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4 things to know about MTSU, Missouri’s Homecoming opponent

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The prolific Blue Raiders are the worst kind of team to play for Homecoming.

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Not going to lie: Middle Tennessee is the worst conceivable Homecoming opponent. I hate the “bring in someone weak for HC” approach to begin with, and beyond that ... MTSU isn’t that weak. The Blue Raiders are easily good enough to take you down if you’re not playing very well. This should be a Tiger win, but I don’t like playing this team in mid-October. It’s one of the SEC customs I didn’t really care for Mizzou to adopt.

I previewed MTSU for SBN back in the winter. Here are some particularly Mizzou-relevant tidbits.

1. MTSU is improving, piece by piece

The Blue Raiders bottomed out in 2011, going 2-10, but Rick Stockstill held onto his job and hasn't had a losing record since. They have made bowls in two of the last three years and won their final four games of the regular season last year to qualify for the Bahamas Bowl. The main reason for last year's surge was offense: behind freshman and coach's son Brent Stockstill, MTSU ranked a healthy 64th in Off. S&P+. And now eight offensive starters return.

2. Stockstill will test the Mizzou secondary

In 13 games, Brent Stockstill finished with a passer rating of at least 140 10 times, and two of the times he didn't were against two of the nation's better pass defenses: Alabama and Vanderbilt. He completed at least 61 percent of his passes in 11 games, and he finished the season with 4,005 passing yards and 30 touchdowns to only nine interceptions.

Again, he was a redshirt freshman. And now he returns five of his top six targets. Okay, that's misleading. He had two primary targets -- Richie James and Ed'Marques Batties -- who accounted for nearly 60 percent of his passes last year, and Batties is gone. Still, he will see plenty of familiar faces when he lines up behind center this coming fall. And between two three-star JUCO transfers, three three-star freshmen, and a three-star redshirt freshmen, he will be surrounded by quite a few high-ceiling athletes.

Tiny Richie James, at 5'9, 171, was a possession receiver-plus -- 74 percent catch rate, 12.5 yards per catch. Meanwhile, tight end Terry Pettis is strong up the seam; he averaged 13.6 yards per target and 21.1 yards per catch.

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3. MTSU will struggle to run

Now ... if only MTSU could run the ball. Brent Stockstill didn't have a lot to offer (3.3 non-sack carries per game), and the trio of Shane Tucker, Jordan Parker, and Desmond Anderson managed to combine a paltry per-carry average (4.0) with nine fumbles.

Youngsters J'Vonte Herrod (sophomore) and Terelle West (redshirt freshman) were well-regarded recruits. Maybe someone will blossom.

MTSU's lack of rushing success (73rd in Rushing S&P+) held back a wonderful passing game (22nd in Passing S&P+). Will that be the case again?

Shane Tucker, the leading 2015 rusher, struggled to generate any consistent success and is now out for the season with injury. That leaves Desmond Anderson and Kamani Thomas, two reasonably efficient runners with minimal explosiveness. And while the line helped to prevent sacks (with help from a quick passing game), it probably won't have much success pushing Terry Beckner Jr., Josh Augusta, and company around.

4. The MTSU defense was ... lacking in 2015

Playing a lot of guys in the secondary wasn't a choice. The lineup of available bodies was ever-changing. That can mean good things; for instance, MTSU now returns five cornerbacks who made at least 7.5 tackles last year. Starters Michael Minter and Jeremy Cutrer are the best play-makers on the team (combined: nine tackles for loss, four interceptions, 22 break-ups), and there is lovely depth.

Safety is a different story. Five safeties averaged at least one tackle per game last year, but the top three are gone, leaving senior Alex Dale and little-used Richie Bisaccia.

Three-star freshman Tyshawn Brown was one of the jewels of a good recruiting class, and perhaps he's ready to contribute. But unless a corner or two changes position, one aspect of the secondary is a lot more seasoned than the other.

The run defense was iffy, and the pass defense was banged up and bad. The Mizzou offense obviously has plenty to prove on its own, but the Tigers should be able to outscore the Blue Raiders, even if the MTSU passing game is finding some success.

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This could be an immensely important game for Mizzou. Even with solid offensive improvement, trips to WVU, LSU, and Florida and a visit from Georgia could have the Tigers 2-4 when MTSU comes to town. Any sort of crisis in confidence could lead the Tigers into a trap against a Blue Raider squad that moves quickly on offense and can suck you into a shootout. Mizzou absolutely has to take care of business here.

S&P+ projection: Mizzou by 12.9 (win probability: 77%).