This is the final game of an opening stretch that could be very kind to MSU. Assuming the Bulldogs win this game – they should, handily – they could be sitting at 7-0 with a very high ranking heading into the next game. At Alabama.
This will be the fifth meeting between the schools, and MSU has won the previous four, with an average margin of victory of 22.3 points. This will be third Sun Belt Conference opponent of the season for State, if you count South Alabama, which is a transitional team.
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (Oct. 20, in Starkville)
• Conference: Sun Belt
• 2011 record: 2-10 (1-7, 8th SBC)
• Final ranking: Not ranked
• Coach: Rick Stockstill (35-40, six years)
• Returning starters: 13 (6 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist)
• Last meeting: MSU, 27-6 (Oct. 17, 2009, in Murfreesboro)
• On the Web: goblueraiders.com
MTSU has had only two winning seasons under Stockstill, but last year was by far the worst. The Blue Raiders had their lowest point output (22.3 ppg) since 2005, when they averaged 19.1 per game. The offense averaged 401.1 yards per game, the second-highest total under Stockstill, but a minus-8 turnover margin and porous defense (36.8 ppg, 441.1 ypg) more than offset that production.
The quarterback position was shared by Logan Kilgore and Jeff Murphy last season, with the former getting off to a hot start before struggles cost him the job to Murphy. On the whole, Kilgore saw the most action, completing 58.6 percent of his passes for 2,231 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 11 games. In nine games, Murphy completed 60 percent for 794 yards, three TDs and three INTs. Murphy tore his ACL in the spring, so the job appears to be Kilgore's for now.
Middle Tennessee was a very respectable 38th in the country in passing offense. The running wasn't quite so good, ranking 73rd with 146.8 ypg, but it should be better this year. A pair of 500-yard rushers, Benny Cunningham and William Pratcher, return to the backfield, but it looks like LSU transfer Drayton Calhoun will take over the starting role. Calhoun was a high school All-American but was moved to defensive back at LSU in 2010.
Two starting offensive linemen return, with 62 career starts lost off last year's squad, including first-team All-SBC center Colin Boss. Big question: Can this group pass protect like last year, when its eight sacks allowed tied for first in the country?
The receiving corps has suffered some losses, including yardage leader Malcolm Beyah 497 yards). But senior Tavarres Jefferson, who led the team with 51 catches, returns.
As I said, the defense wasn't very good last fall. To repeat, the Blue Raiders gave up 36.8 points (111th nationally) and 441.1 yards per game (104th). Stockstill is taking a slightly different approach to things this year, having co-defensive coordinators for the first time. He brought in Tyrone Nix from Ole Miss to join last year's DC, Steve Ellis. Nix will call the plays.
The defensive line should be stronger this year, with only one significant loss. The depth chart has a good mix of youth and experience, and MTSU is led up front by senior end Omar McLendon (6-foot-3, 242 pounds), who made 54 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles-for-loss last season. On the inside, senior Kendall Dangerfield is coming off a strong season in which he had 31 tackles and 8.0 TFLs.
MTSU gave up 229.5 rushing yards per game, which ranked 114th in the country.
The linebackers have a lot of experience, with the three projected starters making a combined 143 tackles last year. Weakside LB Roderic Blunt had 54 stops, while strongside Craig Allen had 53. The man in the middle, Christian Henry, had 36 stops – he played all 12 games, making four starts. MLB numbers usually are much higher than that, so Henry will need to be more active.
The secondary had a very down year in 2011, as MTSU ranked 98th in pass efficiency defense with a rating of 143.65. The Raiders recorded only four interceptions, and there's a good bit of turnover with this unit, which might be a good thing. Florida State transfer Jajuan Harley is expected to step in and start at strong safety.
Will Middle Tennessee be better this year? Probably, because it's hard to get much worse than what happened in 2011. The Blue Raiders lost their final six games of the season, by an average of 28 points. I wonder if they'll be good enough to give MSU much to sweat about.