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NCAA Football Preview - Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Middle Tennessee had a breakthrough season as it finished out its final year in the Sun Belt Conference under seventh-year coach Rick Stockstill. Following a 2-10 finish that included a 1-7 record in SBC action in 2011, there was not too much excitement surrounding the program after opening day.

The Blue Raiders made it seem like it was going to be another long year as they lost their opener, 27-21, to McNeese State of the FCS. The loss didn't linger too long as they went on to win their next three games versus Florida Atlantic (31-17), at Memphis (48-30) and at Georgia Tech (49-28) in convincing fashion. MT then fell to ULM by 14 points at home before improving to 4-2 with a 34-30 win on the road over FIU. Then, after being routed by 42 points at Mississippi State, the Blue Raiders showed their resilience by reeling off four straight victories to reach eight wins. MT concluded its season with a 45-0 loss at Arkansas State in a game that had the conference championship on the line.

Despite an 8-4 record and the biggest improvement in the country, MT was not extended a bowl invitation.

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The Blue Raiders have a well-balanced attack with senior quarterback Logan Kilgore (6-3, 194) and sophomore tailback Jordan Parker (6-1, 207) highlighting the roster. Kilgore does a great job of managing the offense and reducing turnovers. He finished 2012 with 16 touchdowns to six interceptions and completed 63.3 percent of his passing attempts. With Kilgore under center, MT produced 392.8 yards and 26.6 points per game, which ranked 66 and 75 in the FBS, respectively.

"We know what we have in starter Logan Kilgore so solidifying a backup and number three will be a focus. Shaun (White) and Austin (Grammer) are inexperienced but talented. This will be a very big spring for both players to see how they develop and learn the offense. Both will get a lot of work in order to bring them along faster."

Parker took over at tailback as a rookie after senior and Second Team All-SBC starter Benny Cunningham went down with a season ending injury. He set a new program record for rushing yards by a freshman (852, 10 TDs), as he displayed the ability to blast through the line of scrimmage consistently.

MT has some of the key components of its receiving corps back, but it will have trouble replacing First Team All-Sun Belt selection Anthony Amos. Sophomore Christian Collis (6-0, 210) and senior Kyle Griswould (5-10, 200) are expected to be the top two targets on the outside while the speedy Tavarres Jefferson lines up in the slot. Griswould (531 yards, 45 catches, three TDs) is the team's leading returner in all receiving categories. Jefferson missed most of 2012 with an injury after tallying just under 400 yards as a junior.

The offensive line should be strong as well with four starters back. Left guard Josh Walker (6-5, 319) was an All-SBC Honorable Mention last year and he is the top candidate to replace Micah James as the leader of the line.

DEFENSE: Unlike its offense, MT's defense will be filled with new faces. The Blue Raiders struggled defensively last season as they surrendered 440.8 yards of total offense and 28 points per contest.

Junior defensive end Jiajuan Fennell (6-3, 240) has potential to be a gamebreaker as he was selected to the SBC All-Freshmen Team in 2011, but he digressed as a sophomore in 2012. Senior defensive tackle Jimmy Staten (6-4, 300) is the only returning starter for the front four.

MT has a pair of standouts at linebacker as senior Roderic Blunt and sophomore T.T. Barber bring energy and hard hitting on a consistent basis. Blunt (74 total tackles) and Barber (43 total tackles) are the second and third leading tackles among returning players, respectively.

Strong safety Kevin Byard (5-11, 220) is also back after tying for third on the team with 74 tackles in his rookie year. He is expected to be the only underclassman starter in the secondary as cornerback Kenneth Gilstrap and Sammy Seamster and free safety Reginald Farmer are all going to provide senior leadership.

"We are making progress in the secondary," said Stockstill after a Spring practice. "We are going to be relentless, play with great effort and intensity. That's going to be a big focus every day."

SPECIAL TEAMS: The place kicking job is not quite settled heading into the season. Redshirt freshman Cody Clark and true freshman Canon Rooker both have their hat in the race, but neither will have full job security throughout the season unless their performance warrants it. Senior Josh Davis is much more settled into his position as starting punter after averaging over 40 yards per punt on 42 attempts last year.

The Blue Raiders have a dangerous weapon in their return game in Reggie Whatley, who was First-Team All-Conference Special Teams. Whatley's speed and vision helped him finish fourth in the nation in kick return yards (762, one TD).

OUTLOOK: Now in a tougher conference, Kilgore will try again to lead MT to a bowl game.

The Blue Raiders will hope to avoid a loss to another FCS opponent as they open up their season at home against Western Carolina. They have a tough bout the following week at North Carolina before coming back home to take on Memphis. MTSU's first-ever C-USA game will then take place at Florida Atlantic and it has a tough road game at BYU to play the week after that. After facing Steve Young's alma mater, the Blue Raiders will go into the heart of their conference schedule with matchups against North Texas, Marshall, UAB, FIU, Southern Miss and Texas-El Paso. The matchup versus the Thundering Herd on Thursday, Oct. 24 will be televised nationally.

It will be interesting to see how the program adapts to its new league. The Blue Raiders have a lot going for them on the offensive side of the ball, but they are not the most dynamic team. Still, it will not be a surprise if they punch their ticket to a bowl game at the season's end.