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MTSU has speed, experience, identity, and a dark horse chance in the C-USA East

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Injuries kept the Blue Raiders from a big season in 2017, and the schedule’s rough, but MTSU’s identity is strong.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Betteridge’s Law states that any headline that asks a question can be answered with a simple “No.” He and many other journalists have railed against such headlines as a lazy trick that can backfire.

I know this, but I still end up asking questions in headlines for what seems like about half of this preview series. But hey, it’s a preview. At least I’m asking questions that won’t be answerable for quite a while, right?

The question I asked in last year’s Middle Tennessee preview was indeed answered. Would 2017 be MTSU’s best FBS season ever? No, not so much.

Record-wise, 2017 was in fact rather forgettable. The Blue Raiders averaged about seven wins per year from 2012-16, then won seven last fall. That’s not bad, and it furthered a six-year streak of bowl eligibility for Stockstill’s program. But it was most certainly not their best ever. Those honors still probably go to his 2009, when the Blue Raiders won 10 games and finished 64th in S&P+.

MTSU did still finish 68th last year, though. That’s pretty close. The high points were about as high as I envisioned they might be, and both the win total and final ratings probably would have been even higher if one of the best passing connections in college football in 2016 — quarterback Stockstill to receiver James — hadn’t been derailed. Stockstill missed six games with injury, and James missed eight.

MTSU was 5-2 with Stockstill and 2-4 without him.

  • MTSU with Stockstill (5-2): Average score: MTSU 30.7, Opp 22.3 | Average percentile performance: 59% (53% offense, 59% defense)
  • MTSU without Stockstill (2-4): Average score: Opp 27.5, MTSU 19.5 | Average percentile performance: 38% (33% offense, 53% defense)

With Stockstill, the Blue Raiders suffered a disappointing egg-laying against Vanderbilt but beat Syracuse, then won four of five after his return. They were a borderline top-50 team. Without him, they were barely top-80-caliber, capable of losing by four touchdowns at home to Marshall.

The coach’s son returns for another go-round in 2018, and he’ll have plenty of familiar faces even though James declared for the NFL draft.

MTSU returns every running back, its top three receivers not named James, two honorable mention all-conference offensive linemen, six of its top seven defensive linemen, three of four linebackers, and five of eight defensive backs. This is a pretty deep squad, and if it can actually keep its quarterback healthy for once — Stockstill missed three games in 2016, too — it could be a pretty productive, exciting squad.

I’m still refraining from speculation in the title this time around, though.

Offense

MTSU offensive radar

The Stockstill and James injuries were unfair to college football. This was one of the most thrilling combinations in 2016, with James catching 105 passes for 1,625 yards and 12 touchdowns. When MTSU ran into QB injury problems late that season, James basically spent the entire FAU game as a wildcat quarterback and rushed for 207 yards while completing five of six passes. He was so damn fun, and it’s disappointing that his last season consisted of 31 catches and 10 rushes in five games.

MTSU still has Ty Lee, though. Lee went from lovely complement in 2016 (63 catches, 699 yards) to No. 1 guy. He’s a possession receiver with some pop; in a three-game 2017 span, he caught 16 passes for 296 yards, an 18.5-yard average.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Minnesota
Ty Lee
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Lee’s got some experienced pieces, though I wonder about the upside. Senior Patrick Smith caught 29 passes last year with minimal explosiveness, and CJ Windham caught 28 with a 15-yard average that drops to 12.7 if you remove one catch against Charlotte. Still, losing James meant Stockstill spent the last part of the season posting good numbers with this year’s receiving corps.

One new name to look out for: Gatlin Casey. The 6’3 Lehigh graduate transfer caught 122 passes for 1,989 yards and 26 touchdowns over the last two years in the Patriot League.

The biggest difference in performance between Stockstill and backup quarterback John Urzua (now gone) was red zone performance. For the season, Urzua’s completion percentage (62 percent) was higher than Stockstill’s (58), but in four losses with Urzua, the Blue Raiders scored just 49 points in 17 scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent’s 40), a wretched average of 2.9 points per chance that would have ranked a distant last if it was a full-season average.

Urzua completed just 40 percent of his passes inside the opponent’s 40, while Stockstill completed 57 percent. That adds up. And it’s important because coordinator Tony Franklin doesn’t really care about running the ball much, even near the goal line.

Even with a second-stringer playing half the year, MTSU still ran only 50 percent of the time on standard downs (115th in FBS) and 27 percent on passing downs (109th). Franklin’s offense establishes short passing as an extension of the run; a foursome of MTSU running backs combined to only average about 21.6 carries per game. No one carried even 100 times last year.

Now, that’s a little bit misleading. Once Stockstill returned from injury and linebacker Tavares Thomas converted to running back, Franklin proved more willing to lean on the ground game. Thomas’ first carry didn’t come until the fifth game of the year, and he averaged just seven carries per game over the next four. But he went for 29 carries and 195 yards in the win over Charlotte, 18 for 92 against WKU and 16 for 49 against Arkansas State. He spent a lot of time as a wildcat quarterback of sorts, though his only throw resulted in a five-yard loss.

With an offseason of reassessment, it’ll be interesting to see how Franklin, the spread offense old hand, decides to play a unique set of cards. He’s got not only Thomas, but also two sophomore backs who flashed potential (Brad Anderson had 89 carries for 491 yards, Will Mitchell 11 for 64), and junior Terelle West has some potential explosiveness as well — with Thomas getting slowed down, he rushed 36 times for 235 yards against ODU and Arkansas State to finish the year.

