Time and Date: Saturday, September 5 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Network: CBS Sports Network
Location: Michie Stadium — West Point, NY
Spread: Army (-3.5)
ESPN FPI: Army has 82.3% chance to win
All-time series: No previous meetings
Announced as recently as August 10, the first matchup between FBS teams on the opening college football Saturday will transpire at Michie Stadium in West Point, NY. It is the first-ever meeting between Middle Tennessee and Army, two programs looking to shed off disappointing 2019 columns and get back in the win column to begin 2020.
Previewing the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Middle Tennessee finally broke away from its consistent winning ways in the 2019 season. From 2012 through 2018, Rick Stockstill’s program was as stable in the winning column as any in the FBS, attaining from six to eight wins in each of those years. But one year after winning the C-USA East, it crumbled apart after the departure of a Rick’s son and four-year starting quarterback Brent Stockstill and a talented senior class.
But quarterback wasn’t the problem in Middle Tennessee’s 4-8 season in 2019. In fact, the Blue Raiders found the perfect dual threat quarterback for the future, and he’s in the conversation with Southern Miss’ Jack Abraham for best QB in the C-USA. As a sophomore, Asher O’Hara threw for over 2,600 yards and 20 touchdowns with only eight interceptions working against him. While he was tremendous in the pocket, O’Hara was more dangerous when tucking the ball and stepping over the line of scrimmage. Out of all returning quarterbacks for the 2020 season, no one had more rushing yards a season ago than O’Hara, who chipped in 1,058 as Middle Tennessee’s leading rusher.
Generating a rushing attack outside of O’Hara is a challenge Middle Tennessee will have to live up to in 2020. The Blue Raiders received massive support from the transfer portal this offseason landing former West Virginia halfback Martell Pettaway and Florida State halfback Amir Rasul as graduate transfers. However, both backs opted out of the season, leaving Middle Tennessee to work with a backfield similar to last year. No running back on the roster had more than 300 rushing yards last year, but Chaton Mobley should be up to the challenge in his junior season. Mobley boosted the Blue Raiders’ rushing attack as a freshman with 617 yards, despite that number dwindling to 208 as a sophomore.
In the receiving corps, the primary Blue Raider to watch is senior Jimmy Marshall. He was a breakout player toward the end of last season, averaging over 80 yards per game in his final three outings. Additionally, he led the team in touchdown receptions and hauled in five scores in Middle Tennessee’s last five games.
When looking at the difference between 2018 C-USA East champion Middle Tennessee vs. the 2019 iteration of the program that finished 4-8, look no further than the regression on defense. The Blue Raiders’ rank in rushing defense plummeted from 52nd to 113th and passing defense from 67th to 101st between the two seasons. Pass rushing was the greatest struggle for the Middle Tennessee defense, finishing second last in the country in sacks — one of two FBS programs to average under one per game.
Middle Tennessee also loses plenty of defensive production, including its previous leader in tackles and interceptions, safety Jovante Moffatt as well as reigning sack leader Tyshun Render. The Blue Raiders’ defensive leader on the roster is now outside linebacker D.Q. Thomas. Fresh off a season with a team-high 12 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles, Thomas will be instrumental in stopping the triple option. He’ll have a crucial role Saturday in penetrating the backfield and containing the edges to prevent breakaway Army runs.
The passing defense shouldn’t have as much to worry about since the Black Knights rarely pass, but the cornerbacks have to execute on stopping all runs to the edges. Forcing fumbles will be of utmost importance for a defense which has no prior experience facing the triple option. The defense cannot let fatigue become a factor as the Black Knights aim to eat up 10-minute possessions, so any forced turnover is a major plus for Middle Tennessee from multiple standpoints.
Previewing the Army Black Knights
Jeff Monken had Army on a roll in 2017 and 2018, faring 22-5 over the timespan. The Black Knights nearly knocked off Michigan at the Big House early in 2019 and still looked solid after a 3-1 start. But disaster struck time and time again in the middle of the season against opponents including Georgia State and San Jose State, and Army found itself sitting home from a bowl game with a 5-8 record.
In a new era of college football which involves taking extreme caution in hotel stays, the Black Knights have the luxury of kicking off the season at home in New York. The attendance at Michie Stadium will be exclusive to 4,000 cadets, completely dissolving the opposing Middle Tennessee fanbase from the venue.
In front of their home fans, the Black Knights must utilize a new starting quarterback after the graduation of Kelvin Hopkins Jr. After an ongoing competition between Christian Anderson and Jabari Laws, Army will likely send out Anderson to take the first snaps of the game. Anderson and Laws posted nearly identical rushing numbers last season, averaging 6.4 yards per carry and scoring four touchdowns on a similar number of reps. Laws excelled more in the seldom used passing game, completing 16/20 passes for 15.6 yards per attempt, while Anderson was 7/23 with an average of 5.9. If Army feels the need to pass in a high-pressure situation Saturday, don’t be surprised if Laws checks in to run the offense.
Yardage-wise, the Black Knights predictably finished with a top-3 rushing offense last season and they ranked 17th in the FBS in rushing average. But compared to other triple option-based offenses such as Navy, Army showed strong ball security, averaging fewer than a fumble per contest. Army’s leading rusher returning to the roster is fullback Sandon McCoy, who rushed for a team-high 10 touchdowns last year. Alongside McCoy in the crowded backfield will be A-back Artice Hobbs (28 rushes, 158 yards, 2 touchdowns in 2019) and T-back Brandon Walters.
Army lost its leader on the defensive side of the ball in middle linebacker Cole Christiansen, who is currently in camp with the Los Angeles Chargers. But junior Arik Smith shifts from outside linebacker to Christiansen’s former position as the new leader of the Black Knight defense. Smith finished second behind Christiansen in total tackles on the roster last season and third in sacks.
The secondary is the least experienced position group on defense. Army is projected to start two sophomores and two juniors in the secondary, with only safety Cedrick Cunningham receiving a copious amount of snaps in 2019. Jabari Moore and Julian McDuffie combine for 15 career tackles, but they must step up their pass coverage when covering Jarrin Pierce and Jimmy Marshall on Saturday.
Don’t expect a blowout in this one. Middle Tennessee’s offense scores early thanks to the electric play of Asher O’Hara, but the Blue Raiders defense eventually wears down and makes away for the triple option to succeed. Expect hundreds of rushing yards coming from both offenses in this game, given O’Hara’s speed on one side and Army on the other. Middle Tennessee’s primary focus should be to expose the inexperienced Army cornerbacks and win with O’Hara’s arm and his veteran targets.
There will be a lot of rust on both sides of this game, but Middle Tennessee’s coaching staff receiving less than a month to prepare for the triple option in a Week 1 game may factor into this result. Army wins a close one in the fourth quarter in front of its cadet fanbase, in a game which features a lack of field goals and lengthy possessions.
Prediction: Army 28, Middle Tennessee 21