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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. 91: Middle Tennessee State

First it was Troy. Now it’s Florida International? There’s always some impediment to Middle Tennessee State returning to the top of the Sun Belt, it seems, even if some of these roadblocks are put up by, say, Middle Tennessee’s own starting quarterback. That was the case in 2010, at least. Perhaps asking for a repeat of last season’s 10-win output was a tad misguided, seeing that the Blue Raiders are the only Sun Belt team to do so even once, let alone twice. But last season was a disappointment, bowl run or no, and closes a window on a period of time where it seemed Middle Tennessee was the clear class of the conference. The last time this happened, the Blue Raiders went 5-7 in back-to-back seasons.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Nickname
Blue Raiders

Returning starters
10 (7 offense, 3 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 58

2010 record
(6-7, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 85

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Purdue
  • Sept. 10
    Georgia Tech
  • Sept. 24
    at Troy
  • Oct. 1
    Memphis
  • Oct. 6
    Western Kentucky
  • Oct. 22
    at F.A.U.
  • Oct. 29
    La.-Lafayette
  • Nov. 5
    at Tennessee
  • Nov. 12
    at La.-Monroe
  • Nov. 19
    Arkansas St.
  • Nov. 26
    F.I.U.
  • Dec. 3
    North Texas

Last year’s prediction

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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The bad news came earlier and persisted for much of 2010. It began during the late summer, when it was revealed that quarterback Dwight Dasher would miss the first four games of the year due to some off-field malfeasance. He returned in time for a key home date with Troy on Oct. 5, at which point the Blue Raiders were 2-2, undefeated in the Sun Belt. Troy blew their doors off, as did Georgia Tech a week later and Arkansas State three weeks later, leaving Middle Tennessee needing three straight wins to end the regular season in order to return to bowl play. Well, it got those wins, but it was a very unsatisfying season. The two new coordinators were an issue, as was some attrition related to injuries and otherwise, but this team was supposed to be much better. The Blue Raiders lost to Memphis, which is one way to say that this team was not good.

High point A three-game winning streak to end the year. The wins came over North Texas, Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic, but wins are wins, and each win counts. And they’re especially meaningful if you’re sitting at 3-6 and need to go on a run to reach bowl eligibility.

Low point Yeah, this team lost to Memphis. That’s the low point. But another loss to Troy, especially one at home during a nationally televised weeknight game, was another early-season black eye.

Tidbit The Blue Raiders have won at least three straight games from Oct. 13 or later in each of Stockstill’s five seasons. In 2006, Middle Tennessee won four straight from Oct. 21 — Nov. 11. In 2007, the Blue Raiders won four straight from Oct. 13 — Nov. 3. In 2008, they won three straight from Nov. 8-22. It was a school record seven straight to end 2009, beginning on Oct. 24. Last fall, as mentioned above, the Blue Raiders reached bowl eligibility by winning three straight to end the regular season.

Tidbit (N.F.L. firsts edition) Quick teaser of the section below. Middle Tennessee has five former players actively playing in the N.F.L.; two, Troy Bergeron and Rod Issac, are the first two players in league history with their respective last names. There’s been a Bergeron in baseball — Peter, a former Montreal prospect — and countless Bergerons in the N.H.L., I’d imagine. And Issac Booth was a defensive back for the Browns and Ravens from 1994-96, but first names don’t count. Utterly meaningless information here.

Former players in the N.F.L.

5 WR Troy Bergeron (Dallas), CB Rod Issac (Jacksonville), DT Thomas Johnson (Atlanta), LB Chris McCoy (Pittsburgh), LB Erik Walden (Green Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Films produced by George Lucas
1. “The Empire Strikes Back,” 1980.
2. “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” 1981.
3. “Star Wars,” 1977.
4. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” 1989.
5. “Willow,” 1988.

Coaching

Rick Stockstill (Florida State ’82), 33-30 after five 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 in 2009. The Blue Raiders finished below .500 last fall, but did return to bowl play for a second consecutive season. 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. 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 bowl appearance since 1964. 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. 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.