There are lots of experienced pieces, and while Thomas is the only particularly big one, Franklin could have some fun. Especially if he doesn’t mind running the ball more.

NCAA Football:  Camellia Bowl-Arkansas State vs Middle Tennessee
Terelle West
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

MTSU defensive radar

That the offense was struggling so much with injuries distracted us from the fact that Stockstill was fielding his best defense ever in Murfreesboro. MTSU finished 47th in Def. S&P+ — its first top-60 ranking since 2009, when now-Miami coordinator Manny Diaz was running the show.

The Blue Raiders were solid against both run and pass, but their biggest strength appeared to be a lack of weaknesses: they ranked between 30th and 70th in almost every single advanced statistical category I track. It’s not flashy, but you can win a lot of games by not being bad at anything.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Minnesota
Darius Harris (30) and Khalil Brooks (16)
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Better yet, MTSU returns quite a bit of last year’s production, especially in the front seven. Strongside linebacker Khalil Brooks plays like a missile; after a nondescript debut in 2016 (two tackles for loss, four pass breakups), Brooks was one of the best mid-major linebackers/nickel backs. Despite going only 5’11, 200 pounds, he made 17 TFLs with 7.5 sacks.

With a primary attacker, coordinator Scott Shafer — who built a couple of equally undersized and scary defenses at Syracuse — knew how to build around Brooks. He attacked from a lot of angles.

Seven other linemen and linebackers recorded at least four TFLs, and five of them return in 2018: linebacker Darius Harris (7.5), tackles Jordan Ferguson (5.5) and Malik Manciel (5), end Walter Brady (five), and linebacker Chris Melton (four). Reserves like sophomore linebacker DQ Thomas (2.5 TFLs among eight tackles) and senior end Darrius Liggins (three TFLs among 11.5 tackles) are exciting, too.

MTSU was outgunned by the more physical offenses on the schedule — Vanderbilt, Minnesota, and FAU averaged 33.3 points per game and 5.6 yards per play. But the other 10 opponents averaged just 22.1 and 4.8, respectively. If you couldn’t out-physical MTSU, you weren’t going to out-fast them.

The biggest area of concern for this defense heading into 2018: cornerback. Mike Minter Jr. and Charvarius Ward are two of only four starters that have to be replaced, but they were a vital part of that “can’t out-fast them” equation. They combined for seven TFLs (seriously, Shafer attacks with everyone) and 25 passes defensed. That’s a lot to replace.

Senior corners Darryl Randolph and O.J. Johnson combined for 48 tackles, six TFLs, and five breakups of their own last year, so the cupboard is not bare. But the cupboard is definitely thinner unless newcomers like Syracuse transfer Cordell Hudson or mid-three-star JUCO transfer Chris Stamps are ready to roll immediately.

There’s plenty to like at safety. Seniors Jovante Moffatt and Wesley Bush and sophomore Reed Blankenship were a big part of MTSU’s solid big-play prevention numbers, and they’re all back.

Special Teams

How bad was MTSU at finishing drives last year? The Blue Raiders had Canon Rooker out here making nine of 11 field goals from 40 yards or further and still ranked just 108th in points per scoring opportunity. It could have been so much worse without Rooker, who ranked third in the country in field goal efficiency.

The MTSU offense will have to step it up, then, as Rooker has graduated. He was responsible for both of the Blue Raiders’ solid special teams rankings (they were also a decent 66th in kickoff efficiency), and the other areas of special teams were problematic. The return game never got going despite the presence of James and Lee, and punter Matt Bonadies, a senior-to-be, was just 96th in punt efficiency.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Vanderbilt 75 -4.4 40%
8-Sep UT Martin NR 21.2 89%
15-Sep at Georgia 6 -27.5 6%
29-Sep Florida Atlantic 31 -9.1 30%
6-Oct at Marshall 62 -7.3 34%
13-Oct at Florida International 120 7.4 67%
20-Oct Charlotte 126 14.8 80%
27-Oct at Old Dominion 114 6.1 64%
3-Nov Western Kentucky 90 4.2 60%
10-Nov at UTEP 130 14.9 81%
17-Nov at Kentucky 64 -7.2 34%
24-Nov UAB 91 4.6 60%
Projected S&P+ Rk 83
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 93 / 68
Projected wins 6.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -3.6 (89)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 93 / 93
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -12 / -2.1
2017 TO Luck/Game -3.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 69% (76%, 61%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.0 (0.0)

Identity is important, and MTSU knows exactly what it is: fast, feisty, and undersized, more ninja than sumo. The Blue Raiders have almost no one above 280 pounds on the defensive line, their best defender is a 200-pound linebacker, and their best skill guy is listed at 5’9, 163 (which usually means he’s more like 5’8, 153). If you can get your hands on the Blue Raiders, they might not be able to respond.

If you can’t, though? MTSU will kill you with seven-yard passes and a high tempo, and they will attack you defensively from every possible angle.

September will be rough. MTSU will have played at Vanderbilt and Georgia and hosted defending C-USA champ FAU by October 1, and a 1-3 start is exceedingly possible. They get a third SEC opponent, Kentucky, late, and this SEC tryout will likely tamp down the win total a bit, even if they pull an upset somewhere.

Still, there are a lot of wins on the table. Per S&P+, they have at least a 60 percent win probability in each of their final six C-USA games, and if they pull an upset of either FAU in Murfreesboro or Marshall in Huntington, they will be involved in the division title race well into November.

MTSU should have another lovely year. Stockstill’s patiently built a team with speed and a strong foundation, and his Blue Raiders will be as dangerous as ever this fall.

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