Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 7 Middle Tennessee State.
If you ever wonder where all the teams that fill out college football’s 16 quintillion bowl games you don’t give a shit about actually come from, the answer is Conference USA. And while you should probably find something better to do come December, Middle Tennessee State is currently the best reason I can come up with to convince you to pay attention to the conference during the regular season.
The Blue Raiders are led by head coach Rick Stockstill, a former FSU quarterback in the late ‘70s who pounced on the Middle Tennessee position in 2006 after serving as an assistant for 20-odd years. He’s led the program to moderate success, taking them to five bowl games in his time at the helm, and thanks to a smart and ballsy coaching move, the team may be able to take a step toward a conference title within the next year or so.
Brent Stockstill, the coach’s son, will once again take his place under center as the team’s starting quarterback, this after he posted a Conference USA-record 4,005 passing yards in his freshman campaign. He led an offense that etched its name in the school record books, breaking the marks for most points and yards accumulated in a season. Last fall, the decision to start the coach’s son seemed doomed to be filed to the nepotism folder if Stockstill failed; now, a year after the Blue Raider offense posted an average of 34.0 points per game a year ago with Stockstill in the driver’s seat, it looks genius.
Including the quarterback position, the Blue Raider offense is stacked at the skill positions and has the depth to keep teams reeling for a full four quarters. Shane Tucker, a running back transitioning to wide receiver, had to make use of a redshirt after fracturing his leg this offseason, leaving the Blue Raider receiving corps void of some bonus depth after the graduation of Ed’Marques Batties and Christian Collins, the team’s receiving touchdown leader in 2015. Still, the group returns Richie James, who was first on the team with 108 receptions for 1,346 yards and eight scores as a freshman. The top rotation was filled out by Georgia Tech-transfer Patrick Smith, Dennis Andrews, and freshman Ty Lee in the season-opener—Demetrius Frazier was initially penciled to start prior to a leg injury that’ll keep him out indefinitely.
In the backfield, redshirt senior I’Tavius Mathers, an Ole Miss transfer, is listed as the starting running back and will be backed up by redshirt freshmen Terrell West and Ruben Garnett. Against Alabama A&M, West received 15 carries to Mathers’s eight—neither was needed long in the 55-0 rout—so expect to see the duo interchanged throughout the season.
The entire defensive line features seniors on the first team, with Steven Rhodes and Chris Hale at the end and Jimal McBride and Shaquille Huff holding down the middle. DJ Sanders, Myles Harges, and Darius Harris get the starting nods at linebacker in the Blue Raiders’s 4-3 set—all three are new starters. The front seven was decent against the run last year, but had a couple significant slips—were it not for an untimely fourth-quarter scamper, Middle Tennessee would’ve had a win against an SEC opponent (okay, it was Vanderbilt, but it still counts).
But aside from the Vanderbilt loss, the big boys were solid for the Papa Stockstill last year. The defensive secondary is the issue the Blue Raiders will most need to tighten up if they hope to capture the conference title this season. Last year, Middle Tennessee allowed an average 253.5 yards and 1.7 touchdowns through the air each week—pass coverage, or the lack thereof, was the main culprit in losses to Western Kentucky, Western Michigan, and Louisiana Tech. To be fair, Western Kentucky was statistically the deadliest passing attack in the nation last year with 50 touchdowns, but the Blue Raiders have to play them every year, so unless it wants to get embarrassed again come Oct. 15, MTSU will need to find some unity amongst its final line of defense.
Stockstill was not just good by Conference USA standards in 2015, he was one of the most efficient and explosive quarterbacks in the entire nation. He completed 66.7 percent of his passes a year ago, good for 13th in the nation; his 327 completions ranked 8th overall and was a school record; his 30 touchdowns and 4,005 yards both came in at No. 12 overall. Dude was really fucking good, is what I’m getting at here.
Now, he’s back and will likely once again lead one of the top passing attacks in college football in a second attempt to knock Western Kentucky off the top of Conference USA. If you love a good shootout and want to watch this guy do his thing, you should absolutely try and catch either of MTSU’s October challenges against the Hilltoppers and Missouri.
Even if Middle Tennessee ran the table, their Power Five non-conference slate (Vanderbilt and Missouri) is still not strong enough to earn them a spot in the college football playoff. For now, the team should aim for possible upset victories against the Commodores and Tigers, but their focus should be on the Oct. 15 clash with Western Kentucky.
The Hilltoppers beat the shit out of the Blue Raiders last season in a 58-28 smackdown that earned them the East Division crown, which WKU gladly scooped up on its way to a bowl win and appearance in the final AP poll at No. 24. It’s a big ask given the Hilltoppers’s passing attack, but considering they lost their standout quarterback, Brandon Doughty, to graduation, this year seems to be the best one for Middle Tennessee to stake their claim to the division and the conference.
Rick Stockstill has been all over college football the past 30 years, making stops at big-name programs like Florida State, Clemson, South Carolina before scoring the MTSU gig. He hasn’t come up on the dick radar yet, but drop me a line if you have strong convictions either way. For now: not a dick.
Sept. 3: Alabama A&M
Sept. 10: @ Vanderbilt
Sept. 17: @ Bowling Green
Sept. 24: Louisiana Tech
Oct. 1: @ North Texas
Oct. 15: Western Kentucky
Oct. 22: @ Missouri
Oct. 29: @ FIU
Nov. 5: Texas-SA
Nov. 12: @ Marshall
Nov. 19: @ UNC-Charlotte
Nov. 26: FAU