Middle Tennessee football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Blue Raiders, best players and season prediction.
It’s certainly not as if Middle Tennessee has a reached a point that it scoffs at bowl games and winning seasons. The program is just searching for more than garden variety campaigns at this stage of the Rick Stockstill era.
Over the past decade, Stockstill has done a solid job at a school that lacks a deeply-rooted football tradition. He’s brought stability to the ‘Boro, and his teams haven’t had a losing season since 2011. But Stockstill’s squad also haven’t won a conference title since his debut in 2006, and therein lies the sense of stagnation hanging above the Blue Raiders.
Middle Tennessee, which has essentially been a .500 program during Stockstill’s tenure, is hoping to take the next step in its fourth season as a Conference USA member. And after finishing in second place in each of the first three years, there’s a sense of urgency to catch up to divisional frontrunners Western Kentucky and Marshall.
If the Blue Raiders are going to close the gap on the Hilltoppers and the Herd, it’ll most certainly be driven by the offense. Despite a ridiculous number of fumbles, Middle Tennessee averaged 34 points per game in 2015. And the catalysts for that attack, QB Brent Stockstill and WR Richie James, are only in their second seasons. In other words, the unit has yet to hit its stride, comforting news since the defense looks like a liability.
The D is facing a potential leadership and talent shortfall this year. All but one of last season’s stars, CB Jeremy Cutrer, ran out of eligibility, raising the possibility that the Blue Raiders are in danger of reverting back to 2014, when they yielded an average of 34 points to FBS opponents. Middle Tennessee knows it possesses the arsenal to compete in shootouts, but too many such games have a way of catching up to and haunting teams.
Middle Tennessee is not ashamed of being a little greedy and dissatisfied. It’s a natural stage of development for smaller programs hoping to evolve from second-tier bowl games to conference title contention. The Blue Raiders boast the offense to move higher in the Conference USA pecking order, but meeting team goals will hinge heavily on the direction of a retooled defense.
What You Need to Know About the Middle Tennessee Offense
The last time Tony Franklin coordinated the Blue Raider offense in 2009, the team set records. His return could to Murfreesboro could precipitate more offensive firsts in the coming years. Franklin left Cal to take over a unit that’s brimming with talent and potential.
Predecessor Buster Faulkner laid the groundwork in 2015, overseeing the dynamic rookie pitch-and-catch duo of Brent Stockstill to Richie James. And while Stockstill and James are poised for Group of Five stardom in 2016, they also figure to get more help this fall.
Sure-handed RB Shane Tucker has moved to “Y” receiver, joining tight end-sized playmaker Terry Pettis. But it’s the backs and a seasoned O-line that should help make the attack more balanced and unpredictable this season.
The combination of Desmond Anderson, who showed flashes as a rookie, and I’Tavius Mathers, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in three seasons at Ole Miss, means defenses will have to contend with more than just a precision passing game.
Biggest Key To The Middle Tennessee Offense
Marshaling Mathers. After rushing for their fewest yards in three years in 2015, the Blue Raiders know they must do a better job on the ground this fall. Brent Stockstill to Richie James is the signature play in Murfreesboro, but better balance will carry the offense to a new level. Enter I’Tavius Mathers, the former four-star Ole Miss recruit, who hopes to combine with Desmond Anderson to give Middle Tennessee more pop and explosiveness between the tackles.
What You Need to Know About the Middle Tennessee Defense
Now that the Blue Raider D succeeded in making significant strides in 2015, can it continue the trend without so many key players?
After imploding in 2014, Middle Tennessee improved in almost every statistical category last fall. But that was when standouts T.T. Barber and Kevin Byard were patrolling linebacker and strong safety, respectively. Coordinator Tyrone Nix is looking for someone other than next-level CB Jeremy Cutrer to step up and consistently make plays in 2016. The biggest voids will be at safety and linebacker, where not a single full-timer is back in the mix.
While the linebackers might hang up numbers, the group right now appears to be no better than average. The safeties, though, have a chance to be pretty good, with Alex Dale and Jovante Moffatt on the verge of blooming.
Up front, the linemen are experienced, all senior starters in fact. However, Nix is looking for them to make more money plays, particularly ends Steven Rhodes and Chris Hale looping around the edge.
Biggest Key To The Middle Tennessee Defense
Revamping the linebackers. The Blue Raiders took a lot of graduation hits on defense, none more so than at the second level. All three of last year’s starters were seniors, including perennial all-star T.T. Barber. Plus, decorated JUCO recruit Detric Bing-Dukes reversed his field in March and elected to sign with Ole Miss. Of the projected starters, strongside junior DJ Sanders is closest to being ready after making 44 stops a season ago.
Middle Tennessee Will Be Far Better If …
it finally does a better job of protecting the ball. Since joining Conference USA three years ago, the Blue Raiders have never finished higher than eighth in the league in turnovers lost. In 2013 and 2014, picks were an issue, but last fall they simply couldn’t get a handle on the ball. Middle Tennessee lost more fumbles, 19, than any other FBS team, too often stifling drives that could have been turned into points.
Best Offensive Player
Sophomore QB Brent Stockstill. At this time last year, Middle Tennessee wasn’t even certain who’d be its starting quarterback when the season began. But Stockstill seized it, laying the ground floor for what will likely be a four-year career as a starter. He’s the steady hand that helps make the Blue Raider attack go, distributing the ball like a heady point guard. And with coordinator Tony Franklin now guiding his development, Stockstill has a great opportunity to emerge as Conference USA’s premier quarterback.
Best Defensive Player
Senior CB Jeremy Cutrer. The MTSU defense is facing serious question marks this offseason. Cornerback will not be one of them. Cutrer is an SEC-caliber pass defender, signed by LSU before being forced to travel the JUCO path to Murfreesboro. He’s long and agile, with the backpedal and closing speed to shut down a swath of the field for opposing quarterbacks. With pro scouts beginning to look closer, Cutrer will play with the knowledge that 2016 is a salary run season for him.
Key Players to a Successful Season
Senior ends Steven Rhodes and Chris Hale. After losing last season’s top four tacklers and four of its five all-leaguers, Middle Tennessee is bracing for a mini-rebuild on defense this fall. To help with the transition to so many new faces in the lineup, everyone is going to benefit if more pressure can be mounted without necessarily having to sell out. Now that Rhodes and Hale are in their final seasons, it’s incumbent on both vets to take some heat off the back seven by regularly disrupting plays in the backfield.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
Middle Tennessee gets back to winning eight games. The Blue Raiders won eight in 2012 and 2013, and this squad harbors the offensive formula to raise the bar a peg higher after going 7-6 last season. In all likelihood, MTSU will have to outgun opponents in 2016, but it has the requisite parts to survive. True, there are some landmines on the schedule, such as non-conference road trips to Bowling Green, Vanderbilt and Missouri, but there are also enough winnable games to make a second straight bowl trip a high probability.
Oct. 15 vs. Western Kentucky. It’s been a decade since Middle Tennessee won a share of a conference title. It’s an accomplishment high on Rick Stockstill’s to-do list. But even getting out of the East Division of Conference USA will require surpassing Marshall and Western Kentucky. The Blue Raiders defeated the Herd in a thriller last November, but were routed by the Hilltoppers, 58-28. This year’s matchup will be at Floyd Stadium, with an early leg up in the division at stake.
2015 Fun Stats
– Fumbles lost: Middle Tennessee 19 – Opponents 8
– Passing yards per game: Middle Tennessee 311.7 – Opponents 253.5
– Red-zone touchdown %: Middle Tennessee 67% – Opponents 53%