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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 58: Middle Tennessee State

Find Rutherford, and you'll find Murfreesboro. Look closer, and you'll find a 10-win team.

Few teams were as hot down the stretch as Middle Tennessee, winners of seven straight to end the season. Those seven victories alone accounted for more than M.T.S.U. had posted in a single year since 2006, and when taken in conjunction with three wins in September gave it a new program-record for victories on the F.B.S. level. Unfortunately for the Blue Raiders, a loss to eventual conference champion Troy on Oct. 6 cost them a chance at the Sun Belt crown despite a 7-1 mark in conference play. That loss, however, should not detract from just how impressive this team was last fall, its fourth season under coach Rick Stockstill.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Nickname
Blue Raiders

Returning starters
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 91

2009 record
(10-3, 7-1)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 49

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    Minnesota
  • Sept. 11
    Austin Peay
  • Sept. 18
    at Memphis
  • Sept. 25
    at La.-Lafayette
  • Oct. 5
    Troy
  • Oct. 16
    at Georgia Tech
  • Oct. 23
    La.-Monroe
  • Nov. 2
    at Arkansas St.
  • Nov. 13
    North Texas
  • Nov. 20
    at W.K.U.
  • Nov. 27
    Florida Atlantic
  • Dec. 4
    at F.I.U.

Last year’s prediction

Middle Tennessee is one of four teams I believe have a very good chance at winning the Sun Belt. Why does Middle Tennessee deserve to be on this list? For starters, its returning talent. So what’s the problem? Yet again, a tough early schedule. All in all, the Blue Raiders are a good, solid team, but not a good enough club to overcome another tough schedule. New year, same prediction: 6-6, perhaps 7-5 with an early upset.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Only one of Middle Tennessee’s Sun Belt victories came by a touchdown or less; the rest came by at least 16 points. Even with the loss to Troy, which was absolutely disappointing, it’s hard to ignore just how far ahead the Blue Raiders were from the remainder of the conference. Now, a dose of reality: the Raiders did not play a team with a winning record (until bowl season) after Oct. 6. Should that discount how well the team played over the second half of the year? Well, maybe a little – hence my re-ranking M.T.S.U. at No. 49. But that M.T.S.U. beat bad teams is a sign of a well-coached, properly motivated team, which illustrates this program’s current standing and its potential in 2010 and beyond. Fourteen returning starters will boost Middle Tennessee’s chances of carrying over its 2009 success to this coming season.

High point Seven consecutive wins to end the season, a program record on the F.B.S. level. In only two of those games – at Florida Atlantic and against Southern Mississippi – did M.T.S.U. not enter the second half holding a double-digit lead. Few teams played as well over the second half of the season, though few teams had as easy a path to bowl eligibility.

Low point A loss to Troy, despite coming in early October, cost Middle Tennessee the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker in the chase for the conference title. After winning 10 of its first 11 games against the Trojans, M.T.S.U. has lost five of six against its main Sun Belt competition.

Tidbit Last fall saw Middle Tennessee State post three wins against F.B.S. opponents outside the Sun Belt, the first time the Blue Raiders had done so since 2001. In that season, M.T.S.U. topped Vanderbilt, New Mexico State and Connecticut. In addition to last fall’s bowl win against Southern Mississippi, the Blue Raiders beat Memphis and Maryland.

Tidbit (10-win edition) Last season’s Blue Raiders were the first team in the modern era of the Sun Belt — since it became part of the F.B.S. in 2001 — to win 10 games in a season. A few other programs have been close: Florida Atlantic won eight games in 2005; North Texas won eight games in 2002 and nine games in 2003; and Troy, of course, has won at least eight games in each of the last four seasons, including nine a year ago.

Former players in the N.F.L.

6 WR Troy Bergeron (Atlanta), WR Patrick Honeycutt (Denver), DT Thomas Johnson (Atlanta), DE Chris McCoy (Miami), CB Marcus Udell (Seattle), LB Erik Walden (Miami).

Arbitrary top five list

Important Civil War battles in Tennessee
1. Shiloh.
2. Fort Donelson.
3. Fort Henry.
4. Franklin.
5. Murfreesboro.

Coaching

Rick Stockstill (Florida State ’82), 27-23 after four seasons at Middle Tennessee. After going 7-6 and winning a Sun Belt co-championship in 2006, Stockstill slipped to 5-7 in each of the following two seasons before setting a new program record on the F.B.S. level with 10 wins last fall. His seven wins as a first-year coach were the most by a rookie M.T.S.U. coach since Charles Murphy won nine in 1947. In addition, he was the first Middle Tennessee coach since Red Floyd in 1935 to win a conference title in his first season with the program. Hopes were relatively low for Stockstill and the Blue Raiders that fall, as the program was coming off four consecutive losing seasons under his predecessor, Andy McCollum. Picked to finish sixth in the preseason media poll, the Blue Raiders won four of their final six games to win the conference and play in the program’s first bowl game since joining the F.B.S. in 1999; in all, it was the program’s first postseason appearance since 1964. This late-season push has since become a trend for Stockstill, as each of his four teams have won at least three straight games in October or November. Before being named the program’s 13th head coach in 2006, Stockstill spent two seasons as an assistant under Lou Holtz at South Carolina (2004-5), first as the team’s wide receiver coach (2004) before taking on the dual role of tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator in 2005. He is perhaps most well-known for an extended period as an assistant at Clemson (1989-2002), where he served, over varying lengths of time, as the team’s recruiting coordinator, wide receivers coach, quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator. Stockstill’s tenure at Clemson lasted through four separate head coaches (Danny Ford, Ken Hatfield, Tommy West and Tommy Bowden), an obvious testament to his stature among his fellow coaches. After losing a bit of his luster following his back-to-back 5-7 seasons in 2007-8, Stockstill has justified his standing as one of the best coaches in the Sun Belt. With another strong season, he’ll certainly be in line for a job at a B.C.S. conference program.

