Welcome back to Rock M Nation’s annual opponent preview series of the upcoming season. Each week we will break down one opponent from the schedule in chronological order. Given that rosters are ever fluid - and this is done by a hobbyist rather than a pro - there could be some errors in history and current roster makeup. All mistakes are done on purpose and with ill intent because I don’t like you or your team.
Catch up on previous 2023 opponent previews!
What were you doing on September 20th, 2003? If you were me, you were sitting on the west side of Memorial Stadium in the shade, helplessly watching your favorite team get sucked into a shoot out against a winless team that you were told “sucks real bad” by your neighbor friend who only gauged quality of team by whether he recognized the helmet or not.
The third season of the Gary Pinkel era was, so far, going well but his undefeated Tigers had no answer for Andrico Hines and the Middle Tennessee offense. Luckily Pinkel had Brad Smith and MTSU didn’t and while Smith’s heroics erased an 8-point deficit in the last minutes of regulation, a missed field goal in overtime by the Raiders’ Brian Kelly allowed the Tigers to seal it with a Mike Matheny extra point and escape a potentially embarrassing home loss.
What were you doing on October 26th, 2016? If you were me, you were sitting at your in-laws Halloween party in a shark costume, gloomily watching I’Tavius Mathers and Richie James run for over 300 yards against Barry Odom’s defense while Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter attempted to counter with 348 yards of their own. In the end, there wasn’t enough time for Drew Lock and friends to respond and Barry took embarrassing loss #1 of his four-year tenure in Columbia.
So, believe it or not, this random G5 matchup of a regional Conference USA school actually has some history to it. And while Middle Tennessee has never been elite at the FBS level, they had a tremendous stretch in the Ohio Valley Conference under second-winningest coach James “Boots” Donnelly, who went 133-80-1 in that time while nabbing four conference championships. That 2003 squad was two years removed from a Sun Belt Championship season and current coach Rick Stockstill won the Sun Belt in 2006 as well.
But life isn’t easy as a G5 team in Tennessee. For proof, check the SP+ graph:
Since 2005 MTSU has never been better than an average college football team. The state of Tennessee is improving in the college football talent world but it’s certainly not Georgia or Florida, and even then there are four FBS schools in the state - let alone the rest of the country - competing for any talent worthwhile. The Blue Raiders thrive off an aggressive, exciting scheme on both sides of the ball and picking overlooked players from talent-ripe states but the budget deficiencies and lower-profile conference affiliation in the middle of the country makes recruiting, and investment, difficult. Still, there is some semblance of stability as Rick Stockstill is nearing 20 years in charge of the program. The quality of the team goes up and down but he’s been good for somewhere between 6-8 wins every year for 17 years, including an eventful season during the ‘22 campaign:
Get bushwhacked by a brand new FBS team in Game 1? Check. Embarrass a ranked Miami squad on national tv? Check. Go 5-1 in your last six games? Check. Have that one loss be to Louisiana Tech, one of the worst teams in the country? Check! Last year had everything you can think for an exciting CUSA team and, with a decent chunk of returning production still on the roster, there’s absolutely room for the rare, back-to-back 8+ win seasons.
Rick Stockstill - 18th Year - 109-103 (79-53)
Rick Stockstill has been coaching football for longer than I’ve been alive but has only been a head coach at one place.
He got his start as the OC for Bethune-Cookman before becoming the wide receivers coach for a burgeoning UCF program. He then hung out in Clemson, SC for about 14 years before a few brief stints at East and South Carolina. Two years on Steve Spurrier’s Gamecock staff lead to him being hired for Middle Tennessee’s lead chair and, voila, he was home.
Underdog tactics have evolved over time but Stockstill maintains form to the fast, up-tempo, no-huddle, haymaker-oriented offense that underdogs in the early aughts utilized against bigger, slower, blue-blood programs. His teams use aggression on both sides of the ball in hopes that big plays can compensate for any talent deficiencies. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s a lot of fun to watch when it is clicking. Not so great for long-term growth and development, however.
Mitch Stewart - Offensive Coordinator: Stewart has climbed the coaching ladder the old school way: he started as a high school coach, then went position coach->coordinator->head coach at Murray State, then after a brief stint as OC at Samford, now Stockstill’s coordinator heading in to his second season. His philosophy mirrors The Blue Raider offense of the past 18 years, looking for quick, easy passes that can break for big yards and intermittently dispersing runs and deep shots.
