The Blue Raiders rank No. 85 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2018
Middle Tennessee has not won a conference championship since sharing the Sun Belt title in coach Rick Stockstill's 2006 debut season. But the Blue Raiders have played in seven bowl games during that stretch, including the past three seasons. It's plausible to say that both trends could continue, as the Raiders could once again go bowling but are a long shot to win a Conference USA title.
Previewing Middle Tennessee Football's Offense for 2018
Keeping quarterback Brent Stockstill healthy is priority No. 1 for the Blue Raiders. He already is MTSU's all-time leading passer with 8,951 yards and 77 TDs, but he's missed nine games due to injuries over the past two seasons. And MTSU has no other quarterbacks with game experience on the roster, so there's potentially an enormous drop-off if Stockstill gets injured again.
Stockstill's top target will be Ty Lee, who led Conference USA with 79 catches last season. Patrick Smith and CJ Windham return as part of the rotation, but more wide receivers must join the mix to maximize Stockstill's final season. Speedy slot receiver Zack Dobson, one of the team's top-rated 2017 signees, has dynamic ability in the open field and should earn a role.
The line returns three starters, but there are questions about depth beyond that. The running back trio of bruiser Tavares Thomas, sure-handed Brad Anderson and big-play threat Terelle West has a high ceiling. They combined for 1,306 rushing yards and 47 receptions last season. MTSU should be among C-USA's most potent offenses, but it needs balance from the ground game to complement the passing attack.
Previewing Middle Tennessee Football's Defense for 2018
The Blue Raiders made major improvements across the board in defensive coordinator Scott Shafer's first season. Year 2 carries plenty of promise with seven starters returning.
MTSU led C-USA in tackles for a loss last season, and much of that pressure is back. That includes edge-rushing linebacker Khalil Brooks (17 TFLs), and defensive tackle Malik Manciel (five TFLs) and some blitzing defensive backs. Defensive end Walter Brady decided to leave the team as a graduate transfer in early June.
Outside linebacker Darius Harris and strong safety Jovante Moffatt, a pair of seniors, are proven performers. Harris was the Camellia Bowl MVP, and he should provide guidance to budding redshirt freshman linebacker Cody Smith. Moffatt led the team with 101 tackles last season and anchors the secondary, which must develop more options at cornerback. Syracuse graduate transfer Cordell Hudson could help there.
The Blue Raiders must make major strides in takeaways after forcing only 11 turnovers in 13 games.
Previewing Middle Tennessee Football's Specialists for 2018
There are no concerns at punter, where Matt Bonadies returns to start a fourth season. Crews Holt should get the placekicker job after making his lone field goal attempt last season. The Blue Raiders must improve in kickoff coverage, as they allowed 26.4 yards per return last season, fifth worst in FBS.
Getting to bowl eligibility won't be an easy feat with non-conference games against SEC foes Vanderbilt, Georgia and Kentucky, and only five home games overall. Plus, two of MTSU's toughest C-USA games lead off its league schedule in a visit from Florida Atlantic and a trip to Marshall.
If the Blue Raiders can survive the first half of the schedule, they should collect wins in the back half. But again, keeping the younger Stockstill upright is paramount. MTSU is possibly a conference title contender with its senior QB behind center, but it likely posts a losing record without him.