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Middle Tennessee remembers bowl snub as Blue Raiders debut as new member of Conference USA

The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders have all sorts of motivation for their first season as new members of Conference USA, and competing for the league title is right there at the top.

Coach Rick Stockstill said that's their goal from the start, and he doesn't want his Blue Raiders waiting until halfway through the season realizing they have a chance to be pretty good and win the conference title.

"Are we good enough to do that? We'll find out," Stockstill said.

Middle Tennessee went 8-4 in its final season in the Sun Belt Conference. The Blue Raiders already were on their way out when snubbed for a bowl berth. That disappointment of not getting a bowl berth remains very fresh for his players. Cornerback Kenneth Gilstrap said he thought of the bowl snub just before the Blue Raiders started August practice and feels disrespected.

"We handle our business this year we won't have to worry about it," Gilstrap said. "It's a whole new year. You can't live off last year, and last year's going to do nothing for us. I few want to be good, we have to work hard."

Stockstill has enough experience back from that team to make the Blue Raiders' debut in a new league go a bit smoother. He has nine starters back on offense and seven on defense.

The offense is led by senior quarterback Logan Kilgore, who completed 63.3 percent of his passes in 2012 while throwing for 2,571 yards with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. The 6-foot-3 Kilgore is the only the second quarterback in Middle Tennessee history to throw for at least 2,000 yards in consecutive seasons.

Kilgore lost receiver Anthony Amos to graduation and running back Benny Cunningham now is playing in the NFL. Amos led the team with 72 catches for 992 yards and nine touchdowns. Tavarres Jefferson played only one game last season before redshirting, and he's now back as a senior trying to fulfill the promise of 2011 when he caught 51 passes.

"We've got more weapons outside for Logan at receiver than we had from the halfway point on last year, so I'm excited about that," Stockstill said. "And I think Logan has matured and improved greatly as a quarterback going into his senior year. It gives you a comfort level as a coach that you've got some senior wide receivers out there."

On defense, seven starters are back from a unit that ranked 53rd nationally in pass efficiency defense.

"Our whole defensive unit has to improve in every area," co-defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said.

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Here are five things to watch during Middle Tennessee's upcoming season:

1. NO MORE BENNY: Benny Cunningham is in training camp with St. Louis in the NFL. He ran for 600 yards in just five games before being injured. But the Blue Raiders have leading rusher Jordan Parker back, and he led the team with 851 yards as a freshman.

2. NO SACKS ALLOWED: The Blue Raiders ranked second nationally in fewest sacks allowed in 2012, giving up only seven all season.

3. NONCONFERENCE UPSET?: The Blue Raiders routed Georgia Tech 49-28 last season, and they have two opportunities in 2013 for headline-grabbing upsets. They visit North Carolina Sept. 7 and BYU on Sept. 27.

4. EASY SCHEDULE: For moving to a new conference, the Blue Raiders could not have drawn up a better schedule if they tried. They host league favorite East Carolina on Oct. 5 and the East's other contender Marshall on Oct. 24. Their toughest league games will be Oct. 12 when they visit North Texas.

5. BOWLING: Middle Tennessee has been bowl eligible in three of its last four seasons, one of only two Sun Belt teams to do that in that span. The Blue Raiders have been bowl eligible in four of the past seven seasons under Stockstill.

Predicted finish in C-USA: Third in East

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Online:

AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker