MTSU Blue Raiders

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#88 MTSU Blue Raiders

NATIONAL FORECAST

#88

C-USA East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Rick Stockstill, 57-55 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Buster Faulkner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tyrone Nix

Middle Tennessee won enough games to be bowl-eligible last season, but the Blue Raiders didn't get an invite. Rick Stockstill's team returns 13 starters, but a tough schedule including a date with Alabama makes MTSU's path back to the postseason a difficult one.

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Previewing MTSU’s Offense for 2015
 

Middle Tennessee’s quarterback competition is a two-man race that might go well into the season. Returning starter Austin Grammer, a dual-threat performer, accounted for 2,999 yards of total offense and 23 TDs last season. But he had some turnover issues in key games, and the passing game rarely stretched the field. Redshirt freshman Brent Stockstill, son of head coach Rick Stockstill, may be a better passer, but Grammer is a better runner. It’s likely that game action will determine the starter. “We’ve got to move the ball and pass it better,” Rick Stockstill says. “In the last four or five games last year, our passing game struggled and people loaded the box on us. So whoever is out there has to pass the ball down the field. But I am in no hurry to make a decision.”

The air attack faces an uphill battle. Ed Batties is a proven pass catcher, but he needs help from other wideouts. Passing game aside, the Blue Raiders return some key components of a strong ground attack. Jordan Parker, Shane Tucker and Jeremiah Bryson have combined for 3,638 rushing yards and 39 total TDs in their careers, and freshman power back J’Vonte Herrod may also enter the fray. Plus, three starting offensive linemen are back.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing MTSU’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The key cogs return in two senior standouts. Safety Kevin Byard’s 15 career interceptions stand only two shy of MTSU’s all-time record. Byard (246 tackles) and linebacker T.T. Barber (234) are both within reach of the team’s career mark in tackles (344).

They head a defense returning seven starters, but most of that personnel is better suited to stop the run than the pass. The top four defensive tackles return to clog gaps in the middle, but an every-down pass rusher is desperately needed. Juniors Steven Rhodes and Chris Hale showed some promise in that role in the spring, but junior college transfer Peter Bailey was signed specifically to bring pressure.

“I think defensive end is such a big area because we haven’t had that guy who can get to the quarterback on any down in a few years,” Stockstill says. “Adding that will be critical for what we need to do defensively.”

Depth is also needed at cornerback. Jared Singletary is solid, but the other starter and backups are concerns, especially for a secondary burned by big plays too often in 2014.

Previewing MTSU’s Specialists for 2015
 

Placekicker and punter are big concerns. Cody Clark is back, but he missed his last four field goals in 2014 and looked shaky in spring practice. He will compete for placekicking duties with freshman Matt Bonadies, who arrives as the frontrunner at punter. Record-breaking return man Reggie Whatley graduated, leaving a big-play vacancy. Batties, Bryson, Singletary and others will try to fill the void.

Final Analysis
 

MTSU has been bowl-eligible in five of the past six seasons, and the 2015 squad has enough talent and experience to add to that total. But the schedule doesn’t do the Blue Raiders any favors. Two weeks after a trip to Alabama, MTSU begins a three-game stretch against Illinois, Vanderbilt and high-powered rival Western Kentucky. The senior-laden squad could be Stockstill’s best in a few years, but the record might not show it.

“We’ve got some tough road games; it’s not just our out-of-conference games,” Stockstill says. “Western Kentucky could be favored to win the East, and we go there. Louisiana Tech could be favored to win the West, and we go there. But for us to contend (in Conference USA), we have got to stay healthy through those first five games so we can play well down the stretch in our conference.”




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#90 MTSU Blue Raiders

NATIONAL FORECAST

#90

C-USA East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Rick Stockstill, 51-49 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Buster Faulkner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Steve Ellis, Tyrone Nix

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 90 MTSU.

Previewing MTSU’s Offense for 2014:

A change at quarterback should have far-reaching effects. Pocket passer Logan Kilgore graduated after setting the school record for career TD passes, and a trio of dual-threat quarterbacks will compete for his job. Sophomore Austin Grammer, redshirt freshman AJ Erdely and true freshman Brent Stockstill (son of head coach Rick Stockstill) have staged a tight race, and all three could get their chance in 2014. Regardless of the starter, the offense will go toward a zone-read look with a mobile quarterback and four strong running backs returning to stock the deepest backfield in Conference USA. Downhill runner Jordan Parker and big-play sprinter Reggie Whatley lead the group, which helped MTSU rush for nearly 200 yards per game last season.

“It helps us so much more when the quarterback is a threat to run,” Stockstill says. “Anytime you have a quarterback that can buy some time in the passing game and get some first downs in the run game, it opens up so much more for your running backs and receivers.”

The receiving corps has traded in the experience and sure hands of last season’s seniors for more speed and athleticism. Marcus Henry (38 receptions, 549 yards) is the total package, but newcomers carry high hopes. Junior college transfer Ed’Marques Batties and redshirt freshman Shannon Smith should both make an impact.

Both offensive tackles return, but there are concerns in the rebuilt interior of the line with three new starters at center and guard. For the ground game to equal last year’s pace, the middle must be solidified.

Previewing MTSU’s Defense for 2014: 

Linebacker T.T. Barber and safety Kevin Byard are among the best at their positions in C-USA. Barber is a playmaker who had three interceptions, three fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles in 2013. Byard is already the NCAA’s active career leader in interception return yards after only two seasons, and he has returned four picks for TDs. But the supporting cast carries questions.

Seven starters return for a defense that tied for fifth nationally in takeaways last season, but there are unproven players in both the defensive line and secondary. Defensive co-coordinator Tyrone Nix transformed the Blue Raiders into a turnover-forcing machine last season, but repeating that performance without a proven pass-rusher or shutdown cornerback will be a challenge. Third-down defense must also improve from a ranking of 119th last season.

Previewing MTSU’s Specialists for 2014: 

Placekicker Cody Clark lacks a big leg, but he is consistent at reasonable distances. He made 12-of-16 field goals as a freshman last season. Freshman A.J. Wells was signed specifically to take over punting duties in his debut season. Whatley is among the nation’s most dangerous kick returners, if he can avoid injuries.

Final Analysis

Almost always a contender but rarely a champion, MTSU has been bowl-eligible five times in Stockstill’s eight seasons but has earned only a share of one conference title. Back-to-back eight-win seasons in two different conferences (Sun Belt, C-USA) provide a good springboard for another bowl bid this year.

With East Carolina out of the league, MTSU likely must beat out Marshall, Florida Atlantic and old Sun Belt rival Western Kentucky for the C-USA East title. Finding a dependable quarterback and duplicating last season’s terrific turnover margin will be key if the Blue Raiders want to make a run at a conference title rather than just hang around .500.

“Each year your team changes, but you know we’re close,” Stockstill says. “We were a game out of winning it in our last year in the Sun Belt. And we were basically a game out from winning it this past year in Conference USA. Marshall will obviously be the favorite, but we’re close.”




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