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Will 2017 be Middle Tennessee football’s best FBS season ever?

With one of the country’s best QB-WR combos and veteran coaches, this offense should be set. This defense, though?

Middle Tennessee v Florida International Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

This preview was originally published on March 9 and his since been updated.

Middle Tennessee State University has the reputation of a commuter school. It is a reputation the school fights as hard as it can, but with medium-sized enrollment and a big, easy-to-access city (Nashville) nearby, it is convenient for the lifestyle either way.

One thing is certain: MTSU is a hell of an effective commuter school for coaches.

Coaching is a transient lifestyle. For every 10- or 20-year loyalty story, there is the story of a coach who has worked his way up from graduate assistant or analyst to position coach by changing schools and jobs every couple of seasons.

It takes a while to find an opportunity where you can truly differentiate yourself. Until you find it, you're just proving you can grind. A lot of coaches have used Murfreesboro as a place for doing just that.

When Andy McCollum was attempting to build an FBS foothold for Middle Tennessee in the early-2000s, he employed the likes of current Arkansas State HC Blake Anderson, Kentucky co-OC Darin Hinshaw, West Virginia OL coach Joe Wickline, Missouri OL coach Glen Elarbee, Ole Miss LB coach Bradley Peveto, Central Arkansas HC Steve Campbell, former Idaho DC Mark Criner, and former Auburn ST coach Scott Fountain.

Meanwhile, since Rick Stockstill took over at MTSU, the list of impressive passers-by has grown: current Miami DC Manny Diaz, former Cal DC Art Kaufman, former Cal OC Tony Franklin (who has since returned to the Boro), Prairie View A&M HC Willie Simmons, current Arkansas State coordinators Buster Faulkner and Joe Cauthen, Troy co-OC Matt Moore, Appalachian State WR coach Justin Watts, former Steve Spurrier assistant G.A. Mangus, etc.

Among these commuters, however, have stood stalwart head coaches. MTSU has employed only three since 1979. Boots Donnelly reached the Division I-AA playoffs seven times during his two-decade run, and McCollum was given seven seasons to get the Blue Raiders acquainted with FBS before he was let go after four straight losing seasons. Stockstill has been given quite a bit of rope in his 11 seasons, and it has paid off.

As I wrote in last year's MTSU preview (and basically every annual MTSU preview), Stockstill's is a long-term story in a short-term sport. He could have left a couple of times for bigger jobs. MTSU could have dumped him after a 2-10 collapse in 2011. And together, Stockstill and Blue Raiders have upgraded conferences and established steady success.

Now comes another challenge: taking the next step. It has been elusive. MTSU went 8-5 in 2013 but sank to 6-6 in 2014. The Blue Raiders started 6-2 last fall but lost their QB to injury and finished losing three of five. Only once in their FBS existence have they topped eight wins, and that was back in the Sun Belt days.

Is this the year? MTSU returns an outstanding, accurate quarterback in Brent Stockstill and one of the best receivers in the country in Richie James. Continuity is strong in the speed positions (though minimal in the trenches), the Blue Raiders have a couple of early upset opportunities, and defensive improvement could make for about a 7-1 record in conference play.

S&P+ projections are conservative because of the defense, but if you're an MTSU fan, you're thinking now is the time for a statement.


2016 in review

2016 MTSU statistical profile.

For a while, it seemed the sentiment could be applied to 2016. MTSU was a top-50-caliber team toward the end of October; the Blue Raiders beat Missouri and Louisiana Tech and suffered losses only to Vanderbilt (a strange loss by 23 points, despite a 151-yard advantage) and an awesome WKU by one point in double overtime. Because of the circumstances, 6-2 almost felt disappointing.

Everything changed, however, when Brent Stockstill went down.

MTSU vs. Vegas
  • First 8 games (6-2) — Avg. percentile performance: 48% | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: +4.2 PPG | Avg. turnovers per game: MTSU 1.3, Opp 1.7 (+0.4)
  • Last 5 games (2-3) — Avg. percentile performance: 27% | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: -19.6 PPG | Avg. turnovers per game: MTSU 2.3, Opp 1.0 (-1.3)

The 51-45 upset of Mizzou made the Blue Raiders 5-2, and the Raiders suffered a letdown in needing a late-game pick six to beat FIU the next week. And with MTSU down 14-7 to UTSA in the second quarter on November 5, he took a hard hit, landed awkwardly, and broke his collar bone.

John Urzua came in and almost immediately threw a pick. He threw two more in the second half, and MTSU lost 45-25. The next week was a blowout at the hands of an otherwise listless Marshall.

The Blue Raiders rebounded to beat Charlotte by seven, and in the regular season finale, MTSU simply put the ball in James' hands. The receiver rushed 22 times for 207 yards and completed five passes for 76 yards as a wildcat formation QB, and he caught four balls for 120 yards in a 77-56 win.

