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NCAA Football Conference USA Football

Rant Sports College Football Rankings: No. 64 Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

Marvin Gentry - USA Today Sports

Marvin Gentry – USA Today Sports

After two consecutive eight-win seasons, head coach Rick Stockstill and the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders look to continue that momentum in 2014. They will have to do that while relying on the veteran leadership of the defense until the seven new offensive starters get acclimated.

OFFENSE:

The departure of record-breaking quarterback Logan Kilgore not only means that the Blue Raiders will be looking for a new signal caller in 2014, but it also signals a change in offensive philosophies — moving from a pro-style offense to more of a read-option based system to accommodate the athletic quarterbacks on the roster . Offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner will have to decide between Austin Grammer, redshirt freshman AJ Erdely and true freshman Bent Stockstill as to who will lead MTSU’s new offense. Grammer has the only game experience of the three appearing in 10 games; passing for 190 yards on 46 attempts and adding another 193 yards on 33 rushes.

Whoever is named the starting quarterback will have the luxury of three running backs to rely on heading into 2014: junior Jordan Parker, senior Reggie Whatley, and redshirt junior Jeremiah Bryson. Parker returns as the leading Blue Raider rusher in the 2013 season after rushing for 745 yards and scoring six touchdowns. Whatley will provide the lightening to Parker’s thunder as he is the more explosive of the two runner as his 6.5 ypc average showed. Bryson rushed for 398 yards in nine games and gives the offense a nice blend of the other two rushers.

Senior Marcus Henry, who had 38 receptions for 549 yards in 2013,  is the leading returning receiver for the Blue Raiders and provides a nice blend of speed and athleticism. Senior Devin Clarke, junior Christian Collis and JUCO transfer Ed’Marques Batties will provide Grammer enough targets at receiver to be successful.

DEFENSE:

MTSU led Conference-USA with a plus-12 turnover margin and finished fifth in the nation in forced turnovers in 2013, and if the program wants to continue the success they will have to rely on the leadership of defensive tackle Patrick McNeil, linebacker T.T. Barber and safety Kevin Byard – all of whom were recognized as pre-season All-Conference USA candidates for 2014.

There is a lot of potential on the defensive line with returning starters: Alexandro Antoine and JiaJuan Fennell teaming up McNeil to create a formidable group, but they must continue to get better — which can happen if they increase their sack total. In 2013 not only did the trio only combine for six sacks, but the defensive unit as a whole only had 27.

Barber did it all in 2013; he led the team in tackles with 119, tackles for loss with 11.5, was second in interceptions with three and was the prize pupil in co-defensive coordinators Tyrone Nix aggressive defense. Senior Christian Henry brings a wealth of experience to the middle linebacker position, having started 37 games in his MTSU career and had a personal best 79 tackles in 2013.

In just two seasons, Byard has become the nation leader in interception return yards with 326  – which includes four returns for touchdowns. Joining him at safety will be junior Xavier Walker, who started 10 of 13 games last year and possesses enough size, 6-foot-4, 202 pounds, to be an impact player at the position.

SCHEDULE:

The non-conference schedule includes games against Savannah State and BYU at home and road games against Minnesota and Memphis. There is no reason why the Blue Raiders should not come out of that part of their schedule at least 3-1 — the road game against the Big 10 foe will be difficult, but Minnesota has been known to lay down against lesser competition. Opening against Savannah State should give the staff enough opportunities to assess the new starters and improve depth with playing time.

While still having to travel to West Virginia in Week 7 to face conference favorite Marshall, MTSU avoids the top two teams in the west division: UTSA and North Texas, in favor of cellar dwellers Southern Miss. and UTEP. They also have the benefit of playing eastern division contenders Western Kentucky and FAU at home.

Despite the changes at quarterback, this should be another successful season for coach Stockstill; but you have to believe that another season without a division title would have to be a disappointment.