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1. A mid-major institution
Larry Blakeney's retirement left an opening. Troy's head coach since 1991, Blakeney had long owned the "dean of the mid-majors" title, but with him out of the picture, that title goes to one of two men: either UCF's George O'Leary (hired in 2004) or Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill (2006). It's hard to call UCF a mid-major -- the Knights won the Fiesta Bowl and belonged to a BCS conference barely more than a year ago -- so until that sinks in, I'm giving Stockstill the crown.
It's rare for someone to end up a long-serving coach at a school in one of FBS' second-tier conferences. On one hand, it's hard to win at a sustained level, and on another, if you win big, you're probably getting a power-conference job offer. Either you succeed and leave, or you fail and leave.
To end up at the same place for a while, you have to have dark spots on your résumé (Blakeney's involvement in the Eric Ramsey scandal, for instance, or O'Leary's literal résumé issues) or you have to master the art of succeeding, but not succeeding too much.
Stockstill appears to personify the latter. A Florida State quarterback for Bobby Bowden, Stockstill bounced from Bethune-Cookman to pre-FBS UCF before landing on Clemson's staff in 1989. He served various roles under Danny Ford, Ken Hatfield, Tommy West, and Tommy Bowden. He coached for a year under John Thompson at ECU and spent two more at South Carolina before landing the MTSU gig at age 48.
Now 57, Stockstill has found a nice groove. In his first seven seasons, he finished in the Sun Belt top two four times (with one conference co-title), achieved bowl eligibility four times, and won 10 games in 2009. He reportedly spurned the advances of a couple of other mid-major programs to stay in Murfreesboro, and his success helped position MTSU for when Conference USA was getting raided by the Big East and looking for new members.
The Blue Raiders joined C-USA in 2013 and have gone 11-5 in conference and 14-11 overall. They've been bowl eligible twice, though they missed out on a trip at 6-6 last fall. (Almost every bowl-eligible team makes a bowl, but MTSU's been left out twice in the last three years.)
At this point, Stockstill's probably too old to be considered for a power job even if he rips off a series of 10-win seasons, but really, this has turned into a pretty nice arrangement. He's survived and thrived in the wake of an awful 2-10 campaign in 2011, winning 22 games in the next three seasons. Plus, according to the 247Sports Composite, his last two recruiting classes have ranked a solid fifth and eighth in the Conference USA.
The Blue Raiders aren't threatening to become a conference power, but they're winning, and they boast one of the conference's more proven rosters.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 6-6 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 87|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|26-Sep||at Old Dominion||108||41-28||W||68%||11.2||93%|
|15-Nov||at Florida International||96||28-38||L||26%||-15.2||31%|
|Points Per Game||31.6||49||31.5||96|
When BYU visited MTSU
When BYU visited MTSU
Beyond money, there is really little reward for playing too tough a non-conference schedule. (But hey, money's probably enough.) MTSU took on an incredibly challenging slate, visiting Minnesota and Memphis and welcoming BYU. Granted, thanks to Minnesota's and Memphis' rises, that schedule ended up a lot more difficult than it seemed it would be when the games were scheduled. Still, those opponents ranked in the F/+ top 50, and all three beat MTSU relatively comfortably.
The Blue Raiders went 6-3 against everybody else and 5-3 in Conference USA, but the losses knocked them down the bowl totem pole, and they were home for Christmas.
There are volatile teams, and there are teams designed to punch in a certain weight class. Like UTEP, MTSU belonged in the latter camp. The Blue Raiders played poorly in losses to good teams but looked great in taking down the lesser teams on the slate.
- Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ No. 1-49): 19% (record: 0-4 | avg. score: Opp 37, MTSU 18)
- Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ No. 50-99): 49% (record: 2-2 | avg. score: MTSU 33, Opp 33)
- Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ No. 100+): 57% (record: 4-0 | avg. score: MTSU 44, Opp 25)
As long as your schedule isn't too top-heavy, playing your best games against your worst opponents is a good way to finish .500 or better while pulling off no particularly memorable victories. But while this is symmetrical, one other thing cost MTSU a bowl bid: shoddy November performances.
