyed a stagnant offense until a late season collapse.
Their 2014 performance was less consistent, as the defensive line reverted to not doing much more than plugging holes, although Michael Odiari's pass rushing ability off the edge was a notable exception. The secondary prevented most long passing plays, but they were still prone to bending quite a bit and giving up huge plays in run support.
This year, the defensive line loses Odiari, and although a few promising young players will likely be getting a chance to show off their talent, depth is still a concern. Linebacker is also a position in question after David Mayo's departure to the Carolina Panthers.
Bill Connelly has likened Franchione's building job to moving sand with your bare hands for two years in a row. Which is true, but the biggest question facing Texas State appears to be: Can Dennis Franchione finally build enough program depth to put it all together and contend for the Sun Belt title on an annual basis?
The Bottom Line
Texas State football certainly needs an identity to rally around, and Franchione's demure personality doesn't provide much to remedy that problem. Us Bobcats are also well aware of the mediocre and scandal-plagued tenure Fran had at Texas A&M, which still causes Aggies to foam at the mouth whenever Franchione's name is mentioned. Whether that's fair or not, it's colored our collective perception of him and has prevented widespread acceptance of Coach Fran despite tangible evidence that he's improved the program. So has his playcalling, which trended towards overly conservative until the end of last season.
The Bobcats and Coach Fran therefore need to shatter the glass ceiling of .500 expectations, and win big. Nobody's expecting a gigantic upset over FSU, but wins against Louisiana and Georgia Southern need to happen. A bowl game should be this year's target, and contending for Sun Belt titles should be an expectation within the next 2-3 years.
The alternative is a purgatory that will satisfy nobody, and Franchione will have to deal with an already fractured fanbase turning hostile or, worse, totally apathetic. Few expect Larry Teis to fire Dennis Franchione regardless of how this season turns out. However, if the program stalls, explaining low attendance away as "our fans don't know enough about the Sun Belt" will be an increasingly difficult sell.