In the end, everything is a zero-sum game. I have spent most of the last week telling you why Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Western Kentucky and North Texas are all interesting programs on the rise, and why South Alabama may be able to become competitive pretty quickly. But for four to five different programs in the Sun Belt to improve, someone has to regress.
In 2011, Middle Tennessee was that someone.
Rick Stockstill had built a steady program in Murfreesboro, winning a decent 17 games in his first three seasons (2006-08), then peaking with a 10-3 campaign and New Orleans Bowl win in 2009. The Blue Raiders had established themselves alongside Troy as one of the Sun Belt's heavyweights.
But then the rest of the conference either adjusted or hired good coaches, and MTSU began to slide at almost a 45-degree angle. Despite decent hype, they fell to just 6-7 in 2010 following the departure of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, then completely fell apart in 2011. They won just two games (against Memphis and Florida Atlantic, which ranked 117th and 118th out of 120 teams), lost by 28 points to Louisiana-Monroe, then by 52 points to North Texas in the season finale.
Two years ago, the now-54-year-old Stockstill was a hot name in the coaching world, reportedly spurning advances from East Carolina and Memphis to remain at Middle Tennessee. Now, he looks like the football version of Southern Illinois basketball coach Chris Lowery, a case study in striking while the iron is hot or risking an extraordinary cooling process.
Can the Blue Raiders recover from this rather stunning, precipitous fall? And if they do, then who falls because of their rise?
The good news: there is skill on offense, and there's almost no way in hell Kilgore will throw as many picks as [Dwight] Dasher over the course of the season, at least not without a lot more touchdowns as well.
The bad news: YPP margin suggests that, even with the horrific turnover margin, MTSU wasn't particularly unlucky last year.
The good news: MTSU has been near or above average for a Sun Belt team for four seasons now, and if they could survive (sort of -- they did still go bowling) the loss of Diaz in the coaching staff, they can survive the loss of players like Dwight Dasher and Jamari Lattimore on the field.
The bad news: three returning defensive starters! A completely rebuilt defensive line! And not much of a recruiting base from which to draw replacements.
Rick Stockstill is a good coach, and I think this is still a squad that can get to another bowl, but the ten-win season of 2009 might have been the highpoint for the Stockstill era. Reaching those heights again might be difficult.
I felt this team still had a chance at a 6-6 (or so) season last year, primarily because I did not think they would miss aptly-named former quarterback Dwight Dasher that much on offense. I was off by four games and one pretty bad offense.
My first impression of Middle Tennessee came in a game they played at Missouri in 2003. They almost upset the Tigers that day because they were so wonderfully proficient at a no-huddle, shotgun style that half the country would come to imitate a few years later. They would run a successful play, quickly run to the line of scrimmage (to keep the same defensive personnel on the field), look to the sideline for the next play call, then gain another eight yards. It kept Missouri horribly off-balance, and it was quite effective and innovative.
Stockstill wasn't the coach then, but first impressions linger; plus, these impressions were bolstered by the similar offense Stockstill ran with aptly-named Dwight Dasher a couple of years ago. The Blue Raiders have attempted to stay on the cutting edge when it comes to an up-tempo spread style. Unfortunately, they weren't very good at it last year. General rushing efficiency, solid line play and decent quarterback play from Logan Kilgore were completely undone by a horrible lack of big-play potential and the general tendency to go horizontal instead of vertical.
New offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner, who was Murray State's offensive coordinator in 2010 and MTSU's quarterbacks coach last year, is saying all the right things regarding changes to the Blue Raiders' offense. "Vertical run game." "Both the passing attack and run game are more aggressive." Et cetera. Theory and practice are two different things, but it does appear that MTSU has successfully identified last year's problems. Now, do they have the players to make a difference?
They certainly have candidates in the backfield. Running backs William Pratcher and Benny Cunningham combined to rush for 1,086 yards last season, albeit with a minus-12.4 Adj. POE (which means they were about two touchdowns worse than average in their given carries). Pratcher in particular showed a little bit of game-breaker potential, averaging a healthy 1.8 Highlight Yards per carry. They will be tested by ultra-fast LSU transfer Drayton Calhoun; we don't know at this point what kind of actual ball-carrying skills Calhoun has, but he's got the speed MTSU lacked last year.
An improved running game could help quarterback Logan Kilgore (assuming he holds off interesting redshirt freshman Shaun White), who posted decent stats despite a lack of weapons. He completed 59 percent of his passes, threw 18 touchdowns to a slightly high 12 interceptions, and got sacked just 1.4 percent of the time. (Granted, it is easy to complete passes and avoid sacks if you are throwing quick, horizontal passes.) He loses four of his top seven targets from last year, but it is difficult to get too worked up about the losses. None of the four averaged better than 4.8 adjusted yards per target. There is nothing saying their replacements will be even better, but between returnees Tavarres Jefferson, Kyle Griswould and Anthony Amos and newcomers like redshirt freshman Christian Collis and junior college transfers Jacob Bennett and Marcus Henry, the receiving corps should at least be no worse than last year's.
