USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Rather than put round pegs into square holes, Middle Tennessee State and Rick Stockstill will tailor this year's offense to its returning personnel. Take the quarterback position, for example.
Recent MTSU offenses have revolved around the forward pass: Logan Kilgore, the most recent multiple-year starter, left Murfreesboro as the school's record holder in touchdown passes (53) and 200-yard games (21), ranking second on the Blue Raiders' all-time list with 7,849 passing yards.
But this year's team lacks a Kilgore, essentially transitioning from a pocket-passing veteran to a handful of run-first, dual-threat quarterbacks. Again: Stockstill and offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner won't tailor quarterbacks to the offense; the offense will tailor to the quarterback.
So the Blue Raiders will become more run-heavy, adding layers to a running game that lacked the balance needed to mount a credible zone-read attack. This places MTSU in direct contrast to its primary Conference USA competition, Marshall, which enters 2014 headed by one of the nation's most electrically productive passing games.
It'll be power against power, merely from different viewpoints: MTSU and Marshall will meet in October with opposing styles, one devoted to the ground and the other to the air. To the winner go the spoils, as well as Conference USA's East Division.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
The Raiders have a number of talented options at running back and receiver; enough, in fact, that one or two potential contributors will get squeezed out of touches. The team also enters 2013 with a degree of confidence despite the disappointing way last season ended, with that loss to Arkansas State. Though five wins is a safer bet, don't be surprised if MTSU gets that sixth victory and lands bowl eligibility.
In a nutshell: The shift in conference layout did little to slow MTSU's recent surge. The Blue Raiders notched another eight-win season, joining the program's final go-round in the Sun Belt Conference, and – this best of all – landed a postseason bid thanks to Conference USA's wealth of bowl tie-ins. It was a solid season that turned on a single game: MTSU 51, Marshall 49. The Blue Raiders entered an Oct. 24 date with the Thundering Herd at 3-4, having dropped three in a row to Brigham Young, East Carolina and North Texas; the Blue Raiders exited Oct. 24 at 4-4, won all four games in November and went into December at 8-4, a game behind Marshall in the East Division. The year ended poorly, with a 24-7 loss to Navy defined by the Blue Raiders' questionably aggressive play, but it was nonetheless a satisfying season.
High point: Beating Marshall. It should be noted that MTSU's six remaining wins versus Football Bowl Subdivision foes – a seventh was Western Carolina – came against teams with a combined 57 losses.
Low point: Losses to East Carolina and North Texas.
Tidbit: This may come as a surprise, but teams generally play better in victory than in defeat. Shocking, I know. Take last year's Blue Raiders, for instance: MTSU scored 39.63 points, allowed 22.75 points, averaged 477.75 yards of offense, notched 47 tackles for loss and committed 10 turnovers in its eight wins; in its five losses, MTSU scored 12.0 points, allowed 31.8 points, averaged 292.2 yards offense, notched 21 tackles for loss and committed 12 turnovers.
Tidbit (offense edition): Last year's offense ranked among the top six in MTSU's single-season history in seven major statistical categories: rushing (sixth), pass attempts (fifth), completions (fifth), plays (third), yards (third), points (fifth) and touchdowns (fourth).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
1. Charles Darwin
2. Abraham Lincoln
3. John F. Kennedy
4. Bill Gates
5. Ernest Hemingway
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Middle Tennessee wants to dictate the tempo, regulate the flow of attack and control the line of scrimmage with the running game. Yeah, they've got the weapons to do just that. MTSU's greatest offensive asset is a deep and experienced backfield, one that will be put to enormously productive use at the center of this new, run-based scheme. It's simply a matter of divvying up the touches between junior Jordan Parker (731 yards), senior Reggie Whatley (657 yards), junior Jeremiah Bryson (398 yards) and sophomore Shane Tucker (241 yards), with each option more than capable of shouldering an every-down load – but with no one back stepping to the forefront in the Blue Raiders' share-the-wealth approach. The best of the bunch might be Tucker, in fact, though he'll enter the summer as the fourth of the team's four options. I imagine this quartet will combine for 2,000 yards on the ground.
