Is this the year? Is this the year MTSU finally takes control of Conference USA East?
At this point, everyone knows Middle Tennessee has an offense capable of putting up a ton of points on any given night. The question of the 2017 season will be if the defense can improve enough to propel this team to a C-USA championship game?
2016 was beginning to look like the year Middle would compete for a Conference USA title after they started 6-2. It was after the injury to quarterback Brent Stockstill that the defensive struggles started to catch up with MTSU and the trajectory of their season took a turn for the worse. After two tough losses to UTSA and Marshall, Middle was able to throw together two wins (one of which without a quarterback) to make the Hawaii Bowl, where the defense just completely fell apart.
So as high as expectations were last season, 2017 is even higher as the Blue Raiders want to finish what they couldn't last year.
It's no longer a secret that Middle Tennessee's offense revolves around spreading the ball out and moving quickly. In year two of his return to Murfreesboro, Tony Franklin will look to add new elements and find new ways to get the ball in the hands of his best playmakers on offense.
The key to making this Tony Franklin offense work smoothly is junior quarterback Brent Stockstill. His awareness and understanding of the system allows Franklin to let him run and adjust this offense on the fly when needed. After his season was cut short by a broken collarbone last year and missing spring practices, Stockstill has been on a mission to get stronger and lead this team to the C-USA championship.
It is also no secret that MTSU has some of the best playmakers in Conference USA returning for 2017. Richie James will continue to be Stockstill's main target in the passing game but expect to see James more in the backfield as the Wildcat quarterback to keep defenses on their toes. Ty Lee will also see more of the ball after a breakout freshman year and solidify his role as WR2 across from James. On top of those two, expect former Tennessee Volunteer Jocquez "Juice" Bruce to make a big impact in 2017. Bruce has been with the team since 2015 but redshirted in 2015 and suffered a season-ending leg injury in camp last season, so he could add another layer to the Blue Raider receiving corps.
The ground game and offensive line will be the biggest question mark for the Blue Raider offense in 2017. MTSU lost a lot of talent on the line last year, so they will need some new faces to step up and start making an impact. Senior Shane Tucker is back for one last season and has shown his talent many times for Middle. If he can stay healthy, he will see plenty of the ball and get a chance to close his career for the team well. Other names to watch in 2017 in the run game this year are Desmond Anderson who played wide receiver last year and junior college transfer Maurice Gordon.
Defense wins championships and in order for Middle Tennessee to seize the Conference USA championship in 2017, it HAS to improve from last year. Even for a team as strong on offense as Middle, it is hard to win games when the defense allows 35.8 points per game.
Hired this offseason, Defensive Coordinator Scott Shafer will work to implement change with a very young group this season.
The most experienced group will be the linebackers, who didn't lose anyone from last years group. The undisputed leader of this group and defense as a whole is senior captain D.J. Sanders. Sanders had a monster season in 2016 and will be asked to do a lot in 2017 to help lead this team. Junior Chris Melton will also be a huge part of the success of the the linebacking corps in 2017.
Much like the offensive line, the defensive line lost quite a few experienced bodies and will need playmakers. Look for Mizzou transfer Walter Brady to step up and fill that role after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules. In his only year at Mizzou, Brady was a freshman All-American pass rusher and led the nation in sacks by a freshman in 2015. I think he will thrive in Conference USA and make a big difference up front for the Blue Raiders.
In the secondary, MTSU lost a leader in Jeremy Cutrer last season, but returns everyone else from last year. Pass Coverage was a problem pretty often last season for the Blue Raiders, so an improvement will need to be made for the team to have success especially in a league like Conference USA. Senior safety Alex Dale will be the vocal leader for this unit along with Mike Minter at the cornerback spot to help in the transition to Scott Shafer's defense.
With Richie James continuing to return punts and kickoffs of the Blue Raiders in 2017, he will continue to always be a threat to change games in that role. Also look for Desmond Anderson or Shane Tucker to see some reps returning as well as another option.