The less said about the Hawaii Bowl, the better. Stockstill returned and threw for 432 yards, but he threw two costly picks, and MTSU lost by 17.

8-5 is never going to be a total disappointment, but this was a what-could-have-been season. That puts a little bit of pressure on the Blue Raiders this fall. You always want to follow what could have been with what actually was.


Offense

MTSU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Beginning in 2006, when he took over Larry Blakeney's offense at Troy, Tony Franklin has had a habit of making offenses better than what he inherited. In his first year at Troy, the Trojans' attack improved from 118th to 98th in Off. S&P+. In his second year, they improved to 54th.

In 2009, Franklin inherited an MTSU offense that had ranked 107th and improved it to 81st. In 2010, he inherited a Louisiana Tech offense that had ranked 75th and improved it to 68th, then 62nd, then fourth. He followed Sonny Dykes to Cal in 2013, held steady for a year (67th from 61st), then improved the Bears to 20th in 2014 and 10th in 2015.

(This ignores Franklin's disastrous stint at Auburn in 2008, in which the Tigers fell from 62nd to 111th. I'm ignoring it because everybody should get a mulligan, and because the politics and old-hands at Auburn that year created obstacles.)

In 2016, Franklin began his second stint in Murfreesboro. He took an offense that had ranked 54th with Stockstill as a freshman and again pulled the right strings.

The Blue Raiders improved to 46th in Off. S&P+ and reached as high as 27th before Stockstill's injury. Franklin's quick-passing principles meshed perfectly with Stockstill's lightning-fast delivery and accuracy. (Franklin's "Screw it, just give the ball to Richie" improvisation against FAU was pretty wonderful, too.)

Middle Tennessee v Vanderbilt
Brent Stockstill
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

On the rare occasion that Franklin stays in the same place for more than one year, significant improvement usually follows. His second-year offenses at Troy, Louisiana Tech, and Cal surged by an average of 32 spots. That would make MTSU a top-15 offense this year, and while that might not be the safest bet, don't act like it isn't a possibility if everyone stays healthy.

Franklin gets Stockstill for another year — two more, if everyone sticks around. The junior had hit an incredible stride at the time of his injury; against WKU, Missouri, FIU, and UTSA, he completed 95 of 141 passes (67 percent) for 1,144 yards, 12 touchdowns, one interception, just four sacks, and a passer rating of 162.2.

Middle Tennessee v Florida International
Ty Lee
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

He was doing this with a receiving corps led by a sophomore (James) and freshman (Ty Lee). Injuries had created an August reset for the MTSU receiving corps, but youth served MTSU well. James was a revelation, and Lee's catch rate was 69 percent. Throw in Ole Miss transfer I'Tavius Mathers and occasional big plays from Dennis Andrews, and you had a terrifying attack.

Mathers and Andrews are gone, but James and Lee could get support from any number of decent backups: seniors Patrick Smith or Shane Tucker, juniors Desmond Anderson or Max Linder, or a large sophomore class that includes mid-three-star Tyshawn Brown, former Tennessee signee Jocquez Bruce, and quite a few others.

If MTSU is dragged down by a reason other than injury, it will be because the run game couldn't quite ignite. Despite extremely pass-heavy tendencies, Mathers still got about 18 carries per game and finished with 1,561 yards and 17 touchdowns. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry, and his backup, Terelle West, averaged only 4.2. And he was running behind four linemen who garnered at least honorable mention all-conference status.

Mathers and three-fourths of the honored linemen graduated, leaving behind the bones of a green running game. That only matters so much when you're throwing a lot, but if opponents don't fear the run, they can pin their ears back a bit more.

Still, it's hard not to give Stockstill, James, and Franklin the benefit of the doubt, isn't it?


Defense

MTSU defensive radar

Serving as a coaching way station doesn't always mean catching interesting coaches on the way up. Stockstill nabbed the veteran Franklin to lead his offense, and after the MTSU defense sank from 82nd to 118th in Def. S&P+ in 2016, he elected to replace coordinator Tyrone Nix with another veteran: former Syracuse head coach Shafer.

Shafer couldn't quite pull things together as head man, winning just seven games in 2014-15 after beginning his three-year stint 7-6. But he found defensive success, with the Orange peaking at 23rd in Def. S&P+ in 2014. After a year off, he will begin his rebuild as many others have, in the Boro.

Shafer's best Cuse defenses were super aggressive up front, sacrificing a bit of size for speed. One could see that serving MTSU well, and Shafer should find quite a bit to like about a linebacking corps that includes six players who recorded havoc plays in 2016 (most notably juniors Darius Harris and Chris Melton) and adds JUCO transfer Tavares Thomas, three-star redshirt freshman Caleb Felton, and two incoming three-star true freshmen (the wonderfully named Cain McWilliams and DQ Thomas).