Wisely, MTSU made a distinct effort to get three freshmen into the mix along the interior of last year's line. A year later, these sophomores seem better equipped to handle the load than your typical second-year contributors; there will be a slight learning curve in the move from three senior starters, as you might expect, but I think these youngsters are slightly ahead of the curve. Unsurprisingly, each simply takes a step up the two-deep: Adam Stickel replaces Josh Walker at left guard, Josh Chester replaces Nick Nunez at center and Daniel Stephens steps in for Jadareius Hamlin at right guard. If struggles come early, look for this interior to develop nicely during the course of the regular season. They'll be flanked by the two returning starters, with junior Darius Johnson on the left side and senior Isaiah Anderson on the right. Remember: Stickel, Chester and Stephens are young, but a physical running game would play to their strengths. Besides, MTSU could also turn to incoming JUCO transfers David Adams and Maurquice Shakir.
The Blue Raiders' returning experience at receiver will be negated by the change at quarterback, because none of the three options under center possess the skills and poise needed to take advantage of any weapons in the passing game. But this group is there if needed, and in returnees like senior Devin Clarke (18 receptions for 318 yards) has the ability to stretch the field against creeping-up defenses. Look for Clarke, senior Marcus Henry (38 for 549), junior Christian Collis (18 for 228) and junior Ed'Marques Batties to start, with senior Chris Perkins (13 for 123) and sophomores Terry Pettis and Demetrius Frazier the top reserves. MTSU hasn't relied heavily on the tight end, but I wonder if redshirt freshman Lucas Hamilton and JUCO transfer Tyler Barron – and a less pocket-savvy quarterback – could widen the position's role in the passing game.
Defense: It'll be hard to take Middle Tennessee's defense seriously until the Blue Raiders stop the run with a greater degree of consistency. As such, the onus for improvement stands with this defensive front: MTSU returns two starters and the majority of its rotation, losing one contributor at end and another at tackle, meaning it's largely the same cast behind last year's middling performance. The key might be at tackle, where the Blue Raiders hope sophomore Shaquille Huff (28 tackles, 7.5 for loss) can be an every-down menace alongside senior Patrick McNeil (35 tackles), a returning starter. If nothing else, Huff brings more disruptiveness to the table than his predecessor, Jimmy Staten. MTSU will roll with the starting end duo of senior Shubert Bastien and junior Alexandro Antoine (30 tackles), but keep an eye on how co-coordinators Tyrone Nix and Steve Ellis and line coach Tommy West utilize speedy redshirt freshmen Jahmal Jones and Todney Evans on passing downs.
Three JUCO transfers join the mix at linebacker, but open spots in the starting lineup will be hard to find. There's certainly no competition on the weak side, where junior T.T. Barber (119 tackles, 11.5 for loss) returns as one of the premier defenders in Conference USA. If the Blue Raiders do exceed expectations – say, topping Marshall to take the East Division – Barber will be in line for some major postseason hardware. His production overshadows that of another all-conference contender, senior middle linebacker Christian Henry (79 tackles), who needs help up front from block-occupying interior linemen to clean up plays in space. There might be a spot for a newcomer on the strong side, but only if one of the transfers can move ahead of junior James Roberson (35 tackles), the heir apparent to Stephen Roberts.
The secondary aims to retain last year's opportunistic mentality while sewing up the little things, such as a penchant for wilting in the fourth quarter against high-octane passing attacks. The Blue Raiders will do so with a new cast at cornerback: MTSU will replace a pair of departed contributors with senior Khari Burke, junior Jared Singletary (33 tackles) and senior Chris Sharpe, with Burke locked into a starting role on the left side while the latter pair dukes it out on the right. I'd gamble on Singletary, who made eight starts a season ago, but it's clear that MTSU plans to use all three in heavy doses as its top cornerbacks – seeing that depth outside this lead threesome comes primarily in redshirt freshmen and JUCO transfers. Two of those JUCO additions, Jamarcus Howard and Jordan Frost-Dixon, could conceivably earn increased playing time as they grab a firmer hold of the defense. There are no concerns about safety play, not when MTSU brings back one of Conference USA's best in junior Kevin Byard (106 tackles, 5 interceptions) and a fellow returning starter in junior Xavier Walker (54 tackles). This pair has been extremely effective in patrolling the back end and limiting big-play potential.
