As the name implies, Middle Tennessee is literally in the middle of Tennessee. The Blue Raiders have also been stuck in the middle of the record books. In the last nine seasons, they’ve won between five and eight games seven times (and the outliers were ten and two wins respectively so even they average out to six wins).
Middle Tennessee’s path to offensive success is on the ground, and it starts up front. Darius Johnson is a returning three-year starter and 2nd team all-conference pick, although there is talk of him moving to guard this year. Behind him, there are five more linemen with starting experience and three more who may not have started but have seen game action. This should be one of the stronger lines in the conference, ergo the Blue Raiders should have one of the stronger rushing attacks.
Jordan Parker, Shane Tucker, and Jeremiah Bryson should be the primary beneficiaries of the wide running lanes created by the hogmollies up front. Parker led the team in carries last year and was an efficient back. Tucker and Bryson both showed flashes of explosiveness and accounted for 14 touchdowns, so not only is the running game good up front, there are plenty of capable backs too.
The Achilles’ heel for this offense last season was the same as it is for many teams: turnovers. And, as is also the case for many teams, those problems started with the quarterback Austin Grammer. Grammer completed 65% of his passes and topped 2,500 passing yards, but he threw twelve picks and took 26 sacks. Improvement in that area could mean the difference between nine wins and six.
Two of the four primary receivers from last year are gone, but a solid possession receiver, Ed’Marques Batties, is back. He led the team in receptions a year ago. It also helps that Shane Tucker is one of the better receiving backs in the conference, and he should provide more than just a safety valve for Grammer coming out of the backfield.
This defense returns eight starters to a unit that did a lot of things well and a lot of things not so well. Kevin Byard is one of the top safeties and draft prospects in the conference, as evidenced by his six interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2014. Byard leads a unit that returns two other starters in safety Xavier Walker and corner Jared Singletary. Walker and Singletary pitched in three interceptions between the two to add to Byard’s six.
One thing this secondary has to get better at though is getting off the field when they don’t force a turnover. The pass defense was poor against passing downs, especially in the second half, despite being reasonable on standard downs.
Losing Shubert Bastien’s ten tackles for loss and five and a half sacks will hurt, but the front seven does still have plenty of size and depth up front. T.T. Barber is a solid linebacker though and should lead a front seven that is solid again against the run. It also helps that both interior linemen are 320+ pounds. One place the Blue Raiders might struggle is in generating a pass rush, as no returning player recorded three or more sacks last season.
The Blue Raiders might be “stuck in the middle” once again in 2015. The good news is that they should at least get a bowl game out of it. Something they did not get last year, despite being bowl eligible and beating Western Kentucky, who did get a bowl bid. The non-conference schedule isn’t a breeze, with a trip to Alabama in the mix, but with FCS Jackson State and Vanderbilt coming to town they could reasonably split. It also wouldn’t be inconceivable for them to pull off a victory at Illinois.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Helen Comer/Gannett Tennessee