The Blue Raiders rank No. 75 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2017
Middle Tennessee’s father-son, head coach-quarterback combination should produce plenty of points for the Blue Raiders. While the running game is a question mark, there are weapons galore for MTSU to have one of the nation’s most potent passing attacks, especially if an inexperienced offensive line comes together. The defense has eight starters returning as a new coordinator will try to tighten things up on the other side of the ball. The Blue Raiders’ offense should be good for several wins on its own, but the defense has to improve for them to contend in the Conference USA East Division.
Previewing Middle Tennessee Football’s Offense for 2017
Quarterback Brent Stockstill and wide receiver Richie James return as one of the nation’s most explosive passing duos. Both only juniors, they should break Middle Tennessee’s career records for passing yards and receiving yards this season. Stockstill (7,279 yards, 61 TDs in career), the son of head coach Rick Stockstsill, should be fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. He is a Conference USA Player of the Year candidate. James is the NCAA active career leader in receptions (213) and receiving yards (2,971). Ty Lee and Patrick Smith are talented complementary receivers for an offense that averaged nearly 40 points per game and set more than a dozen school records last season.
One big hole is at running back, where offensive coordinator Tony Franklin must replace I’Tavius Mathers’ school-record 1,561 rushing yards. Shane Tucker, talented but injury prone, returns to his natural position at running back after a brief stint at wide receiver. Junior college transfer Maurice Gordon may be the best long-term option. But the ground game will go only as far as a rebuilt offensive line will allow. Only two starters return, and some linemen could be moved around in preseason camp.
Previewing Middle Tennessee Football’s Defense for 2017
New defensive coordinator Scott Shafer, the former Syracuse head coach, must retool a unit that gave up 35.8 points per game last season. He will have some key components to work with, as the Blue Raiders return eight of their top nine tacklers from last season.
All three starters and backups are back to bolster one of C-USA’s top linebacking corps. Leading tackler Chris Melton (102 tackles), steady producer Darius Harris (8.0 tackles for a loss) and playmaker D.J. Sanders (two TD interception returns) lead the group. The secondary touts experience with four starters back, but it was torched at times last season in a bend-but-don’t-break approach.
Shafer will try to turn the Blue Raiders into a more aggressive, attacking defense. But first, he needs to rebuild a line with all new starters. The squad’s best hope for a difference-making pass rusher is Missouri transfer Walter Brady, the nation’s sack leader (7.0) among freshmen in 2015.
Previewing Middle Tennessee Football’s Specialists for 2017
Canon Rooker made 16-of-19 field goals last season as an All-Conference USA first-teamer, and he scored 112 points, the most ever by a Middle Tennessee kicker. Steady punter Matt Bonadies also returns. The team’s leading kick returners and punt returners are back, but they did not record a single return of more than 40 yards last season.
Rick Stockstill’s track record says that Middle Tennessee will be explosive on offense, especially as long as his son is behind center, and the team will earn a bowl bid. The Blue Raiders have been bowl-eligible in seven of the past eight seasons. Reaching beyond that will be a tougher task. Middle Tennessee has never earned an outright league championship in the school’s FBS era.
The Blue Raiders knocked off Missouri last season, and there are similarly winnable non-conference games early on against Vanderbilt, Syracuse, Minnesota and Bowling Green. A good record in that first month could yield a special season, but a 2–2 split would be a reasonable feat.
There’s little mystery to this team’s deciding factors. They reside on the respective lines. If the Blue Raiders can fill the gaps on the offensive line, Brent Stockstill and company again will attack the record book. And if the inexperienced defensive line can grow up fast, it will support an otherwise strong defense. If neither happens, Middle Tennessee could fall into inconsistency. But either way, the potent offensive weapons should ensure a bowl appearance.