Over the years, Alabama fans have mostly become accustomed to the Tide opening up the season with a marquee matchup at a neutral site. However, Nick Saban won so many of those that the entire college football fandom decided to stop playing them and pretend they weren’t fair. So now the Tide has to schedule things differently with playing teams like Texas in back to back years at both stadiums, which leads to more scheduling conflicts, and ultimately teams like Middle Tennessee State pick up the slack and come to Tuscaloosa for the season opener.
Look, the Blue Raiders are a Conference USA school, and there’s no amount of sweet talking that will boost them up to the level of the upper-tier of college football. With that said, they’re an incredibly stable, consistent program with one of the longest active head coaching streaks in all of FBS football.
Coach Rick Stockstill took over back in 2006 after spending some time at both Clemson and South Carolina in QB/WR/OC coaching roles. Since then, he’s gone a respectable 109-103 overall in his time at MTSU, and 79-53 (60%) within his conference. He’s taken the Blue Raiders to a bowl game in 10 of his 17 seasons, and won 4 of them. Last season, MTSU won 8 games, including an upset win over the 25th-ranked Miami and 4- game win streak to close the season.
Last season, they ran a fairly balanced offense with 39 passing attempts and 35 rushing attempts per game, but, ultimately, Stockstill is an Air Raid disciple as a coach. They essentially list 4 starting wide receiver positions, and, technically, there are no tight ends on the roster (even though there is a 6’5” 259 lb wide receiver, so take that for what it’s worth).
QB Chase Cunningham ran the show last year, but the mantle falls to Nicholas Vattiato, who was a C-USA All-Freshman a couple of seasons ago before Cunningham took over last year. Vattiato is now the unquestioned starter and is a team captain.
They return running back Frank Peasant, who took on the bulk of the carries last year. Peasant is a 215-lb back that averaged 4.3 yards per carry while accumulating 9 touchdowns on the ground and 28 catches in the passing game.
At wide receiver, DJ England-Chisolm returns as a tiny, speedy deep ball specialist that gave Miami nightmares last season. Ultimately, you’re going to see a lot of quick-hitting passes, the occasional deep shot, and a focus on using Peasant in both handoffs and quick passes out of the backfield to keep drives moving.
On defense, the MTSU boasts a tricky crew. They make up almost 50% of the Preseason All-CUSA defensive 1st team, and defensive coordinator Scott Schafer returns for his 7th season. The veteran coach has been defensive coordinator at Stanford and Michigan, as well as putting together at top 10 defense at Syracuse and becoming the Orange’s head coach before ultimately coming to MTSU. The unit was one of the top in the country in forcing turnovers (2.3 per game!), 4th in the country in redzone defense, and a top-25 unit in sacks and TFLs.
DT/DE Zaylin Wood racked up 6.5 sacks as an inside-out pass rusher and also picked off a screen pass for a touchdown on one of the Blue Raiders’ most exciting plays of the season. Meanwhile, Marley Cook had another 6.5 sacks up the middle as one of the best pass rushing defensive tackles in the conference.
Linebacker Devyn Curtis was named a Freshman All-American last year with his 55 tackles and 4 pass deflections and returns.
And then there’s the secondary. Cornerback Teldrick Ross had a ridiculous 20 pass deflections and 76 tackles last year and is a Thorpe watch list player going into his 5th season. Safety Tra Fluellen lead the team with 104 tackles last year and returns as the senior team captain for the defense.
Overall, the MTSU defense will likely give Alabama a bit of heartburn as the Tide works on figuring out their QB situation. It’ll be a good test as an opportunistic, aggressive defense that is always out to force negative plays at the expense of giving up big plays. If any of the Tide’s QBs fall victim to it, it could spell doom for his chances at locking down the starting job.
On the other hand, Nick Saban has repeatedly crushed and stifled the air raid offense at every turn, and MTSU’s crew of 5’8” 150 lb receivers don’t exactly strike fear. I expect Alabama’s defense to utterly dominate here.
Alabama is favored by a hearty 39.5 points according to the Draftkings Sportsbook, and with an O/U of 51.5, they’re expecting about a 45-7 drubbing, which seems about right. If anything, I wouldn’t take the over, as I can’t see MTSU scoring over 7 points (3 or 6 seems more likely), and I wouldn’t be surprised if Alabama has a few passing game struggles to keep them more in the 35-42 point range.
Alabama and MTSU will kickoff at 6:30 p.m. Central and will available to watch on the SEC Network.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.