Unfortunately, you can only be as aggressive as your line allows you to be, and MTSU's line is a fixer upper. Six linemen recorded more than 15 tackles last year, and five are gone.

Granted, this wasn't an incredibly effective line, but any semblance of play-making is gone. Senior ends Justin Akins and Jahmal Jones combined for 34.5 tackles last year, but none were behind the line of scrimmage [update: Akins and linebacker Shalom Alvarez were dismissed in April for a video depicting animal cruelty], and Shafer has to hope that former reserves like junior Darrius Liggins (2.5 tackles for loss in a bit role) and sophomore Tyshun Render can break through.

Meanwhile, he has to also hope that someone steps up at tackle. Last year's top three are gone, leaving 268-pound sophomore Malik Manciel as the only returning contributor. If three-star JUCO Rosheen Collins (a more robust 296 pounds) and three-star redshirt freshman Rakavian Poydras (298) are ready to roll, then maybe MTSU will get by. But depth could be an issue either way.

There are fewer worries in the back. Despite an iffy pass rush, MTSU's pass defense was reasonably efficient (73rd in passing success rate) and quite adept at preventing big plays (23rd in passing IsoPPP). The pass defense had a decent bend-don’t-break thing going, but the run defense meant MTSU bent a little too much.

MTSU defensive efficiency and explosiveness

While the Blue Raiders' best ball defender (Jeremy Cutrer, with his 13 passes defensed) is gone, the top three safeties and corners Michael Minter and Charvarius Ward (combined: four picks, 14 breakups) are back.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Missouri
Safeties Alex Dale & Jovante Moffatt
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Stockstill added three JUCO transfers to the back line as well. Pass defense is the least of MTSU's worries and could be a bona fide strength if the run defense isn’t dreadful.

(The run defense might be dreadful.)


Special Teams

Desmond Anderson will be asked to play a larger role in the passing game this year after catching 10 of 18 passes for 126 yards a year ago. But if his kick returns are any indication, he could turn into a decent weapon. Anderson didn't break many huge gainers, but he was the reason MTSU ranked a decent 45th in kick return efficiency. And with place-kicker Canon Rooker (who was a little too accurate, and not quite big-legged enough, to live up to his name), MTSU has a couple of solid efficiency weapons here.

Still, the Blue Raiders ranked only 69th in Special Teams S&P+ despite Anderson and Rooker; the punting game was a bit of a disaster, and Rooker didn't land many kickoffs in the end zone. That will have to improve if MTSU's ranking is to also move up.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Vanderbilt 63 -6.8 35%
9-Sep at Syracuse 60 -12.4 24%
16-Sep at Minnesota 47 -13.7 21%
23-Sep Bowling Green 95 4.1 59%
30-Sep at Florida Atlantic 99 -0.3 49%
7-Oct Florida International 104 6.1 64%
14-Oct at UAB 130 18.8 86%
21-Oct Marshall 101 5.0 61%
4-Nov UTEP 126 12.5 76%
11-Nov at Charlotte 127 10.6 73%
18-Nov at Western Kentucky 51 -13.5 22%
25-Nov Old Dominion 93 3.3 58%
Projected S&P+ Rk 89
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 40 / 128
Projected wins 6.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -6.2 (94)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 84 / 87
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / 7.8
2016 TO Luck/Game -3.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 70% (81%, 59%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.9 (0.1)

Turnover on the lines is an obvious concern. Shaky protection could wreck the Blue Raiders' offensive plans, and while the run defense can't get a lot worse, there's still room to fall if a green line can't find either depth or play-makers.

That said, Franklin's quick-passing attack is almost designed to account for issues up front, and the MTSU run defense really can't get much worse. And the upside and experience everywhere else on the two-deep is all sorts of tantalizing.

The schedule is set up in three acts.

  • Act I: Upset opportunities. The Blue Raiders begin with Vanderbilt and trips to Syracuse and Minnesota. S&P+ says there's a 61 percent chance they win at least one of these games.
  • Act II: The possible winning streak. From September 23 to November 11, MTSU has at least a 49 percent chance of winning in each game, and that's with the iffy defensive projections. There are plenty of landmines here, but an MTSU that exceeds its defensive projections could go 6-1 or 7-0 here.
  • Act III: Title time. If things are going as well as I think they could, the final two against Western Kentucky (away) and ODU (home) could decide the C-USA East.

If Shafer is able to find some traction on defense, which wouldn't be the most surprising thing, this could be the nine- or 10-win season that has eluded Stockstill for nearly a decade. There are just enough red flags, but I really like this team's potential.


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