Even against three iffy teams to finish the season (FIU, FAU, UTEP), the Blue Raiders went 1-2 with one narrow win and two narrow losses. Knock off UTEP instead of losing a tossup, and you're probably bowling. But the defense suffered letdowns, allowing 5.8 yards per play to a one-dimensional UTEP offense, 5.9 to a no-dimensional FIU offense, and 7.1 to efficient FAU.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||44.7%||38||Succ. Rt. +||102.2||60|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||31.6||102||Def. FP+||98.0||92|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.5||61||Redzone S&P+||101.9||61|
|Q1 Rk||37||1st Down Rk||53|
|Q2 Rk||66||2nd Down Rk||86|
|Q3 Rk||79||3rd Down Rk||43|
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Austin Grammer||6'2, 205||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8025||221||338||2557||17||12||65.4%||26||7.1%||6.6|
|Brent Stockstill||6'0, 199||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8105||2||3||41||0||1||66.7%||0||0.0%||13.7|
|John Urzua||6'3, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7859|
3. Just cut down on the picks, Austin
On paper, Austin Grammer seems like the perfect quarterback for the system Stockstill and offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner want to run. The Blue Raiders attempt balance with a slight lean toward the run game, and Grammer is both mobile enough to add another dimension to the backfield (6.3 yards per non-sack carry) and efficient enough to spread defenses from side to side and prevent them from ganging up on the run.
Plus, he's got some play-maker genes -- he's able to produce nice bailout plays on passing downs. MTSU had a top-75 offense on standard downs and a top-40 offense on passing downs.
That Grammer was able to produce these efficiency numbers in his first year as a starter speaks well about where this offense could be headed. But it's obvious where he needs to improve: the brain farts were devastating. Not only did he throw 12 interceptions, take 26 sacks, and fumble five times, he did so at awful times. Five of his interceptions came in the fourth quarter, and seven came inside his own 40. Granted, there's no good place to throw a pick, but most of his were basically guaranteed to set up scoring opportunities for his opponents. He threw three interceptions in an otherwise winnable game at Minnesota, and he threw three more against FIU in a 10-point loss to what was on paper a lesser team.
You take the good with the bad, but hope experience generates fewer bad moments over the next couple of seasons. And if the bad moments don't cease, then backup and coach's son Brent Stockstill is waiting in the wings.
|Jordan Parker||RB||6'1, 222||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893||128||546||2||4.3||4.2||31.3%||2||1|
|Austin Grammer||QB||6'2, 205||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8025||98||614||6||6.3||5.5||46.9%||5||2|
|Shane Tucker||RB||6'0, 217||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8167||98||486||8||5.0||3.0||43.9%||3||1|
|Jeremiah Bryson||RB||5'8, 191||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8287||42||221||6||5.3||4.2||42.9%||1||1|
|Kamani Thomas||RB||5'9, 200||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8494|
|J'Vonte Herrod||RB||5'11, 215||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8348|
|Ruben Garnett||RB||5'9, 175||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8503|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Ed'Marques Batties||WR-X||6'0, 197||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8056||62||45||474||72.6%||19.3%||62.9%||7.6||-58||7.5||61.2|
|Shane Tucker||RB||6'0, 217||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8167||35||25||351||71.4%||10.9%||54.3%||10.0||55||10.1||45.3|
|Terry Pettis||WR-Y||6'5, 232||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||27||15||241||55.6%||8.4%||55.6%||8.9||54||8.9||31.1|
|Demetrius Frazier||WR-H||5'10, 212||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.7800||19||15||165||78.9%||5.9%||78.9%||8.7||-10||10.1||21.3|
|Christian Collis||WR-Y||6'0, 217||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7000||18||13||79||72.2%||5.6%||66.7%||4.4||-75||4.5||10.2|
|Jordan Parker||RB||6'1, 222||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893||14||11||112||78.6%||4.4%||42.9%||8.0||-16||8.8||14.5|
|Jeremiah Bryson||RB||5'8, 191||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8287||12||11||64||91.7%||3.7%||83.3%||5.3||-61||4.3||8.3|
|Tyler Barron||TE||6'4, 234||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7806||7||4||50||57.1%||2.2%||57.1%||7.1||1||7.2||6.5|
|Jevontey Smith||WR||6'2, 205||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8091|
|Ty Clemons||WR||5'11, 179||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8256|
|Richie James||WR||5'9, 170||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8200|
|Max Linder||TE||6'3, 242||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7806|
|Rod Ducksworth||WR||6'0, 175||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7800|
|Isiah Upton||WR||6'0, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8000|
|Terell West||WR||5'10, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8289|
4. No shortage of options
Grammer will find plenty of likable pieces. Three of last year's top four running backs return, and since all three are steady but unspectacular, there might be a place in the rotation for a three-star youngster, be it sophomore Kamani Thomas, redshirt freshman J'Vonte Herrod, or incoming freshman Ruben Garnett, damn near relatively a blue-chipper.