Players to watch

He's good enough to break M.T.S.U. records. But the Blue Raiders need Dwight Dasher to stay healthy.

The only factor preventing Dwight Dasher from ranking among the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country are his occasional bouts with inconsistency: the senior had a penchant for alternating superb passing performances with lackluster ones, eventually settling with a completion percentage below where it needs to be — or should be — in this offense. But make no mistake: when Dasher is on, he’s the best player in the Sun Belt. He finished last season with 2,789 yards passing and another 1,154 yards on the ground, the latter making him the first M.T.S.U. quarterback to crack the 1,000-yard mark in a single season. In his defense, last fall marked Dasher’s first full season in the starting lineup; he’ll be even better in 2010. Without question, he’s the early choice for Sun Belt Player of the Year. His health is also key for this offense, let alone the team as a whole: I don’t think the M.T.S.U. reserves are ready for prime time.

With Dasher in place and the projected return of senior back Phillip Tanner, the Middle Tennessee offensive backfield is the best in the Sun Belt. Tanner entered last fall coming off a 714-yard, 15-touchdown 2008 campaign, but was lost for the year two games into the season. Tanner received a medical redshirt for last fall, but he may have lost his grasp on the full-time starting role due to emergence of junior D.D. Kyles, who rushed for 857 yards — landing third-team all-Sun Belt honors in the process — in his first year of consistent action. Whether it’s Kyles or Tanner landing the starting role, both will earn significant carries: as noted, this backfield is loaded.

This Middle Tennessee offensive line has made enormous strides over the last two years, developing from an inexperienced, unsteady group into one of the stoutest fronts in the Sun Belt. The players who started as freshmen and sophomores in 2008 are now the foundation of this offensive line: left tackle Mike Williams, left guard Brandon McElroy and right guard Alex Stuart are entering their third seasons in the starting lineup, while senior Mark Fisher has been a fixture at right tackle since his freshman campaign. There is reason to believe this group to be even better than it was a year ago, thanks to its wealth of experience and its play over the second half of last season. The Blue Raiders will have a new starter at center, but senior Chris Hawkins brings starting experience at that spot, as well as at left tackle, into his final year.

The Middle Tennessee secondary has some holes to fill, especially at cornerback: four contributors must be replaced, including Alex Suber and Marcus Udell. I still like what the Blue Raiders are capable of achieving on the back end of the defense, as the team will combat some depth concerns at cornerback with a pair of all-conference caliber safeties: both strong safety Kevin Brown (63 tackles, 4 interceptions) and free safety Jeremy Kellem (64 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 interceptions) earned second-team all-Sun Belt accolades last fall. There’s plenty of depth at safety, in fact. Junior Derrick Crumpton has started four games over the last two years, and sophomores Denzell Guerra and Juno Prudhomm are future starters for the Blue Raiders.

Now, about the cornerback situation. Perhaps it’s not as dire as I’ve made it out believe: the Blue Raiders do return Rod Isaac, after all, and the senior could be the best at his position in the Sun Belt. Finding a second starter, let alone depth, will be key. Stockstill moved Malcolm Beyah, an 11-game starter at receiver over his career, to cornerback in an effort to increase this depth; the Blue Raiders also added JUCO transfer Arness Ikner, who will certainly factor into the mix. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Marquise Dixon, who is the most physically talented cornerback on the roster outside of Isaac. The starting job will come down to this trio.

It’s hard to ignore what Middle Tennessee has lost on the front seven: all-conference linemen Chris McCoy and Brandon Perry and linebackers Danny Carmichael and Cam Robinson. The Blue Raiders will rebuild on the fly, particularly at linebacker. Senior Antwan Davis returns on the strong side: he made 52 tackles last fall, fourth among returning defenders. However, outside of Davis, M.T.S.U. won’t have the luxury of experience at the position. Sophomore Justin Jones looks like the man at linebacker after his stellar rookie campaign, though he did not land a start a year ago. Middle Tennessee could also turn to junior Gorby Loreus, another of last season’s reserves, on the weak side.