Tidbit (coaching edition) It’s rare that a program fail so grandly with one coordinator, let alone two, as Middle Tennessee State did in 2010. To be fair, the two new additions were filling some pretty large shoes: former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Schultz replaced Tony Franklin, who left for Louisiana Tech; and Randall McCray, formerly of Wisconsin, currently at Pittsburgh, stepped in for the rapidly-rising Manny Diaz. It just wasn’t a good fit for both parties, and Middle Tennessee State paid the price with a four-slot drop in the win column. Perhaps looking for greater continuity from his coordinators, Rick Stockstill opted to hire from within to fill both spots, promoting Steve Ellis on defense and Willie Simmons on offense.

Players to watch

The offense will have a new-old look, both in terms of the coordinator calling the shots and the new faces dotting the starting lineup. One loss off last season’s offense that looms large is that of running back Phillip Tanner, who led the Blue Raiders in rushing (928) and score (13) after injuries cost him all but two games in 2009. Luckily, Middle Tennessee can tout a pair of experienced backs in junior Benjamin Cunningham (355 yards, 4 scores) and senior D.D. Kyles (414 yards, 5.4 per carry). These two should lead the way on the ground along with sophomore with sophomore William Pratcher.

We can find good news anywhere, if we look deep enough. So the Blue Raiders have three starting offensive linemen battling injuries: right guard Preston Bailey, center Colin Boss and left guard Brandon McElroy. This trio started all but five of a possible 39 games last fall; a fourth returning starter, left tackle Mike Williams, started 10 games last fall and — fingers crossed — is not experiencing any injury-related symptoms. What’s the silver lining? That the missed time has opened up extensive snaps for a second group that needs to be ready should the injuries continue. This group includes linemen like Alex Stuart, who started as a sophomore in 2009 but missed all of last season with a back injury. His return is like getting a fifth starter back up front, adding another face to an experienced group. If it can overcome the injury bug, this line will be a strength.

Receiver play was not up to snuff last fall, again partly due to the mismatched coordinator fit. There will be no excuses in 2011, now that the Middle Tennessee will begin moving back to a more non-stop no-huddle look, so seniors Malcolm Beyah (29 receptions for 388 yards) and Sancho McDonald (21 for 321) need to bring more production to the table. The quarterback situation, which I’ll touch on below, will also have something to do with a beefed-up passing attack. The challenge has been thrown at this talented but underachieving group: play up to your potential. That means getting more not just from those two seniors but also Tyler Mason, Harold Turner, Taverres Jefferson and more.

The defensive line was decimated by graduation. So was the secondary. Linebacker? Two starters return: Darin Davis on the strong side, Justin Jones on the weak side. With the departure of Jeremy Kellem, Rod Issac and Jamari Lattimore, Davis becomes the leader of the defense. He’ll happily accept that role, I’d imagine, after finishing second on the team with 81 tackles (9.5 for loss) while adding three sacks and three interceptions. Sophomore Corey Carmichael ended the year as the team’s starting middle linebacker and is a favorite to retain that role now that Antwan Davis has moved on, but don’t count out fellow sophomore Stephen Roberts. Like many, however, Roberts was limited during the spring due to injury issues.

It’s not a great thing that the linebacker corps is the most experienced group on the defense. Not a great thing at all. The defensive line has been gutted, as noted, and the Blue Raiders need to retool as soon as humanly — like right now, if you don’t mind. It will be a chore finding a way to replace Lattimore’s 15 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, both of which led the team. The task will fall to former reserves Omar McLendon and Dearco Nolan, and it’s really, really hard to see either stepping up like that as first-year starters. The depth along the interior is of equal concern: projected starters SaCoby Carter and Jimmy Staten played little and less in 2010, and the second group consists of unknowns.

At least there’s Arness Ikner. As expected, the former JUCO transfer stepped right into a starting role opposite Issac last fall, starting all 13 games and making a single interception, one of Middle Tennessee’s 11 on the season. Now Ikner needs to become the leader on the back end, a role he didn’t need to bother himself with a year ago; he was the lone non-senior in the starting lineup. Sophomore Marquise Dixon and senior T.L. Edwards made one start apiece last fall, but the starting spot opposite Ikner currently goes to sophomore Kenneth Gilstrap. I would have said a year ago that Dixon was Issac’s designated successor; now that he’s riding a little lower on the depth chart, I don’t know what to think.