There's a bit more to replace in the receiving corps, where efficiency target Ed'Marques Batties returns but bigger-play threats Marcus Henry and Devin Clarke do not. Terry Pettis and Demetrius Frazier averaged almost nine yards per target as sophomores, however, which is exciting.
And between two three-star (according to 247) redshirt freshmen, two three-star freshmen, and JUCO transfer Rod Ducksworth, odds are good that at least one solid option will emerge. It's still possible that the explosiveness numbers go down, especially considering how large a role Pettis and Frazier played on passing downs.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Darius Johnson||LT||6'3, 305||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8000||37||2014 2nd All-CUSA|
|Isaiah Anderson||RT||37||2014 2nd All-CUSA|
|Josh Chester||C||6'3, 305||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||15|
|Daniel Stephens||RG||6'2, 303||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7433||12|
|Adam Stickel||RG||6'5, 312||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||6|
|David Adams||LG||6'3, 297||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7519||4|
|Jaylen Hunter||LG||6'4, 296||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8093||3|
|Hunter Rogers||RT||6'7, 330||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||0|
|Maurquice Shakir||OL||6'3, 318||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7444||0|
|Conner Trent||LT||6'5, 316||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7433||0|
|Carlos Johnson||OL||6'3, 303||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8026|
|Josh Fannin||OL||6'3, 310||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8226|
|Chandler Brewer||OL||6'6, 310||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8057|
|Deandre Ford||OL||6'6, 340||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793|
5. Good at what you need to be good at
The line was a concern for MTSU heading into 2014; the Blue Raiders had to replace all-conference guard Josh Walker and three others with starting experience, but the rearranged line produced two all-conference bookends at tackle, and while there was plenty of shuffling on the interior (mostly among four sophomores), the line held up.
MTSU kept defenders out of the backfield on the rush and created opportunities for its backs. The sack numbers were pretty awful, but a lot of that probably had to do with Grammer's play-maker tendencies.
And now MTSU gets to reap the benefits of experience. Three-year starting left tackle Darius Johnson is back (though he could apparently move to guard), as are five others who had racked up 40 career starts by the end of 2014. Stockstill has signed some big prospects over the last couple of classes, but they probably won't be needed just yet. There are lots of juniors and seniors atop the depth chart.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||45.4%||106||Succ. Rt. +||93.0||98|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||31.0||44||Off. FP+||100.0||65|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.4||72||Redzone S&P+||88.5||109|
|Q1 Rk||65||1st Down Rk||105|
|Q2 Rk||76||2nd Down Rk||71|
|Q3 Rk||84||3rd Down Rk||68|
6. Always be closing (drives, games)
MTSU's defense was not without its strengths. The Blue Raiders were efficient against the pass, boasted a solid pass rush, and did reasonably well in short-yardage situations. They played at a top-75 level in the first half, too.
