No. 49 Middle Tennessee State
Middle Tennessee has rarely had issues lighting up scoreboards under head coach Rick Stockstill. The only problem is that they too often light up the scoreboard for the opposition too, routinely ranking in the nation's bottom third in most defensive categories. The longtime coach hired former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer to retool his defense into a more aggressive and better-tackling group.
Don't worry about the offense; they'll comfortably average 40 points and single-handedly deliver at least seven wins. A good defense could get them to 10 wins.
2016 Record: 8-5 (5-3, Conference USA)
Middle Tennessee won eight games for the third time in five seasons and another bowl game, their third in four years. Four of their five losses, however, came by at least 17 points, including a bizarre 42-17 blowout loss at Marshall.
Their offense ranked among the best in the Conference USA and the FBS, averaging 517 yards per game (eighth nationally) and 39.7 points (12th), but the defense struggled, allowing at least 30 points in their final eight games, including whopping 108 points in their final two.
Head Coach: Rick Stockstill (12th year, 72-66 overall)
When 47-year-old Rick Stockstill jumped from his assistant job at South Carolina to Middle Tennessee in December 2005, no one expected the former Florida State quarterback to remain in Murfreesboro for over a decade.
Eleven years and six bowl games later, he's brought stability to a program who joined the FBS less than two decades ago. He's chasing the Blue Raiders' first outright conference championship ever and first bowl win since 2009.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Brent Stockstill, RB Shane Tucker, WR Richie James, WR Ty Lee, WR Patrick Smith, OT Carlos Johnson, G Chandler Brewer
MTSU was the only FBS teams with two players in the top 10 in all-purpose yards. One of those players — running back I'Tavius Mathers is gone — but the other — receiver Richie James — returns, along with an elite quarterback.
Brent Stockstill — the son of head coach Rick Stockstill — is a junior with 7,267 career yards and 61 touchdowns. He had offseason shoulder surgery and missed spring practice, though practice time is hardly a concern for him. It was, however, his second surgery since November when he broke his right clavicle and missed three late-season games.
Stockstill will have an arsenal of weapons at his disposal, namely receiver Richie James, Pro Football Focus' highest-graded returning receiver in the country. The lightning-quick junior has a whopping 212 receptions in two seasons, 25 touchdowns and nearly 3,500 all-purpose yards. He combined with Ty Lee and Patrick Smith to register 196 receptions.
“Richie James needs to touch the ball 15-20 times per game, and there’s a lot of different ways we can do that,” offensive coordinator Tony Franklin said this summer. “Ty Lee needs to touch the ball at least ten times a game as well so (all of our other receivers) are a bonus. We hope to see some guys step up and earn the same amount of touches as (James and Lee have).”
Elsewhere, senior Shane Tucker returns to running back after a bizarre four years that included a starting running back role in 2015, switch to receiver and an entire missed 2016 season with injury. And the offensive line returns two junior starters, tackle Carlos Johnson and guard Chandler Brewer, the latter of whom was an all-conference honorable mention selection.
Key Returning Defensive Players
LB Darius Harris, LB D.J. Sanders, LB Chris Melton, CB Mike Minter, CB Darryl Randolph, S Alex Dale, S Jovante Moffatt
New defensive coordinator Scott Shafer has a lot of pieces to make the Blue Raiders' defense a serviceable one. Their top four tacklers return, including all three starting linebackers (all three reserve linebackers return too), as do four starters in the secondary.
"We will put a physical, attacking, multiple defense on the field that will excel in fundamentals and tackling," the former Syracuse head coach said in January.
The unit will be led by Chris Melton, who went from little-used freshman to one of the best linebackers in the conference last year, racking up 102 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. Though the poor team numbers speak for themselves — 35.8 points and 450 yards per game — Melton is part of a hard-hitting, violent group that also includes safety Alex Dale (below) and Jovante Moffatt at safety.
“I’m not concerned about numbers from the past,” Shafer said. “At the end of the day, we want to keep their offense to one point less than ours. The stat the counts the most is wins and losses. We take a lot of pride in trying to stop the run, and our kids understand that.”
The defensive line lost almost all their top-end production and while they do return a couple rising sophomores, it will be a must-watch storyline in September.
Notable Player Losses
RB I'Tavius Mathers, WR Dennis Andrews, OT Maurquice Shakir, G Josh Chester, C Daniel Stephens, DT Raynard Felton, DT Jimal McBride, DE Chris Hale, DE Steve Rhodes, CB Jeremy Cutrer
I'Tavius Mathers was a stat-stuffing talent at running back and Jeremy Cutrer was a First-Team All-Conference USA corner — both UDFA signees of the Jacksonville Jaguars — but given the Blue Raiders' stockpiles at both positions, the most damaging losses come elsewhere.
The offensive and defensive lines lost seven combined starters, six of whom were all-conference honorable mention performers and one a First-Teamer, center Daniel Stephens. Steve Rhodes was their only player with more than 2.5 sacks last year.
Notable Player Additions
RB Maurice Gordon, DE Walter Brady, CB Kylan Stribling
New faces will have a hard time earning Week 1 starts but there will be plenty of fresh blood in No. 2 roles, including JUCO transfer Maurice Gordon at running back and Missouri transfer Walter Brady at defensive end. Brady led all FBS freshman with seven sacks in 2015.
Also, Shafer also praised redshirt freshman corner Kylan Stribling, saying he was "really pleased" with the 5-foot-11, 181-pound Tennessee native during spring ball.
Middle Tennessee has one of the most intriguing and opportunity-laden schedules among Group of Five programs. They have three winnable Power Five games — vs. Vanderbilt and at Syracuse and Minnesota — followed by a home date with Bowling Green.
They play four of six mid-season games at home and visit Western Kentucky on Nov. 17.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Vanderbilt|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Syracuse|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at Minnesota|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Bowling Green|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at Florida Atlantic|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. Florida International|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at UAB|
|Friday, Oct. 20||vs. Marshall|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. UTEP|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Charlotte|
|Friday, Nov. 17||at Western Kentucky|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Old Dominion|