It’s always difficult to replace linemen like McCoy and Perry, both of whom demanded constant attention from opposing offensive lines. I’m not sure if any of Middle Tennessee’s returning linemen will draw the same kind of attention, though senior Jamari Lattimore is certainly one of the top ends in the Sun Belt. The big question, of course, is what kind of production Lattimore puts forth while being the center of attention; there’s no question he benefited from Perry’s stature as one of the top interior performers in the conference a year ago. Perry’s mantle will fall to senior Dwight Smith, a two-year starting tackle, though Smith did not participate in spring practice due to injuries. Stuart was not the only defensive lineman dealing with injuries during the spring: tackles SaCoby Carter and Gary Tucker were limited, as were ends Jarrett Critenton and Phillip Tinsley. At some point, Crittenton needs to live up to his immense billing: he’s largely been unable to stay healthy, diminishing his production, but it’s now or never for the talented senior.

Position battles to watch

Wide receivers Middle Tennessee must rebuild a depleted receiver corps, which lost three top receiving targets from a year ago: Patrick Honeycutt, Desmond Gee and Chris McClover. Not that the cupboard is necessarily bare; the Blue Raiders return a few receivers with experience, like Garrett Andrews and Sancho McDonald, and add a handful of talented targets at the position. The key to maintaining last year’s production in the passing game may be the development of Andrews, who made 35 catches for 530 yards and 4 touchdowns a year ago — all three totals ranked second on the team. He’ll need to step up into a major role, as will McDonald, who added 24 receptions in 2009. Keep an eye on the new additions to the M.T.S.U. receiver corps: Tyler Mason, Jared Bamber, Jamar Brown and Todd Campbell, the latter a transfer from Tennessee eligible for immediate action. Given the returning talent and these new additions, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that Middle Tennessee could be better, let alone as good, at receiver; how the depth chart shakes itself out remains to be seen, however.

Game(s) to watch

The Oct. 5 date with Troy. If last season is any indication, that game will go a long way toward determining the eventual conference champion. Middle Tennessee also gets a great shot at making some early noise with its season-opening home game against Minnesota.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell And thus I close down the Sun Belt. (Wipes hands, takes a nap.) Middle Tennessee may not be the overwhelming favorite — I waffled between the Blue Raiders and Troy — but this team brings the necessary pieces to the table to land a conference championship: experience on both sides of the ball; a dedicated, often superb ground game; a potentially solid defense; and the knowledge, thanks to last season, of what it takes to break into the national conversation. Don’t overestimate what that last fact means to this team: Middle Tennessee had scuffled from 2007-8, putting forth matching 5-7 marks, and needed a big season last fall to validate Stockstill’s stature within the program. Now, what can the Blue Raiders do for an encore? I don’t think it’s too much to ask for another 10-win season; there’s little reason to think M.T.S.U. will be any worse, though it’s not every year that a mid-level F.B.S. programs puts forth a seven-game win streak. For Middle Tennessee, the next step is not an 11-win campaign, nor even a repeat of last year’s mark. It’s all about taking back the Sun Belt from the Trojans, a task that comes down to the Oct. 5 home tilt. That game decides the season: the Blue Raiders are going bowling either way, but it’s time to step up and take the Sun Belt.

Dream season The Blue Raiders repeat last season’s 10-win finish, with the added bonus of a win over Troy. That gives Middle Tennessee the Sun Belt crown, as you might imagine.

Nightmare season M.T.S.U. loses half of its 2009 win total in a 5-7 season.

In case you were wondering

Where do Middle Tennessee State fans congregate? Not a lot of options, though you can find stellar Middle Tennessee sports chatter and recruiting coverage at Go Middle and Blue Raider Zone. Of course, list in the comment field below any sites I may have missed. If you post it, I’ll link to it.

Up Next

Who is No. 57? Our next program’s head coach is responsible for two of the most remarkable single-season turnarounds in the F.B.S. since 1999.

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Comments

  1. george howley says:

    SMU?

  2. Frank says:

    NIU

  3. M Meyer says:

    Brian Kelly, new head coach of Notre Dame?

  4. Seth says:

    June Jones’ SMU Mustangs went from 1-11 in 2008 to 8-5 in 2009, and his 1999 Bows (I refuse to use the new name) went 9-3 after the 1998 edition had gone winless with Fred von Appen.

  5. KnightTower says:

    George O’Leary and UCF.

  6. 6hearts says:

    One could consider the three wins against non-Sun Belt FBS teams unprecedented, as UCONN was not a full-fledged Division 1-A member until 2002.

    Paul: That’s a great point. And you’re right, that probably shouldn’t count, technically. Another example of how strong Middle Tennessee was a year ago. Nice job by you.

  7. wildcat6 says:

    I believe based on Seth’s comment that SMU is correct.

    This is one of the best, most informative websites I’ve seen in any genre, much less college football. And the intelligent comments…I feel as if I’m surrounded by a bunch of college professors.

    Paul: Couldn’t agree more with the comments. Obviously a lot of smart, knowledgeable college football fans clocking in. Definitely makes the conversation better.

  8. Footballa says:

    I say MT has a good shot of winning at least 11 games, and would not be shocked if they were actually the favorite coming in the the Minnesota game.

    Mainly, the offensive line is the most experienced they’ve ever had there. Most of their success seemed to feed of their progression last year as they have been working more cohesively with Dasher’s imporv style.

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