But as with Grammer's picks, the defense's breakdowns came at all the wrong times. Despite playing a ton of players -- nine linemen, nine linebackers, and six defensive backs had at least 10 tackles each -- and suffering few key injuries, the defense got worse in each progressive quarter, starting at No. 65 in first-quarter S&P+ and finishing 125th in the fourth. And while the standard downs defense was alright, MTSU ranked 113th in Passing Downs S&P+ and 109th in Redzone S&P+. They couldn't close drives or games. And considering the defensive output in November, they couldn't close the season either.
That they went 3-1 in one-possession games is actually rather surprising, though these breakdowns caused close games to become less close. MTSU was outscored by seven points in the second half against Memphis, by 20 points against Memphis, and by 14 against FIU.
Ten of last year's top 11 linemen, seven of nine linebackers, and four of five defensive backs all return to a defense that will likely boast a large number of senior starters. That probably spells improvement, but it doesn't automatically mean the Blue Raiders will hold up better late in games.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Shaquille Huff||DT||6'1, 320||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8267||12||23.5||3.2%||5.0||2.0||0||1||1||0|
|Jimal McBride||DT||6'2, 325||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8151||12||21.0||2.8%||4.5||2.5||0||1||0||0|
|Steven Rhodes||DE||6'3, 256||Jr.||NR||NR||12||19.5||2.6%||3.0||2.0||0||0||1||0|
|Raynard Felton||DT||6'4, 286||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8054||12||13.0||1.7%||1.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Alexandro Antoine||DE||6'1, 241||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7000||9||11.5||1.5%||1.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Patrick McNeil||DT||6'1, 320||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7889||11||11.5||1.5%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jahmal Jones||DE||6'3, 238||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||12||11.0||1.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Chris Hale||DE||6'4, 274||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7578||10||10.0||1.3%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Derious Bennett||DT||6'1, 315||Jr.||NR||0.7700||10||5.5||0.7%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ykeem Wells||DE||6'0, 258||Sr.||2 stars ()||0.7000||7||4.5||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ismael Aurismond||DE||6'3, 241||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7988|
|Todney Evans||DE||6'3, 228||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7944|
|Darrius Liggins||DE||6'4, 234||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8154|
|Peter Bailey||DE||6'4, 255||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7994|
|Malik Manciel||DT||6'3, 265||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7933|
|Trae Philpots||DE||6'4, 225||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7400|
7. Packing on the pounds
Most of MTSU's defensive strengths were related to pass defense; the run defense was pretty awful. Looking at this year's listed weights, we might conclude that MTSU thought a lack of beef was an issue. Shaquille Huff was listed at 294 points a year ago and is now listed at 320. Jimal McBride went from 281 to 325! Steven Rhodes went from 240 to 256, Raynard Felton from 275 to 286, Derious Bennett from 305 to 315, Chris Hale from 253 to 274.
