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Syracuse football 2017 opponent preview: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Our speed’s probably not as helpful against these guys as it is vs. other opponents...

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With spring practice and the NFL Draft both over, we can get to talking about actual Syracuse Orange football opponents. For the next few months, we’ll be diving into each of the 12 (very difficult) teams SU faces, telling you all (or most of what) you’ll need to know about them in advance of this fall. Despite the challenges of the schedule, we’re going to be positive wherever possible. Today’s team:

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

School: Middle Tennessee State University

Mascot: Blue Raiders

#BRAND Slogan: “True Blue”

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: "Right in the Middle of Tennessee.” “Remember that time we upset Michigan State in hoops?”

Recommended Blog: Underdog Dynasty

Conference: Conference USA

Coach: Rick Stockstill, 12th year. Rick played quarterback for Florida State from 1977-81, and found himself as the QB coach/offensive coordinator at Bethune-Cookman just two years later. After a four-season stint with UCF, he spent the next 13 seasons at Clemson (condolences...). In 2003, he moved onto East Carolina, then South Carolina a year later.

In 2006, he took over the Middle Tennessee job, trying to help out the Sun Belt also-ran. In the time since, he’s gone 72-66, with one bowl win in six tries. The Blue Raiders have split a couple conference titles, and eventually played their way up into Conference USA. MTSU’s only had one losing record since 2009.

2016 Record: (8-5) (5-3)

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Recapping Last Season:

Middle Tennessee looked great in week one (vs. Alabama A&M), before their defense got abused by an unimpressive Vanderbilt offense in week two. The Blue Raiders looked pretty strong throughout the conference schedule, but a late-season injury to quarterback Brent Stockstill derailed the team for a couple weeks (including a head-scratching loss at Marshall). A close call at Charlotte was followed up by a stunning 77-55 shootout against Florida Atlantic to end the year. Still, they finished third in the East division.

MTSU’s offense was one of the country’s best. They scored 39.7 points per game (12th in the FBS) and were eighth in total offense while averaging 517.7 yards per game. That was led by the team’s eight-ranked passing game putting up over 325 yards per. The Blue Raiders also operated at a similar pace to Syracuse -- running 973 plays in 13 games (vs. 971 in 12 for the Orange).

Defensively, the team was a disaster, which is something we can definitely relate to a bit. They allowed over 35 points per game, and were in the bottom 40 in run, pass and total D. Middle Tennessee even allowed more touchdowns than Syracuse (62 vs. 61), though obviously not a per-game basis.

Oh, and they beat Missouri 51-45, which was pretty impressive if you happened to tune into that game (which I did, as you’d have probably expected by this point).

2017 Season Outlook:

This year’s schedule becomes a slight step up in competition. The Blue Raiders open the season against Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Minnesota (the final two on the road) in successive weeks, before hosting struggling Bowling Green to wrap up non-conference play. While the opening portions of the C-USA schedule could present few challenges, they’ll face the best two teams in the division (Western Kentucky, Old Dominion) to end the season.

Offensively, MTSU brings back a ton of last year’s production (81 percent, according to Bill Connelly), and despite the offseason recovery, Stockstill will be good to go at quarterback this fall. In 10 games last season, he put up 3,233 passing yards and 31 touchdowns (vs. just seven interceptions and eight sacks). If Middle Tennessee gets a full season out of him, he could very likely eclipse 2015’s high of 4,005 yards through the air.

A lot of that could be dictated by the run game, which actually finished top-50 last year, and averaged nearly six yards per carry. Unfortunately the man responsible for that, I’Tavius Mathers, is gone. But maybe the workload is covered by the versatile Richie James (or someone further down the depth chart?).

The defense was in need of a revamp this year, and it got it in the hire of former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer. Though Shafer’s later Orange defenses struggled mightily, he did thrive in the defensive coordinator role at SU., with groups ranking top-50 in total D. In some ways, it’s helpful that he loses over 40 percent of last year’s production on that side of the ball. He’ll be able to start from scratch a bit and teach this team a different style of play. MTSU only forced 19 turnovers last year, while managing 26 sacks. Expect those numbers to increase in 2017.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, September 9

Location: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.

Odds of Orange Victory: 75 percent

Very Early Outlook:

Middle Tennessee is still a known quantity on the offensive end, but very up-in-the-air on defense. That won’t do them many favors against a Syracuse team that should have plenty in the tank after an eight-day rest from week one. Pace won’t necessarily differentiate the Orange, but talent on the defensive side of the ball may. Shafer’s system could easily take hold by the end of the season with the Blue Raiders. This just isn’t the best team to test their inexperience against. Expect a high-scoring affair, but one that ultimately leads to an Orange victory.