MTSU also returns Canon Rooker at place kicker and Matt Bonadies at punter this season. Both will be called on in 2017 to make some key kicks for the Blue Raiders to help push this team to a championship and have the leg to make clutch kicks when called upon.
Home vs Vanderbilt (Sept. 2) W
This game has become a rivalry of sorts after these two teams have faced off over the course of the last two years. In 2015, MTSU felt like they gave away the game and were searching for redemption in 2016 but were ended up losing big. I think the Blue Raiders finally have the team to secure this elusive win at home.
Away vs Syracuse (Sept. 9) L
This is an interesting match-up that I think could go either way. Both teams are strong on offense but feature sub-par defenses, so plan on this one being a shootout. Turnovers and momentum will be key and I give that edge to the home team in this game.
Away vs Minnesota (Sept. 16) L
I still can't figure out how good this Minnesota team will be in 2017. I am a fan of PJ Fleck and the energy he brings to coaching so I know his guys will be up and ready for this game. It'll be close, but I think in the end Minnesota finds a way to win.
Home vs Bowling Green (Sept. 23) W
Middle literally ran away with this one last year in Bowling Green and I think they do the same this year at home.
Away vs Florida Atlantic (Sept. 30) W
As much as I love the Lane Kiffin move to FAU and all the good things that have been happening down there, I think Middle takes this year's game. That being said, it will be close and it won't be long before the Owls make some moves in the conference.
Home vs Florida International (Oct. 7) W
This will be a tough test on Homecoming for the Blue Raiders after the Panthers come to town. This game should have gone to overtime or been an FIU win if it were not for an interception returned for a touchdown, so expect the Panthers to push for redemption this year. This will a good test for this defense and will be a must-win for the Raiders on many levels.
Away vs UAB (Oct. 14) W
Welcome back UAB! I'm really glad the program is back but it will take a little bit of time for this team to find its identity. I think it will be really tough for this team to pull off the upset this year.
Home vs Marshall (Oct. 20) W
Special things always seem to happen when Marshall comes to town, and I expect no different this season. This one no doubt will be a thriller and I think MTSU finds a way to win again in Murfreesboro against the Thundering Herd after being embarrassed last year on the road. Also, the home team has won this game every single year since MTSU joined Conference USA.
Home vs UTEP (Nov. 4) W
The Miners haven't looked great of late, but by no means does that make this an easy win for MTSU. The Blue Raiders will need to stay focused after their bye week in order to not drop a very winnable game.
Away vs Charlotte (Nov. 11) W
Similar to UTEP, this is a game that if MTSU isn't careful, they might drop this game too. Charlotte has shown consistent improvement over the course of the last two years and may be desperate to win this one in order to put themselves in position for bowl eligibility.
Away vs Western Kentucky (Nov. 17) W
100 Miles of Hate (Friday Night Lights Edition). One of the best rivalries in the conference. Expect a lot of points and even more hard feelings. There is no way around it, the path to the conference championship game in the east runs through Bowling Green. If MTSU wants to get to the next level, they have to get it done there on the road at WKU. That being said, if there was ever a time to do it the time is now. I think MTSU will get it done.
Home vs ODU (Nov 25) W
Long story short, I think the winner of this game gets a berth in the conference championship game. These two teams have been on the rise and came up just short last year and will be ready to fight it out for the east. If that is the case, this game will be absolutely electric and will go down to the wire. In the end, I think it will be the Blue Raiders who come out on top and finally make it to the Conference USA Championship Game.
Regular Season Prediction: 10-2 (8-0)
I know that 10-2 and going undefeated in the conference are lofty predictions, but expectations are at an all time high in this program. Fans want to see this team take the next step after the potential they showed last year and the changes that were made in the offseason.
There is a lot of hype around this team and I think that this year is the year they finally put it all together and live up to it.