Scott Shafer - Defensive Coordinator: The former Syracuse head coach from 2013-2015, Shafer is renowned in the industry as a great defensive mind. He’s been at MTSU since 2017 and has quickly grown to understand what kind of defense pairs best with this version of offense. While they do give up big plays too frequently and don’t always hit home, they are aggressive against the run and good for at least one turnover per game. He might not be much of a head coach but he’s a formidable opponent as a coordinator.
Brent Stockstill - Quarterbacks: Yes, this is Rick’s son and also a former MTSU quarterback himself. The elder Stockstill got into some trouble in 2021 with the hiring of his son as (then) wide receivers coach. It seems that Nashville’s CBS affiliate accused the MTSU athletic department and the Stockstill’s of violating statute 8-31-103 that states “no state employees who are relatives shall be placed within the same direct line of supervision ... of another relative.” Much like Kurt and Brian Ferentz of Iowa Hawkeye nepotism fame, Rick also claimed that Brent - a football coach on Rick’s football team - somehow did not answer to him, instead reporting to Athletic Director Chris Massaro. While I don’t believe that in the slightest, it’s another data point in the endless criticism of coaching hires. On the one hand, it should be a pure meritocracy and who better to coach at Middle Tennessee than a guy who literally grew up with the program, then became a record setting quarterback in that system? On the other hand, a coach hiring his son keeps out another candidate who could have had a chance to finally break through but can’t now because dad wanted to boss junior around. I’m not sure how to evaluate the situation but I just thought it was interesting.
Jeff Beckles - Running Backs
Shane Tucker - Outside Receivers
Rick Mallory - Offensive Line
Mike Polly - Offensive Line: Yes, Middle Tennessee employs TWO offensive line coaches. Neat!
Tommy West - Defensive Line
Dustin Roystin - Outside Linebackers
Alex Suber - Cornerbacks
As long as Rick Stockstill has been in Murfreesboro his offenses have been predicated on one thing: big plays.
SP+ values efficiency over explosiveness because being efficient tends to be more reliably replicable while explosive plays are a lot like 3-pointers in basketball: if they’re hitting you’re unstoppable and if you can’t connect you’re doomed.
Stockstill goes into Florida and pulls out the smallest and fastest overlooked dudes, pairs them with a quarterback with a big arm that only needs to make simple reads, and then cuts them loose. When it works, it kills: check the tape of Middle against Miami last year or against Mizzou in 2016 for proof. And when it doesn’t, then you have an offense who can never get out of 3rd-down and puts a gassed defense right back on the field.
At this point I don’t think Stockstill is going to change, and regardless of who calls plays, it seems that this formula is the one that the Blue Raiders will roll out again and again and hope that its a good explosion day. It’s certainly not the tactic for long-term stability or building a program to greatness, but it’s a helluva lot of fun to watch for points and upset potential.
Quarterback - Nick Vattiato - Redshirt Sophomore
With multi-year starter Chase Cunningham finally out of eligibility, it looks like Middle Tennessee is leaning towards giving Nick Vattiato first crack at QB1. He impressed during spring and even filled in for an injured Cunningham during the ‘21 campaign. Vattiatio boats a career 66% completion percentage on 217 attempts but has also throw 7 interceptions to his 7 touchdowns, and claims a rough 6.5% sack rate. He isn’t afraid to run and is decent at it - 4.7 yards per carry on 34 carries is fine - but he also tends to run into sacks. We’ll see if he wins the job at all given that JUCO transfer (and former Michigan QB) Ren Hefley is also on campus and redshirt freshman Kyle Lowe saw increase usage in the spring as well.
Running Back - Frank Peasant - Redshirt Junior
When he’s not solving crimes in a 1920s LA detective drama, Frank Peasant is the top rusher for the Blue Raiders and the only running back on the roster with more than 66 carries last year. His 4.3 yards per carry was slightly below the national average and is 1.0 yards before contact was one of the worst in 2022 but he averaged 5.0 yards per carry running outside the box and 3.3 yards after contact, both of which were near the tops of all running backs last year. Like most skill guys on the MTSU roster, the dude needs space to succeed, which is a big reason why he was fifth-most prolific receiver on the team as well. He is the epitome of the Stockstill offense; low efficiency and consistency, high explosiveness.
