From the Bird’s Nest: Middle Tennessee – Lots of Questions
(This is the ninth in a series previewing Louisiana's 2011 opponents. Today: Middle Tennessee)
MIDDLE TENNESSEE BLUE RAIDERS
Location: Murfreesboro, TN
Stadium: Johnny "Red" Floyd (30,788)
2010 Record: 6-7 (5-3 SBC)
Coach: Rick Stockstill
Record 33-30 (6th season)
Last meeting with Louisiana: 2010 Middle Tennessee 34, Louisiana 14
It wasn't supposed to turn out that way.
Last year, Middle Tennessee was coming off a ten win season and with fourteen starters back, were primed to equal or surpass that total. They had the preseason Player of the Year returning with all sorts of weapons.
But it kind of fell apart before it even began.
Quarterback Dwight Dasher, who set records for his performance in the 2009 New Orleans Bowl was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season. Middle Tennessee went 1-3 in those games. Then, Dasher was a turnover machine when he returned, throwing 28 interceptions in nine games. That was part of the frightening 38 turnovers the Blue Raiders had a year ago. Their turnover margin was the worst in the FBS. Even with all those issues, Middle closed strong, winning their final three games, including a win at FIU to get to the GMAC Bowl.
Now, the Raiders enter 2011 with plenty of uncertainty. They'll be breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the football, a new quarterback, number one running back and just about their whole defense. Lots of questions need to be answered.
While Dasher was suspended, Logan Kilgore and Jeff Murphy split quarterback duties. Kilgore was the starter but was injured, giving Murphy a chance. They're in a battle for the starting spot, one that may last throughout camp. Obviously, taking care of the football will be a priority for whoever gets the nod.
Phillip Tanner departs as the #1 running back option, but junior Ben Cunningham, who ran for 355 yards last year, will take over. Cunningham proved his versatility last season. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, return kicks and he also made tackles on special teams. D. D. Kyles, who actually was a starter two years ago when Tanner was hurt, will be the backup.
There is experience at wide receiver, although none have proven to be game-breakers thus far. Senior Malcolm Beyah led the team in receptions last year, and Sancho McDonald, a problem for defenders with his 6-3 frame, has more career catches (71) than anyone on the squad. There appears to be some good depth at receiver as well, as junior Tavares Jeferson had two touchdown catches in the Raiders' last two regular season games.
The front line should be the strong point of this offense. Four starters return (although all four missed at least a part of spring practice because of injury). Because of some injuries, the Raiders didn't start the same offensive line in consecutive games until the final three weeks of the season. They won all three games. The only battle for a starting spot is at center. Middle Tennessee appears to have plenty of depth up front, which should help this offense tremendously.
On defense, there are lots of questions to be answered. The entire defensive front is gone, including three all-conference performers, among them Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Jamari Lattimore. Most of the candidates up front have some playing experience. Fifth year senior SaCoby Carter appears to be the best of the bunch. With some talented redshirt freshman, Middle Tennessee should be able to develop some depth up front. But whoever lines up, the Raiders have to be better against the run than they were a year ago, when they allowed nearly 188 yards per game.
The Raiders should be fine at linebacker, with senior Darin Davis returning. Davis was second on the team in tackles and also intercepted three passes. Justin Jones started eight games as the Will linebacker and ranked fourth on the team in tackles. Corey Carmichael started the final three games in the middle as a true freshman. He's fighting with Stephen Roberts for the starting job. The backups are young, but they are all good athletes.
If you follow the Sun Belt closely, you'll probably know the names Rod Isaac, Jeremy Kellum and Kevin Brown. That's because they were starters in Middle Tennessee's defensive backfield for multiple seasons. All are gone.
The lone returning starter in the back of the defense is senior corner Arness Ikner, who started every game last season. There's a lot of speed back there but very little experience. Most of the competition at safety, however is among upperclassmen, which should help the situation, although none of them have played a lot.
The kicking game should be solid. Alan Gendreau is one of the league's best placekickers and Sophomore Josh Davis had a solid freshman year as the punter. Middle's return game is always pretty good. Erik Russell, who was third in the league in both punt and kickoff returns, is back.
The non-conference schedule won't be easy. The Raiders have to go to Purdue and Tennessee, while hosting Georgia Tech and Memphis. The Raiders will be pointing to the Memphis game. The Raiders lost that game in Memphis last year, the only win the Tigers got. In the league, Middle opens at Troy on September 24. The good news is they'll have a bye week before that. They also travel to FAU, North Texas and ULM. They get WKU, Louisiana, FIU and ASU at home, which makes things manageable.
Outlook: Who knows? Replacing eight starters on defense is quite a chore. Middle Tennessee will need their secondary to grow up in a hurry, especially in the running game, where the Raiders weren't very good a year ago. The best pass rushers from the defense are gone as well. Offensively, Middle Tennessee has to get more production from their wide receivers. Both quarterbacks are capable, but Middle is going to have to score more than they did ago because of the losses on defense. A solid, veteran offensive line will certainly help.
Middle has the talent on this team to be a factor in the race. But they've got to drastically cut down on turnovers if they're going to be in the mix. Otherwise, all bets are off.