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.
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.”