Conference USA teams headed in very different directions face off on Friday night
Conference USA teams headed in completely different directions face off on Friday night when the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders travel to take on the UTSA Roadrunners. UTSA was originally scheduled to play Memphis but the Tigers had to bow out due to COVID-19 concerns with their team. Middle Tennessee replaced Memphis on short notice and this will count in the Conference USA standings.
For Middle Tennessee (2-0), seemingly nothing has gone right so far in this young season. The offense is a mess with poor quarterback play and absolutely no threat of a run game, while the defense is allowing well over 400 yards per game and 40-plus points against both Army and Troy. Head coach Rick Stockstill said after the loss to Troy there are "not a whole lot of positives to talk about" and that "we aren't a very good offensive football team right now." Not what you want to say after just two games into the season.
As for UTSA, it has been a dream start under new head coach Jeff Traylor as they sit at 2-0 and are playing well on both sides of the ball. After an overtime win in Week 2 against Texas State, the Roadrunners defeated Stephen F. Austin 24-10 last weekend in a game where UTSA racked up close to 500 yards of total offense. With a pair of ranked teams on the horizon upcoming on the schedule, along with a tough UAB team next week, UTSA knows it needs to secure a win on Friday against a reeling Middle Tennessee team.
These teams have split the previous two meetings with UTSA winning the most recent one, beating Middle Tennessee 45-25 on the road in 2016.
Middle Tennessee at UTSA
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: UTSA -6.5
When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball
What in the world has happened to Asher O'Hara? The Middle Tennessee quarterback was a revelation in 2019, compiling over 3,600 yards of total offense with 29 combined TDs and was one of the best players in Conference USA. Through two games this season, O'Hara has yet to throw a single TD pass and is averaging just 2.6 yards per carry after putting up over five yards per rushing attempt a year ago.
To be fair to O'Hara, he's gotten absolutely zero help from his surrounding cast as the Blue Raiders as a team are averaging just 81 yards per game on the ground, and that number drops even further if you included only running backs. Middle Tennessee's leading rusher outside of O'Hara through two games has just seven carries for 40 yards.
As of Wednesday, Stockstill has yet to announce who will start at quarterback on Friday between O'Hara and backup Chase Cunningham has seen action in both games thus far, but knows things need to improve at the position in a hurry if MTSU is to turn this season around. "If we start throwing the ball better that will help. Right now, we aren't threatening with our passing attack," Stockstill said. "Teams know that they can play half a man more in the box, outnumber us a little bit... It's not a very pretty sight watching our offensive football team."
When UTSA Has the Ball
UTSA has no such issues on offense like Middle Tennessee does right now, averaging 498 yards per game through two weeks. As expected under Traylor, a former running backs coach with Arkansas prior to this, the Roadrunners have a dominant ground attack led by quarterback Frank Harris and star runner Sincere McCormick. As a team, UTSA is averaging well over five yards per carry and 279 rushing yards per game.
Health has always been the concern for Harris in his first few years on campus, but we are seeing the kind of quarterback he can be when at 100 percent. The junior is completing 69 percent of his passes through two weeks and has rushed for 155 yards and a team-high five scores. The other notable emergence for the Roadrunners has been 6-foot-3 sophomore receiver Joshua Cephus who had just eight career receptions coming into the year, but has already surpassed that total in two games with 14 catches for 133 yards and two TDs. With last year's No. 1 receiver Zakhari Franklin out of the lineup, Cephus has emerged as the team's go-to option in the passing game.
Something feels off here with UTSA being just a 6.5-point favorite considering how these two teams have played through two weeks. Middle Tennessee has been dreadful on both sides of the football and now has to go on the road in a short week facing a team with a ton of momentum in the Roadrunners. Not to mention we very well could see a rotation of quarterbacks from the Blue Raiders on Friday night as Stockstill looks desperately for any kind of spark to his offense. Maybe UTSA overlooks Middle Tennessee on a short week with the upcoming schedule ahead, but I don't see it. Roadrunners win by at least two scores.
Prediction: UTSA 31, Middle Tennessee 20
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.