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Choosing C-USA: Can Middle Tennessee catch fire against a tough Vanderbilt secondary?

Conference USA’s opening slate features a ton of games with intriguing storylines.

Middle Tennessee v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Welcome to the 2017 edition of Choosing C-USA, where I pick every matchup in Conference USA. You know what that means friends? It means football is around the corner (or already arrived if you’re a Rice fan).

Just like last year, I will do my best to keep track of my picks. I’m starting the season 1-0 because there was absolutely no way I would have picked Rice to beat Stanford last week.

Choosing C-USA Record: 1-0

*please familiarize yourself with the advanced stats glossary, I’ll reference them a ton this season*

Game of the Week

Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee (Vanderbilt -3.5, 8:00 PM ET CBSSN)

For the second straight season, Middle Tennessee will play against their friends up the road in Nashville as the Commodores will make the hour drive to Johnny Floyd Stadium.

Last year Vandy won 47-24. The Blue Raiders defense had no answer for Ralph Webb as Webb rushed for a career high 211 rushing yards. Unfortunately for MTSU, Webb is back again, as well as four linemen who have started games for the ‘Dores. Webb should once again be the face of the Vandy offense.

Kyle Shurmur is back for Vandy too, and wasn’t that effective in last year’s game as he passed for 113 yards and a touchdown while going 13-for-28. Then again, when you rack up 231 yards and five touchdowns on 45 carries, you can live with Shurmur’s performance.

With a new defensive coordinator in Scott Schafer, it’ll be interesting to see how MTSU performs on that side of the ball this season. This opener will be a great litmus test as many teams in C-USA will try to play keep-away due to MTSU’s explosive offense. But given the lack of returning players on the defensive line, MTSU must score in bunches to win this one as I think Webb could give us a repeat performance.

Middle Tennessee v Vanderbilt
Brent Stockstill went 38-for-65 for 399 yards, three touchdowns and one interceptions last year. He’s gonna have to put up gaudy numbers again.
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

It’s no secret that offensive coordinator Tony Franklin loves to pass the ball. Despite having a stellar running back in I’Tavius Mathers last season, Franklin was still reluctant to call running plays. With MTSU all but committed to a running-back-by-committee approach this year, we could see even more passes attempted by Brent Stockstill.

Vanderbilt will be ready. Senior defensive backs LaDarius Wiley, Ryan White, Taurean Ferguson, Arnold Tarpley III, Tre Herndon return to a secondary that finished 48th in Passing S&P+, 75th in Passing Downs Success Rate, and 51st in Passing Downs IsoPPP (a stat that measures how good a defense is at preventing explosive passing plays.)

Those numbers aren’t phenomenal, but they are solid nonetheless. Last year MTSU finished 60th in Passing S&P+, 19th in Passing Downs Success Rate, and 34th in Passing IsoPPP.

It’ll be strength on strength when Stockstill drops back to pass. Whether Richie James and Ty Lee can get open on a consistent basis will determine if the Blue Raiders can win.

Given that the expectations for Middle Tennessee are pretty high this year, I hope Jonny Floyd is packed for the home opener. The Vols don’t have a home game this Saturday so there’s no excuse for the MTSU faithful to not be there. If they show up, they’ll be in for a high-scoring game that could signal Rick Stockstill’s program is ready to take the next step.

Middle Tennessee 38 Vanderbilt 34

The rest of C-USA...

FIU at UCF (FIU +17, Thursday 6:00 PM ET CBSSN)

The Butch Davis era begins with a nationally televised game (sort of) as the Panthers will make the three hour drive to Orlando and take on UCF. Two years ago FIU stunned UCF in the 2015 season opener. The key contributors from that game will be key contributors again this season. Those contributors were there last year too when UCF spanked the Panthers. I expect a good showing from FIU but think McKenzie Milton and UCF’s offense will be too much in the end.

UCF 37 FIU 24

Charlotte at Eastern Michigan (Charlotte +14, Friday 6:30 PM ET ESPN3)

Last year Eastern Michigan crushed Charlotte, but that was before Hasaan Klugh came into the picture. The 49ers were road warriors last season and won in some tough venues. They won’t be fazed by EMU’s crowd at all. I think EMU’s offense will be too much to handle for Charlotte at the end of the day though.

Eastern Michigan 42 Charlotte 27

Navy at FAU (FAU +10, Friday 8:00 PM ET ESPNU)

FAU has had a ton of hype due to Lane Kiffin’s arrival and it’s finally time to see if the Owls have turned the corner. Navy lost a ton of key guys but they return the one that matters most: head coach Ken Niumatalolo. The Midshipmen’s biggest edge is coaching and I think that’s what’ll decide what could be a close game. Well that, and FAU’s inability to stop the run.

Navy 34 FAU 24

UTEP at Oklahoma (UTEP +43 3:30 PM ET FOX)

Huge season for Sean Kugler who is in his fifth year in El Paso. The Miners must show progress this season. It won’t come in this game, but if Ryan Metz looks good you can chalk that up as a moral victory.

Oklahoma 48 UTEP 14

Alabama A&M at UAB (no line, 3:30 PM ET)

#theReturn is official this Saturday! Roll Blazers! UAB wins going away. I’ll be paying close attention to how UAB’s offensive and defensive lines look.

UAB 45 Alabama A&M 20

Kentucky at Southern Miss (Southern Miss +10, 4:00 PM ET CBSSN)

The Golden Eagles welcome the Wildcats after pulling an upset win last season. Kentucky is garnering some attention as a potential SEC East champ this year. While I’m not sold on that, I am sold on Benny Snell running for over 150 yards against this USM defense. I want to pick the upset here but I just don’t know what can we expect from USM’s quarterback situation this season.

Kentucky 38 Southern Miss 24

Albany at Old Dominion (no line, 6:00 PM ET ESPN3)

Blake LaRussa gets the start and I’m curious how he will perform, though I think the Monarchs will play Jordan Hoy too.

ODU 40 Albany 10

Miami (OH) at Marshall (Marshall -2, 6:30 PM ET)

It’s a big year for Doc Holliday. Losing the home opener to an old MAC rival would not be a good start. I’m a big believer in Marshall bouncing back this year, at least in terms of looking like a more respectable football team. The Joan should be rocking for this one and I see that home-field advantage being the difference maker as the Herd win a close one.

Marshall 30 Miami (OH) 24

Lamar at North Texas (no line, 7:00 PM ET ESPN3)

North Texas should win big. Looking for Mason Fine to hit Jalen Guyton more than a few times in this one. Struggling against Lamar would be a bad sign.

North Texas 42 Lamar 14

Northwestern State at Louisiana Tech (no line, 7:00 PM ET ESPN3)

The Bulldogs might not roll in this one as much as you might think. Mississippi State comes to Ruston next week and Skip Holtz might use a vanilla gameplan. Then again Tech might be out for revenge as NSU upset Tech in Holtz’s second season. J’Mar Smith plays just the first half and has four total touchdowns.

Louisiana Tech 48 Northwestern State 10

Eastern Kentucky at WKU (no line, 7:00 PM ET)

It’s the debut of the Mike Sanford era as WKU plays a former rival in EKU. Tops should roll easily.

WKU 55 Eastern Kentucky 20