In case you're not familiar with Underdog Dynasty, I'll just say this: any review of CFB's national scene must include paying UDD a visit.
Underdog Dynasty's name should clue you in on what they cover -- the little guys; G5 programs that otherwise have no voice. There are other sites that do something similar with a conference affiliation (for instance, Hustle Belt (MAC) and Mountain West Connection,) but none that are truly national in scope.
As you can imagine, this early in the season when P5 programs are lining up to face G5 schools, the Underdog guys are swamped with requests. So, it was with tremendous grace (and our even greater gratitude,) that Jeremy Adcock sat down to answer some questions about the Middle Tennessee State program on such short notice:
1. MTSU, despite ups and downs over the past two decades, has largely known just two coaches during that time -- Andy McCallum and Rick Stockstill. In an era where there is pressure to win immediately, particularly with the talent the Raiders routinely have, how has Stockstill managed to keep his job for a decade with a .500 record? Beyond Xs and Os, is it just that MItzu is more of a throwback midmajor in this regard (as Tommy West at Memphis and Jeff Bower at Southern Miss once were?)
Basically, Stockstill brought the Blue Raiders into revelance as an FBS program. McCollum brought MTSU up from the FCS level but Stockstill was the coach that took MTSU to a Sun Belt Co-Championship in his first season and bowl berths in three of his first four seasons. Stockstill is also a pillar in the Murfreesboro community and very active with the local high schools. His son, redshirt freshman and starting quarterback Brent Stockstill, was a player at Seigel High School in Murfreesboro which further entrenched Stockstill in the city. To make a long-winded answer short, his relationship is a throwback and he will continue to keep the job as long as he keeps MTSU close to bowl eligibility on a regular basis.
2. The Blue Raiders are returning eight starters on each side of the ball, including all four veteran upperclassmen on the defensive line. Is there anyway this group can stymie the Tide running game or consistently pressure the inexperienced Alabama QBs?
Junior Shaquille Huff, at 6-1, 318 pounds, is the best hope from the MTSU defensive line to slow down the running game of Alabama. Huff was the only defensive lineman to show the ability to get penetration on the inside with both of his tackles in the season opener coming in the backfield. Both defensive ends are undersized with Steven Rhodes more of a hybrid type of player at 6-3, 248 pounds. Both Rhodes and Chris Hale will have to use their speed to get a solid pass rush.
The MTSU coaching staff is high on Justin Akins, a transfer from Georgia Tech that had to sit out the 2014 season due to his transfer. While not a defensive lineman, linebacker T.T. Barber is the most talented member of the front seven and will be sent on lots of blitzes to try to slow down the rushing attack. The group as a whole has trouble pressuring the passer with only four total quarterback hits on 40 Jackson State pass attempts in week one. Coker and company should have plenty of time to sit back and scan the field during passing situations.
3. What is the one mismatch that you see in Mitzu's favor when Middle Tennessee has the ball?
Wide receiver Ed Batties is the only player that comes to mind. He is the only MTSU wide receiver that is both able to find openings in a zone and also beat man-to-man coverage. Batties is also a punt returner that averaged 8.6 yards per return last fall, showing his willingness to make plays in tight quarters. Otherwise, the Blue Raiders will have a hard time finding any sort of advantage on the offensive side of the ball.
4. Tell us about a player that we may not know much about, but that we will see on Sundays in a few years.
Safety Kevin Byard. The senior has started all 37 possible games since he took a redshirt in 2011 and ranks second in school history with 15 interceptions, while taking four back for touchdowns. He is on the small side at 5-11 but is not afraid to lay a hit on a wide receiver trying to make a catch. Byard has 248 career tackles and is a workhorse, playing a team-high 980 snaps last fall. He will make an NFL roster for his special teams play and have a chance to play defense at the next level.
5. Assume MTSU pulls an improbable upset. What were the keys to victory for Middle Tennessee State?
The first key for MTSU is spreading the field and getting players into open space. Everyone knows that Nick Saban and company hate facing up-tempo spread offense that play from sideline to sideline. If the Blue Raiders are able to get players like Batties, Jeremiah Bryson, and Jordan Parker into one-on-one opportunities, then they can score some points.
The other main key is forcing the quarterback to beat them. The MTSU coaching staff can live with Coker dissecting the defense, but like their chances if he is forced to win the game. It is an almost impossible task to stop the Alabama rushing offense, but slowing it down enough to force the quarterback to make big time throws is incredibly important.
6. Final score and how do we get there?
49-10, Alabama. MTSU is a solid enough team on defense to make the Crimson Tide methodically move the ball down field. That will work for a few drives and MTSU may even force a fumble or a bad pass or even hold Alabama to field goals with Alabama holding a 14-0 or so lead after a quarter. Once the defense shows exhaustion from an ineffective offense, Alabama will pour it on with lots of big plays. The game should be out of range in a 35-0 or 35-3 type lead at the half with lots of second half scrub time that accounts for the final score. As long as MTSU comes out of this game healthy and not completely dominated from the first snap, that is a moral win for the team.
On a final note, I just want to say that I've always found something special about talented midmajor (or lower P5) schools that build a personal and community relationship with their coaching staffs and their families. These relationships, and the patience inherent in fostering and strengthening them, paid dividends (or did at one time) at places like Southern Mississippi, Nevada, Troy, Memphis, etc.
Sometimes, even the dregs of the major conferences can be turned around or built into something special given enough time: Florida State, Iowa State, Virginia Tech, Kansas State. In fact, given the special attachment that this town feels towards the Sabans and vice-versa, we can even add our own Dark Lord to this list.
Coaches and talking heads and administrators bandy about terms like "family" or "community" fairly often; it's good to see that in some places those relationships still exist, despite increasingly-cynical college athletics.