Senior Derrick Crumpton (37 tackles, 4 for loss) was the team’s fifth defensive back last fall. He started five games when Middle Tennessee opened with a 4-2-5 look. Crumpton takes over at free safety; good luck replacing Kellem, who is pretty close to irreplaceable. Junior Denzell Guerra is the leading contender at strong safety.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback All of a sudden, Dwight Dasher turned into a turnover machine: 18 picks in only nine games, a shocking amount for a quarterback who tossed four fewer picks in 150 more attempts as a junior. Again, the coordinator hire really didn’t work. The turnover bug was passed along to sophomore Logan Kilgore, who tossed five in 50 attempts, including three in that dreadful loss to Memphis. Junior Jeff Murphy was better, but the wide majority of his game action came against Austin Peay, so it’s hard to include him in the conversation. In that conversation, at least; he’s firmly in the conversation regarding which returning quarterback will start for Middle Tennessee in 2011. Stockstill had hoped to have a decision made at the end of spring practice, but neither quarterback was able to distance himself from the other. And so the competition extends into the fall, hopefully to be decided prior to the season opener. The two former JUCO transfers bring slightly similar skill sets to the table, though Kilgore has the higher upside. But Murphy might be the more consistent choice, which should weigh heavily on Stockstill’s mind when he considers just how painful it was to watch his quarterbacks toss pick after pick a year ago.

Game(s) to watch

There’s an opportunity to make a move after a tough start. Beginning on Oct. 1, the Blue Raiders have four straight very winnable games: Memphis, Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and Louisiana-Lafayette. Middle Tennessee also takes on three B.C.S. conference foes in Purdue, Georgia Tech and Tennessee.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Four factors triggered Middle Tennessee State’s slide a year ago. One was Dwight Dasher’s suspension, which set the year off on a sour note. The second was turnovers. The third and fourth were the hires at offensive and defensive coordinator, respectively. Luckily, the Blue Raiders can address each of these in 2011. They just haven’t, at least not yet, and at least not on the first two. The quarterback situation remains unsettled. We won’t know about the turnover conundrum until the Blue Raiders return to the field come September. Stockstill did make changes at the coordinator spots, and while it was wise to promote assistants familiar with the program, we don’t yet know how each will take to his new role. The bottom line is that there are more questions than answers, both along the coaching staff and on the depth chart — beyond just quarterback. The offensive line has some minor injury issues to address, though I think they’ll resolve themselves by the fall; and I think the line is a strength, not a weakness. The running game needs to find a new leader. The receiver corps is defined by how much it has underachieved. The defensive line is a complete mystery, the secondary only slightly less so. How could anyone — minus the most optimistic portion of the fan base — predict Middle Tennessee to do more than scuffle along in five-win territory? One thing I do feel has happened thus far in 2011, though I don’t this is a trend, merely an occurrence: Middle Tennessee is at best standing still while its prime Sun Belt competition is moving forward. I don’t think it will last, but I think this team will struggle getting back to last season’s win total.

Dream season The Blue Raiders turn the page on a sour 2010 and pick up where they left off in 2010, notching 10 wins for the second tmie in three years.

Nightmare season The malaise continues into 2011: 3-9, 2-6 in the Sun Belt.

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.

Word Count

Through 30 teams 79,204.

Up Next

Who is No. 90? The coach at tomorrow’s university might have entered last season with a career winning percentage of .500, but he now has some work to do in order to get back to even.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. HW86 says:

    Pretty sure it’s Greg Schiano and Rutgers.

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Rutgers seems the logical choice. Schiano is gonna be on the hot seat.

  3. Adam Nettina says:

    Good call with the Lucas List. Frankly, in my opinion, it was all downhill from The Empire Strikes Back.

  4. Tom says:

    Bergeron never played a snap in a game while at Middle Tennessee…

    Paul: I know. He’s an incredible story. But I just go by how the N.F.L. qualifies college alumni, so I put Bergeron on the list. Same with Antonio Gates with Kent State, I guess. At least Bergeron was due to play at Middle Tennessee.

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