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Middle Tennessee 2016 Season Preview

Are the Blue Raiders ready to assert themselves atop the power struggle that is Conference USA East? We take a closer look.

Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

After emerging as one of the conference's highest powered offenses last year, the Blue Raiders are poised to establish their stronghold in the East Division of C-USA this season.

In the second year of an era filled with dynastic potential, Middle Tennessee is a sure lock to battle with conference titans Marshall and Western Kentucky for the crown of the east.  Last year's team was filled with stud playmakers that all happened to be rather young.  Those playmakers all return with a few key additions to give defenses across the country hell.

Coming off of a 7-5 season and a bowl loss, MTSU expects to get the job done this time around.  They have a serious stretch at the beginning of the season that could very well decide their fate.  After the opener against Alabama A&M, a two-game road trip against Vanderbilt and Bowling Green followed by a contest with LA Tech is going to set the tone for this team.  Starting out 1-3 will be detrimental to their season even though none of those are division games.

For Middle Tennessee to be reckoned with this year, their defense is going to have to back their offense, which is going to be lights out even amidst the recent injury plague.

Offense

The biggest storyline out of the Blue Raiders camp this offseason was offensive coordinator Tony Franklin's return to Murfreesboro.  The emerging coach left the California Golden Bears to coach this offense, which speaks volumes as to how special this group is.  Last season's unit shattered the school's record books, most of which were set by Franklin's 2009 offense.  I think it's safe to say that Franklin is eager to reclaim some of his lost milestones.

Franklin specializes in quarterbacks alongside being an offensive coordinator.  With head coach Rick Stockstill's son, Brent, behind center, the 12 teams that have to see MTSU this year should be nervous.  Arguably the most talented quarterback in conference, Stockstill enters his sophomore season after coming just 53 yards short of eclipsing Jameis Winston's record for freshman passing yards.  Franklin nurtured Jared Goff at Cal and turned him into a #1 draft pick.  That may not necessarily be Stockstill's fate, but under Franklin's tutelage, that kid has no ceiling.

As the offense runs through Stockstill's arm, his premier target would be none other than his partner in crime, sophomore wideout Richie James.  The co-star of the offense, James caught 108 passes last season for 1,346 yards and eight touchdowns.  He's a top receiver in the conference and with Stockstill throwing the ball, the two really are a dream connection.

Unfortunately, the Blue Raiders have seen a recent epidemic of injuries through fall camp that has significantly damaged their receiving core.  Shane Tucker, Joc Bruce, and Terry Pettis are all out with serious blows and will be replaced by Ty Lee and Dennis Andrews in week one.  The latest out of camp reports that both Pettis and Bruce's injuries are season ending.

Lee is a true freshman with a 3-star rank that's going to have a lot of pressure to perform.  He should be able to hold his own but will undoubtedly have rookie woes, especially considering the level of competition MTSU has to face through the early part of the season.  Not to mention, he's listed at a mere 155 pounds.

Andrews is a grad transfer from Georgia Tech; he'll see a lot of snaps through these injuries and he'll have a real opportunity to earn himself a significant role within the offense.  He has the ability to flourish in Franklin's spread offense, but whether he will actually meet expectations remains to be seen.  His experience plays a huge plus in getting looks considering the injuries strip the receiving group of almost all of their returning players.

Stockstill can still rely on senior Demetrius Frazier and junior Patrick Smith for experience at the position.  There should be enough options on the field to weather the storm, but the injuries certainly won't go unnoticed.

The ground game is expected to be miles better behind Ole Miss grad transfer I'Tavius Mathers.  I have a feeling conference opponents are sleeping on this guy.  Though he didn't see a high volume of snaps at Ole Miss he had the necessary talent and athleticism to carry the pigskin in the SEC.  From an offense that lived and died through the air last season, expect a much more balanced attack with Mathers on the ground.

The balance is much needed, too.  MTSU scores fast and doesn't have the high-caliber defense needed to keep opponents from answering back.  Their end goal is to extend drives and ultimately extend time of possession to hedge the liability of their suspect defense.

Behind Mathers is redshirt freshman Ruben Garnett.  Also a 3-star recruit, Garnett will likely see most of his action on special teams.  He is listed as the number two back on the depth chart, so he'll get a substantial number of carries out of the backfield as well.

An upside for MTSU is the full return of their offensive line.  The majority of the group are seniors; behind center Daniel Stephens, guard Josh Chester, and tackle Maurquice Shakir, that backfield should be clear to work at their own pace.  The most intriguing aspect of the offense is how the receiving core will fare through all of these injuries. Can Stockstill do enough to make this group of underclassmen shine?