Special teams: Sophomore Cody Clark returns at kicker after making 12-of-16 attempts as a rookie. At punter, meanwhile, MTSU will replace Josh Davis with either junior Zachary Lopez or true freshman A.J. Wells, the latter an on-scholarship member of February's recruiting class. In the return game, look for Whatley, Bryson and Singletary to do the heavy lifting on kickoffs and punts.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: The Blue Raiders will head into fall camp with a three-way tie at the quarterback position: sophomore Austin Grammer is tied with true freshman Brent Stockstill, the coach's son, who is tied with redshirt freshman A.J. Erdley, who is therefore tied with Grammer, who is tied with Stockstill, and there you go. All three options are runners first – at this stage in their careers, at least – which has, as noted, impacted the staff's approach to the offensive side of the ball.
You have to give an early edge to Grammer, who spelled Kilgore a season ago as the Blue Raiders' primary backup; he struggled immensely as a passer but did add a run-game dimension to the position. He hasn't made noticeable progression as a thrower since the end of last season, a negative development that has allowed both Erdley and Stockstill to leap feet-first into this competition. In terms of the potential for an immediate impact,
Grammer still seems like MTSU's best option as the opening-day starter. In terms of long-range growth, however, Stockstill's pedigree, athleticism and touch as a passer makes him the most intriguing option of the bunch. I'd bet on Grammer getting the nod, but don't sleep on the rookie's chances of earning a start before midseason. At the very least, MTSU's running game should flourish with the shift in general offensive philosophy.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Marshall: It won't make or break the Blue Raiders' season, which can still be termed a success even without an East Division title. But the division – and the conference as a whole – will go through Marshall, a team and program eyeballing a major breakthrough behind a superb offense and several headlining senior contributors. The good news: MTSU might not win that one, but the schedule is far from intimidating. That should allow for another postseason bid, but making some noise outside the East demands one win from Minnesota, Marshall and Brigham Young.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Much depends on how well Middle Tennessee's offense takes to the shift in style; in turn, how well the offense takes to the shift in style hinges in significant part on what sort of production the Blue Raiders land from the quarterback position. One could make the case that the Blue Raiders' season lies entirely on quarterback play: MTSU needs run-game production from its quarterback, which shouldn't be an issue, but to say that this offense can succeed without a sense of balance is silly – Middle Tennessee still needs to stretch the field through the air to keep defenses honest, not to mention to keep pace with Marshall and others, and I wonder how capably Grammer, Stockstill or Erdley would fare as throwers.
That's a concern, but it shouldn't stop Middle Tennessee from reaching another bowl game. The running game will hum, for starters, behind a rock-solid backfield and a better-than-at-first-glance offensive front. Yeah, the interior is young, and that can't be overlooked. But I like the makeup of the line as a whole, from tackle to tackle, and believe the front will take care of business on early downs. Defensively, the Blue Raiders are solid along the front seven, particularly at linebacker, and have enough depth in the secondary to trot out a capable rotation against the Thundering Herd's near-unstoppable passing attack. Based on all this team has, it's not ridiculous to think MTSU can match last year's win total.
Not that it'd be an overly impressive eight-win finish. MTSU will lose to Marshall, in my opinion, and should lose to Minnesota and BYU. There are also toss-up games against Western Kentucky, Memphis and Florida Atlantic. But it's a smooth slate, by and large, and I envision at least six and as many as eight wins during the regular season. When given the issues with offensive imbalance and the questions at quarterback, a return to the postseason would be a commendable achievement for Stockstill and his staff.
Dream season: MTSU doesn't quite sneak past Marshall, but the Blue Raiders stake claim to the second spot in Conference USA with a nine-win regular season.
Nightmare season: The Blue Raiders struggle in the transition on offense, resulting in a losing finish for the first time in three seasons.
Who's No. 69? This program's last conference title came in the same year that a former Pac-12 coach who played under three different head coaches as a collegiate offensive lineman was born.
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