In advance of Conference USA media days, the 13-team conference released a preseason coaches poll with the Southern Miss Golden Eagles picked to win the West and the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders chosen to represent the East.
While the majority that follow CUSA believe Southern Miss was the correct choice out west, there was a bit of a backlash for the Blue Raiders as the east champs.
Let's take a look at MTSU and the case for and against winning the division.
The case for MTSU:
Offense, offense, and more offense. The Blue Raiders return sophomore quarterback Brent Stockstill (4,005/30TD) and sophomore receiver Richie James (108/1,346/8TD). Stockstill is on the Davey O'Brien and Maxwell Award Watch lists, while James is on the Biletnikoff and Maxwell Award Watch lists. The duo led one of the best passing games nationally and could be even better under new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.
The best "new" weapon in the passing game is WR/TE Terry Pettis. The 6-5, 240 pound receiver had over 21 yards per catch in 2015 and should be even better this fall as Franklin will use him all over the field.
While the passing game will be just as explosive as in 2015, the run game should be much better this fall with the addition of former 4-star recruit and Ole Miss transfer I'Tavius Mathers. The Murfreesboro native is a legend in the area and is expected to give a new depth to the Blue Raiders offensive onslaught. He is highly motivated since this is his only eligible year.
Senior right tackle and preseason All-CUSA selection Maurice Shakir leads an offensive line that returns three starters. Right guard Chandler Brewer and Rimington Award Watch list center Daniel Stephens make the right side of the line one of the better groupings in the conference.
While the defense will be an issue, bookend cornerbacks Michael Minter and Jeremy Cutrer (Preseason All-CUSA selection/Jim Thorpe Award watch list) and a nearly fully returned defensive line should keep the Blue Raiders in solid shape.
Outside of an impressive roster, the Blue Raiders have a favorable CUSA schedule. They get Louisiana Tech and WKU at home, while the only scary conference road trip is at Marshall. The Blue Raiders have not defeated Marshall on the road in three previous attempts.
Considering the fact that they were two plays away from going 9-4 last fall, they make sense as the top pick.
The case against MTSU:
Defense, defense, defense. As good as the offense will be this fall, the Blue Raiders defense will struggle to stop the high flying offenses of WKU, Marshall, and Louisiana Tech.
All three starting linebackers from last fall, including tackling machine T.T. Barber, are gone to graduation. Both safeties are also gone, including the heart of the defense in NFL Draft third round pick Kevin Byard.
Just how much defense is gone from last season? Five of the top six tacklers that graduated accounted for over 350 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, five interceptions, and four fumble recoveries last fall. Byard alone had 19 interceptions during his time at MTSU.
Even with the talent from last season, MTSU was ranked #118 in defensive S&P+ versus the pass and #100 in defensive S&P+ versus the run.
Yes, a very talented coordinator is taking over the offense and a former 4-star recruit will be running the ball, but MTSU has to prove that running the ball is an option. The top three rushers on the roster combined for 1,310 yards on 317 carries. That isn't terrible until you look at the lack of any explosion. Only 17 teams had a worse Rushing IsoPPP, a statistic that measures the number of explosive run plays.
Teams figure them out. One of the most glaring issues that faced MTSU last season was the inability to transfer early success into second half success. The offensive S&P+ was ranked in the top 35 nationally in the first half of games. It drops dramatically to #69 in the third quarter and a dreadful #81 in the fourth quarter.
Then, we have to bring up the lack of road success in recent seasons. The last impressive road win for the Blue Raiders is a 2012 win over Georgia Tech. Even that season saw MTSU lose 45-0 on the road in the season finale to Arkansas State. The 2015 team went 2-5 in road/neutral games. In three of the losses (Alabama, WKU, and La. Tech), they lost by an average of 47-18.
Red flags immediately pop up with the Marshall game, as well as non-conference games versus Vanderbilt, Missouri, and Bowling Green.
Whether you think MTSU has the roster and schedule in place to win the east and possibly the entire conference, they, like the rest of CUSA, are a flawed team that has a lot to prove this fall.