Adding weight doesn't solve a problem -- it has to be good weight, otherwise you solve a size problem and create a quickness problem and perhaps a different kind of conditioning issue. But if Huff and McBride in particular put on good weight and retained a little bit of play-making ability (they combined for 9.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks in 2014), making them unmovable boulders (645 combined pounds!) could pay off.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|T.T. Barber||WLB||6'1, 229||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||12||61.0||8.2%||7.5||1.0||2||1||2||0|
|Cavellis Luckett||MLB||6'0, 254||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7593||12||52.0||7.0%||3.0||2.0||0||4||1||0|
|Trey Wafford||SLB||5'10, 202||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7667||12||45.5||6.1%||1.0||0.0||0||2||0||1|
|Quay Watt||WLB||6'0, 214||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||12||30.0||4.0%||1.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|James Roberson||LB||6'0, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7000||12||20.0||2.7%||2.0||1.0||0||1||0||0|
|D.J. Sanders||SLB||6'0, 209||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7956||12||13.0||1.7%||0.0||0.0||1||1||0||0|
|Anfornee Stewart||LB||6'1, 211||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||4||12.0||1.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Myles Harges||LB||6'2, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7874|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Xavier Walker||FS||6'4, 212||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7333||12||58.0||7.8%||1||0||1||4||1||0|
|Kevin Byard||SS||5'11, 226||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||12||54.5||7.3%||3||0||6||4||2||0|
|Jared Singletary||CB||5'8, 173||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8000||12||46.5||6.2%||2||0||2||6||1||0|
|Chris Brown||FS||6'1, 188||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8126||12||21.0||2.8%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Jordan Frost-Dixon||CB||5'11, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7519||12||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jamarcus Howard||CB||6'0, 185||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8263||8||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Darryl Randolph||CB||5'11, 183||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8044||2||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Michael Minter||CB||6'0, 182||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8033|
|Richie Bisaccia||S||6'0, 193||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000|
|Dontavious Heard||CB||6'1, 190||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8017|
|Nick Beasley||S||6'0, 205||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7806|
|Vernon Walker||S||6'0, 175||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8074|
|Khalil Brooks||CB||5'11, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7859|
8. No lack of senior leaders
The two-deep will likely boast five seniors at linebacker and up to five in the secondary. Considering the pass defense was indeed a strength, and considering that list of seniors includes some serious play-makers in linebacker T.T. Barber and strong safety Kevy Byard (combined: 10.5 tackles for loss, eight picks, five break-ups, four forced fumbles), this can only be considered a good thing, at least for 2015. (2016, not so much.)
If the pass defense holds steady as I assume it will, and the extra girth up front helps in defending the run, then this defense is set to improve. And considering the offense probably won't regress, this speaks very well.
|Cody Clark||6'1, 178||Jr.||67||57.0||7||3||10.4%|
|Cody Clark||6'1, 178||Jr.||46-46||7-9||77.8%||2-6||33.3%|
|Ed'Marques Batties||KR||6'0, 195||Sr.||4||23.8||0|
|Ed'Marques Batties||PR||6'0, 195||Sr.||15||8.6||1|
|Jared Singletary||PR||5'8, 171||Sr.||2||5.0||0|
|Special Teams F/+||56|
|Field Goal Efficiency||109|
|Punt Return Efficiency||5|
|Kick Return Efficiency||39|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||47|
9. Don't kick to Batties
Ed'Marques Batties wasn't a particularly explosive receiver in 2014, but he was one of Conference USA's more dangerous return men, and he should take over the full-time kick return duties from Reggie Whatley this year as well. Returns propped up an otherwise shaky special teams unit in 2014 and could do the same this year.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|10-Oct||at Western Kentucky||50|
|24-Oct||at Louisiana Tech||35|
|14-Nov||at Florida Atlantic||100|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-26.1% (108)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||94 / 99|
|2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-4 / 5.1|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||-3.8|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||16 (8, 8)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||5.7 (0.3)|
10. Win at home
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?
I wrote that almost three years ago in my 2012 MTSU preview. The Blue Raiders recovered, and quickly, winning six games in 2012, moving to Conference USA, and winning 14 games in two years.
Some leave Murfreesboro full of wonder; Stockstill doesn't leave. Recruiting is stable, the coaching staff is pretty stable, and Middle Tennessee has rediscovered a rhythm despite missing bowls in two of the last three bowl-eligible seasons.
Despite the presence of Alabama in Week 2, the schedule eases up. If MTSU is decent against all teams outside of the top 50, the Blue Raiders should have opportunities for road wins against FAU, UTSA, and perhaps Illinois, and they could just about sweep at home, welcoming Jackson State, Charlotte, Vanderbilt, FIU, and North Texas, not to mention a depleted (but probably still dangerous) Marshall. That offers more than enough opportunities to not only reach bowl eligibility but clear the bar by a couple of games.
And if Marshall slips while replacing key pieces, MTSU or WKU could become the new C-USA East favorite. I figure WKU is first in line, but MTSU's got the experience to do some damage.