Wide Receiver - D.J. England-Chisolm - Redshirt Senior
Gone are three of the top four receiving targets from last’s year offense. D.J. England-Chisolm - another fun name to read and say out loud! - is the lone returner and he managed a mere 37 targets with 23 catches for 286 yards. The good news is that MTSU threw the ball a lot to a bunch of different receivers. In fact, the Raiders return ten receivers who had at least five targets, and a bunch of guys were targeted less than that littered on the roster. Perusing the receiving depth is a lot of fun as well: first off, they have 22 players listed as a receiver...but keep in mind their tight ends are listed as “inside receiver” so that’s a bit of misdirection. But still! MTSU have nine receivers that are 5’9” or shorter and eight receivers that are 6’2” or taller. What I’m saying is they have options and should absolutely be able to find at least five dudes that can work in this system well.
Middle Tennessee’s defense over the past six years has been a lot like Mizzou’s defense last year: great against the run, focused on creating havoc, and tends to give up big plays. To wit, this was a Top 30 defensive unit against the run and in standard down situations, 9th (!!!!!) in havoc rate, but ranked 88th against the pass, 89th in defending explosive plays, and an awful 115th in passing downs situations. They’ll blow you up or turn you over early in the drive but needed to white-knuckle it in third-downs in hopes for a stop. Again, not the best way to build long-term success but a very entertaining brand of defense to play.
Defensive Line - Zaylin Wood - Redshirt Senior
End Zaylin Wood and interior lineman Marley Cook combined for 13 of the team’s 35 sacks, with departed edge Jordan Ferguson bring another 9 to the table. Missing Ferguson isn’t great but Wood and Cook are excellent in their own right and played 90% of MTSU’s defensive snaps. The rotations wasn’t effectively deep but did feature a lot of guys; that development will determine if ‘23 continues the havoc-greatness or if the youth aren’t ready to contribute to that legacy.
Linebacker - Devyn Curtis - Redshirt Junior
For being such a havoc-reliant defense, the linebackers don’t really participate in the havoc production as well as the other two position groups do. In fact, MTSU’s linebacker havoc rate ranked 54th in the country: good, but certainly not what you’d think. It seems Devyn Carter and his linebacker friends are more focused on making standard tackles for anyone who breaks through the line, but even then, 48 tackles over 487 snaps is fairly low for a college-level linebacker, especially when only three linebackers saw significant time.
Defensive Back - Tra Fluellen - Redshirt Senior
The Raider’s defensive backs ranked 12th nationally in havoc production and Tra Fluellen was a key reason for that. 88 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 8 passes broken up, 2 interceptions, and 5 run stuffs is about as full of a stat sheet you can get. Teldrick Ross was an equally effective havoc machine, and even with Decorian Patterson and Deidrick Stanley no longer in town, there’s plenty of experienced pieces behind them to continue the quality of the most disruptive position group.
So what does it all mean?
Stockstill’s 18th iteration of the Blue Raider football team at Middle Tennessee State University is going to look a lot like the previous 17 versions did. Is quarterback hammered out? Not exactly but pretty close. Are there a ton of fast dudes at the skill positions? Absolutely. Will the defense sell out to stop the run and create havoc while leaving big pass plays open? Most likely.
MTSU is projected 93rd overall with the 97th best offense and 84th best defense. That would be bad if you played in the SEC but the Raiders plays in Conference USA, arguably the worst football conference in the country. And seeing as how only three opponents - Alabama (4th), Mizzou (32nd), and Western Kentucky (82nd) - rank more than ten spots better than Middle, there’s a good argument to be made that Stockstill could make a run at 10 wins and a possible conference championship.
The problem, as always, is the aggressive boom-or-bust schemes on offense and defense that can catch and kill a sleepy opponent but also lets lesser opponents on a heater stick with them and beat them. And clearly, at this point, the coaching staff and administration is fine with that approach. The quality ebbs and flows but the wins stay pretty consistent in Murfreesboro and there are certainly worse ways to experience a college football season.
All Missouri has to do is beat them one time and not let them play the game they want to play. Mizzou is a better havoc defense and should be equipped to cover or mitigate any gaping holes the offense blasts through. And, hopefully, the Tigers offense can either regain their efficiency, clock-hoarding approach from two years ago OR use their talent advantage to nullify MTSU’s aggression. This is a game that Missouri should absolutely win, but the high variance of the opponent makes that outcome unclear until zeros are on the game clock.