We've made it.
The start of the college football season has arrived, and while little about this campaign will resemble any previous college football season in recent memory, at least one element will remain constant: Army West Point deploying the triple option. Middle Tennessee will get its first taste of the Black Knights' third-ranked rushing attack from 2019 when the Blue Raiders descend on West Point on Saturday.
Last season saw a fall from winning ways for both teams. Middle Tennessee's 4-8 record (3-5 in Conference USA) gave the Blue Raiders their first losing season in nearly a decade, but hopes are high that Rick Stockstill can bring the Blue Raiders back to the postseason. Army, meanwhile, won only five games in 2019 after back-to-back seasons with 10 or more wins and three consecutive bowl appearances (all wins).
Saturday will mark the first-ever meeting between Middle Tennessee and Army. This will be just the Blue Raiders' second game in program history against the service academies, with the first being a 24-6 loss against Navy in 2013. Army hasn't had much success against Conference USA, posting a 23-53 record against the conference, though the Black Knights won two of three against Conference USA foes last season, with wins over UTSA and Rice and a loss at Western Kentucky.
Middle Tennessee at Army West Point
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 5 at 1:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Army -3
When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball
Asher O'Hara was Conference USA's most prolific player on offense a season ago, and more of the same will be asked of him in 2020. O'Hara led the conference (and was 13th in the FBS) with 306.2 total yards per game, averaging 218.0 through the air and another 88.2 on the ground. He tallied 20 passing touchdowns and an additional nine rushing scores, both of which led the team and were good enough for fourth in Conference USA.
For the Blue Raiders to match — let alone improve on — last season's middle-of-the-pack scoring productivity (26.3 points per game) this season, O'Hara will likely be shouldering most of the load once again after finishing as the team's leading rusher last season. Middle Tennessee did welcome running backs Martell Pettaway (West Virginia) and Amir Rasul (Florida State) as transfers, but both opted out of the 2020 season in late August. Receivers Jarrin Pierce, CJ Windham, and Jimmy Marshall all return for their senior seasons, with Pierce's 562 yards receiving the high mark among the trio last year.
Army lost leading tackler Cole Christiansen from the linebacker group as well as cornerback Elijah Riley, who led the team in sacks and interceptions last season. But upperclassmen Arik Smith, the leading returning tackler, and Jeremiah Lowery, a senior who started eight games last season, both return. As a unit, the Black Knights finished with a top-30 mark nationally for total defense at 342.3 yards allowed per game. They also did well to keep opponents off the scoreboard, giving up just 23.0 points per game for the season even with 31 allowed in each of the final two games of 2019. A return to those stingy ways would be more than welcome this coming season.
When Army Has the Ball
Head coach Jeff Monken officially named junior Christian Anderson the starter at quarterback this week, as he had been leading the offense during the preseason. Fellow junior Jabari Laws has been recovering from a late-season knee injury but ultimately has not yet been deemed ready to reclaim his starting role from 2019. While Anderson played well in Laws' absence, it was Laws who was the driving force behind an Army offense that averaged 28.5 points per game last season.
Anderson demonstrated a willingness to run the football throughout 2019, totaling 33 carries in the final two games of the season after Laws' injury. Combining his ability (67 rushing attempts, 6.4 yards per carry in 2019) with the experience of senior backfield mates Sandon McCoy and Artice Hobbs IV (728 yards rushing combined) and a veteran offensive line, this offense should be able to rely on its upperclassmen to establish a consistent rhythm.
Middle Tennessee struggled mightily last season on the defensive side of the ball, allowing a conference-worst (and bottom-20 nationally) 459.3 total yards per game. The Blue Raiders also allowed 40 or more points in three of the first four games, which contributed to a season-long average of 29.9 points allowed per game. The unit's return of only three starters from last year's group doesn't help, but the unit will benefit from the return of Reed Blankenship. The senior safety played in only seven games last season due to injury, but he was a first-team preseason all-conference selection by Athlon Sports and was named to the 2020 watch lists for the Bednarik Award and the Thorpe Award.
Both teams showed they were more than capable of moving the ball on offense last season, and much of those playmakers return in 2020. The key here will be defense: that was a problem area for Middle Tennessee, while Army's unit was overall effective despite a couple of weaker showings. It will be up to O'Hara to solve the Black Knights' defense and prevent Army's triple-option from slowing down the game, a style on which Army has thrived and will look to revive.
Prediction: Army 28, Middle Tennessee 24
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of MTSU Athletics)