Defense

As stated, defense is MTSU's weakness.  The unit kept the Blue Raiders from competing against tougher opponents last season and gave them a hard time in games that should have been easier to win.  Though the unit graduated a lot of last year's leading tacklers, they have more experience and a little bit of transfer help.  The team should pack a little more mustard than last season.

For starters, everyone on the starting line is a senior.  The trenches should be mean with the likes of Steven Rhodes, Chris Hale, Shaquille Huff, and Jimal McBride.  They've got a lot of size upfront and will likely disrupt even the best of offenses through C-USA.

As for the cornerback position, that's another one of the defense's fortes.  Mike Minter is my sleeper pick for this unit.  The six-foot junior is a great playmaker and hard hitter.  After forcing two turnovers and recording 56 tackles last year, I think he's poised to breakout this season and wreak havoc on quarterbacks and receivers alike.  The other side of the field features senior Jeremy Cutrer.  Cutrer is on the Senior Bowl watch list and is also a projected draft pick.  He's got a knack for breaking apart passes and can stick the conference's top receivers.

The linebackers and safeties units is where the speculation lies.  Both groups will bare little-to-no resemblance to last year's lineup and feature younger players.  This weakpoint could be detrimental to MTSU's high expectations this season.

The starting linebackers are listed as DJ Sanders, Myles Harges, Darius Harris.  Not much surprise there.  All three players are new starters with a ton of potential and untapped upside, but how much is inexperience going to affect what each one can do? DJ Sanders is going to be on the strong side; he had a few great moments last year and might be the quickest player on the defense.  He should be more of an asset than a liability once he gets the ropes.

Harges had to sit out ten games last season with injuries, but he'll be the starting middle linebacker and command the group.  He's extremely physical when he's healthy, and running the blitz behind this experienced line should be an easy lane to the backfield.

The secondary features sophomore Jovante Moffatt at strong safety and junior Alex Dale at free safety.  Dale had some big moments last season with two interceptions and three forced fumbles.  He's undoubtedly the most integral component of the secondary and he's got to have heavy presence in order for this unit to succeed.  His vision and notion to attack the football sets him apart from the rest of the unit.  Behind him is graduate transfer Deontay Evans from Mississippi State.  With a whole new group of starters in the secondary, the depth Evans brings is key.  I would imagine that the play between Dale and Evans is evenly distributed.

Are the defensive line and cornerbacks enough to propel this unit through the entire season?  Tough to say.

Schedule

September 3rd vs Alabama A&M

W - Big win in MTSU's season debut, we should get a better idea of how the defense is going to move.

September 10th @ Vanderbilt

W - The Blue Raiders dropped this one by four points last year.  This time around they score fast and score big, winning by at least a touchdown.

September 17th @ Bowling Green

L - The road will take its toll as a loud Bowling Green crowd hits MTSU hard.  The defense gets slightly exposed, but it's a good reality check for the Blue Raiders.

September 24th vs LA Tech

W - MTSU doesn't mess around in the conference opener, but there's a little bit of scare early in the second half.  Offense gets it done.

October 1st @ North Texas

W - Easy win against UNT, score gets run up and we see a lot of second team.

October 15th vs Western Kentucky

W - This one is a shootout as the score easily gets into the 40s.  I give MTSU the homefield advantage in this one.

October 22nd @ Missouri

L - This is more than likely an L that the Blue Raiders perform really well in, but I actually picked this as an upset game last month.  I still think they can pull this one out, but the defense will probably let It get away.

October 29th @ FIU

W - FIU doesn't pose much threat and MTSU continues to move through the lower tier conference teams with relative ease.

November 5th vs UTSA

W - UTSA performs better than they did last year, but the Blue Raiders still win convincingly.  Roadrunner offense has a hard time keeping pace.

November 12th @ Marshall

L - Marshall is going to be a force this year, and may be MTSU's make or break game for the east title.  Marshall at home is too tough for the Blue Raiders to pull out in a close contest.

November 19th @ Charlotte

W - Charlotte gets ran through pretty badly.

November 26th vs FAU

W - FAU holds their own for a majority of the game but MTSU puts this one out of reach early in the fourth quarter.

Final Record:

9-3 with only one conference loss to send them to the championship. Though they lose to Marshall, the Thundering Herd have a hard time against the likes of Southern Miss, Old Dominion, and Western Kentucky; they drop two of those to give MTSU the edge in the east.