The main problem for MTSU could come on the line. The Blue Raiders were average in run-blocking (76th in Adj. Line Yards) and fantastic in pass protection (fourth in Adj. Sack Rate, though some of that is probably due to Kilgore), but they must replace four starters and over 125 career starts. First-team all-conference center Colin Boss? Gone. Second-team all-conference guard Brandon McLeroy? Gone. Four-year starting tackle Mike Williams? Gone. Five players with starting experience return, but they have combined for just 34 career starts, 20 from tackle Alex Stuart. Aggressive, vertical play-calling is great, but Kilgore has to have time to let the players get downfield. He might not in 2012.
Just two years ago, Middle Tennessee had perhaps the best mid-major defense in the country. They ranked 21st in Def. F/+, and, despite the presence of exciting quarterback Dasher, they were the primary reason for the Blue Raiders' surge to 10-3. They were so good, in fact, that coordinator Manny Diaz got hired away by Mississippi State.
Between the change in staff and the turnover in personnel, it did not take long for reality to assert itself. MTSU regressed to 53rd in Def. F/+ in 2010 … and then 114th in 2011. They returned just three returning starters last year, patched together a defensive line out of spare parts, and got destroyed. They ranked 117th in Rushing S&P+, 113th in Passing S&P+, 117th on standard downs, 94th on passing downs (a relative strength!), 118h in the red zone, 117th in the first quarter, 118th in the third and 114th in the fourth. They got after the quarterback pretty well on passing downs, but that doesn't really matter when you can't FORCE passing downs.
In 2012, Middle Tennessee will offer us two different viewpoints on the matter of whether experience is always good. The defensive line, which ranked 118th in Adj. Line Yards last year and produced only one player with more than 2.5 sacks (that one player has since moved to linebacker), returns almost everybody, while a secondary that also wasn't very good must replace all four starters. Will the line automatically improve while the secondary automatically regresses?
If the Middle Tennessee's defense improves in 2012, here are the four people who will probably be most directly involved:
- Tyrone Nix. Houston Nutt's defensive coordinator at Ole Miss, Nix is a well-respected assistant coach who comes to Murfreesboro as co-coordinator with Steve Ellis. No one has done more to prove the importance of a good coordinator than MTSU, which has fallen apart since the departure of Manny Diaz; Nix alone probably means this defense will improve at least a little bit.
- Justin Jones. The junior linebacker was hampered by injury and played just three games last fall, but he was still second among all MTSU linebackers with four tackles for loss. He was named to the Sun Belt all-freshman team in 2009 and had registered nine tackles for loss in his first two years before last fall's lost season. If healthy, he might have the highest ceiling of any defender on the team.
- Leighton Gasque. A 200-pound end last year, Gasque was used only as a pass-rush specialist. But he was actually pretty good in that role, racking up seven sacks among his 15.5 tackles. He moves to strongside linebacker this year (he is still light for his position, but he's at least closer), and one figures he will be used in something of the same role. He's clearly fast, but can he develop into someone who can make a difference on standard downs as well as passing downs?
- Omar McLendon. One of only two MTSU defenders to even receive honorable mention all-conference recognition last year, McLendon was by default the best player on the line, making 43.0 tackles, snagging 4.5 tackles for loss, and breaking up four passes. All told, those are relatively meager numbers, but the 240-pound senior is, again by default, this year's most proven defender. He has some potential, if not quite enough.
Gasque and Jones add depth to what should honestly be a pretty good linebacker unit, but there are just so many question marks at the front and back of the defense.
The Blue Raiders host McNeese State, Florida Atlantic, and Troy; win all three of those, exact some revenge on North Texas in Murfreesboro, and take out Memphis and South Alabama on the road -- all reasonable accomplishments -- and you are at five wins. It is difficult to ask them to win all of those games (plus one more) without a slip-up, however, so I will define the success point as a 5-7 season. Obviously hopes will be higher than that, but it is a long road back from 2-10.
It is not at all unreasonable to suggest that MTSU will improve at least incrementally in 2011, and if they do, then there are certainly some wins on the schedule for the taking. But when a crash happens as forcefully as it has in Murfreesboro, it usually takes a little while to bounce back. Kilgore is a pretty good quarterback, and there is reason for optimism at running back and linebacker. Plus, Nix is a lovely addition to the coaching staff. But with a questionable receiving corps and enormous question marks in the trenches (on both sides of the ball) and in the defensive backfield, it is probably asking too much for them to improve beyond about 105th overall. They should still improve their win total by at least a couple of games, but Stockstill and the Blue Raiders are probably in for quite a few more losses this fall.