The Big Ten, ACC and what's left of the artist formally known as The Big East (hello The American!) stole the thunder for most of the conference realignment, but they weren't the only conferences to retool. Lost in the shuffle was the fact that Conference USA drafted half of the Sun Belt, who in turn added some schools from FCS, which set off a chain reaction....and long story short, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders have left the Fun Belt for the greener pastures of Conference USA, and your local high school is now playing D3 football somewhere.
You probably don't know a whole lot about MTSU, other than it's approximate geographic location (hint: it is neither in the far left, nor the far right, of the state of Tennessee). That's okay. We're here to help. Let's dig into what we might expect to see from MTSU this season, and how the Cougars might stack up.
How did MTSU do last year?
If you're just looking at win/loss record alone, you would conclude that the Blue Raiders were fairly successful last season. They finished with an 8-4 record, complete with a 49-28 thrashing of Georgia Tech that forced the nation to sit up and google Middle Tennessee State. While the Yellow Jackets weren't particularly good (and BYU beat them even more soundly), they did beat a vastly more talented USC squad in the Sun Bowl. So when you're a Sun Belt team beating someone like Georgia Tech, that counts for something.
That was unquestionably the high point of the season though. MTSU lost their season opener to something called a McNeese State, had the doors blown off by Arkansas State and Mississippi State, missed a bowl game, and were probably fortunate to win 8 games at all. Granted, given where the team was the previous season (2-10), 8 wins is a nice improvement. Georgia Tech win not withstanding though, the Blue Raiders of 2012 were more of a team that beat a lot of worse teams than an actual "good' team themselves.
What can we expect from the Blue Raiders on offense?
MTSU returns some important talent on the offensive side of the ball. The attack will be conducted by senior Logan Kilgore, who threw for 2,571 yards last year, along with 16 TDs and 6 INTS. Kilgore's supporting cast suffered some significant injuries, and while his stat line doesn't completely pop off the page, he was efficient and didn't make too many mistakes.
The Blue Raiders aren't the kind of team that wants to throw the ball 50 times a game, though. They want to establish the run game to set up the pass, and to do that, they'll give the rock to William Pracher -- who was lost for virtually all of 2012 due to injury -- Jordan Parker (851 yards, 3 TDs), and Jeremiah Bryson (150 yards). Parker got the bulk of the carries last year as a freshman, and if the rest of the crew could stay healthy, may help build a strong rushing attack that will open up opportunities for Kilgore to attack downfield. If either Pracher or Bryson get hurt though, depth could be a big concern.
MTSU loses their top pass catcher, but other solid options return. Kyle Griswould and Christian Collins come back from last year's squad, combining for 742 yards, and Tavarres Jefferson should return from missing a season due to injury to be in the mix for a top pass catching option. The Blue Raiders also return seven offensive linemen with starting experience, including three with double-digit starts, and could project to have one of the best lines in C-USA. If the skill position players can stay healthy, or come back to previous form if they've missed some time, they have the potential to be a strong offensive unit, at least, by C-USA standards.
What about the defense?
There really isn't a cute way to put this. Middle Tennessee State, by virtually ever statistical measure of note, had an absolutely horrid defense last year. Now, the good news is that several of these players are 3 star prospects and are returning, but that could also be bad news, if they aren't, in fact, any good.
This is a team that only had 14 sacks last season, was 121st in the country in defending 3rd down, was at or near a sub-100 ranking in most yardage categories, and one of their better defensive linemen, Omar McLendon, is gone. The Blue Raiders do return an impressive 8 other defensive linemen who made tackles last year, but the big question is whether they will improve enough to form something of a cohesive unit. They struggled dramatically last year.
MTSU returns their entire linebacking corps and most of the secondary, led by senior linebacker Craig Allen (70 tackles). The rest of the defensive prioritized the "bend, but don't break" strategy, which is perhaps why they gave up so much yardage. This was a unit that was fairly adept at preventing big plays against Sun Belt competition, but a death by a thousand paper cuts is still a death, and Cody Hoffman is a lot more powerful than a rouge envelope. (I probably screwed up this metaphor. Roll with it.)
Free safety Kevin Byard is one of the few playmakers in the secondary (4 picks, 61 tackles), and the Blue Raiders will need every big play he could muster if they want to be competitive against the proverbial big boys.
So this is the part of the article where you give me fun facts about this school, right?
It is, although there isn't the bevy of fun facts and interesting alumni that you might find with a larger institution. According to my exhaustive research on wikipedia, MTSU is known for their strong academic programs in the recording industry, Aerospace, and something called Concrete Management, which sounds suspiciously like a fake degree.
Before settling on the nickname "Blue Raiders" (which actually is pretty cool), MT athletic teams went by a variety of names, including Teachers, Normalites, and Pedagogues. It's a shame that an athletic team called the Pedagogues changed their name before sports blogs became a thing. Missed opportunity.
Apparently MTSU is a dry campus...so maybe they can bond with BYU fans over that.
The school is located in Murfreesboro, a city that is a true villain for sportswriters everywhere, since I will invariably spell it wrong at least twice this year. In case you weren't clear before, Murfreesboro is located near the *middle* of Tennessee.
So why didn't they name it Central Tennessee University or something? Doesn't that sound more dignified?
An excellent question friend! Should you see a Blue Raider, you should ask them.
What are the keys to this game? How is it going to go?
Like most college football games, the keys here are probably to be along the lines. BYU's front seven should project to be a significant strength, and while the offensive line for the Blue Raiders should be pretty good, they'll need to have a very strong game to provide enough holes for their running backs to even have a chance. The Blue Raiders probably don't have the passing game depth to win a shootout, or effectively move the ball if BYU can force them into 2nd and 3rd and long on a regular basis.
On the other side of the ball, MTSU's outfit last year was so bad, they gave up 15 points to Bye Week. If the squad hasn't improved, particularly along their ability to pressure a QB, the Cougars should be able to open the playbook a little and try out some new sets without major pressure.
MTSU, on paper, is probably the worst team BYU is going to face this year, outside of Idaho State. It's entirely possible that the Blue Raiders could remain healthy, get some improvement along their line, and eek out a 6 win bowl season in a new conference, but an .500 record is probably the most likely scenario. I like BYU to win this game at home 30-14.