NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This time last year at Conference USA Football Media Day, Middle Tennessee football coach Rick Stockstill had a good idea of what was coming.
After leaving the Sun Belt Conference after a dozen seasons, the Blue Raiders expected an upgrade in competition, a higher level of regional and national exposure and a pervasive notion of having to prove they belonged.
Sure, Middle Tennessee had been to three bowl games since Stockstill took over in 2006. The Blue Raiders should have been to another, but were passed over in 2012 despite an 8-4 record and second-place finish in their last season in the Sun Belt.
Middle Tennessee didn’t limp into Conference USA in its first season. But the Blue Raiders surely strolled out with another eight-win season that included finishing tied for second in C-USA’s East Division with a 6-2 league record and berth in the Armed Forces Bowl versus Navy.
"Now being a year into Conference USA, you have a have a better understanding and a better appreciation for just how good this conference is and how well the teams in this conference are coached and how good the players are," Stockstill said Wednesday before participating in the league’s media day festivities in Dallas.
Middle Tennessee was picked to finish second in the East Division behind defending champion Marshall, while North Texas was predicted to win the West Division. Two Blue Raiders juniors — linebacker T.T. Barber and safety Kevin Byard — were named preseason first-team all-conference.
Middle Tennessee opens the season against visiting Savannah State on Aug. 30 at Floyd Stadium. After playing at Minnesota on Sept. 6, the Blue Raiders begin league play on Sept. 13 against visiting C-USA newcomer Western Kentucky, their longtime rival in the Sun Belt Conference and earlier in the Ohio Valley Conference as former Division I-AA members.
"This is a heckuva conference," Stockstill said of C-USA. "Probably looking at it from the outside prior to last year, you thought there were some good teams in it. You thought there were some good coaches, and then you actually realize how many good coaches and how many good programs and the traditions and history at these schools that you are playing. This is a really, really special conference."
All that made Middle Tennessee’s successful opening foray in C-USA even more rewarding. After opening 3-1, the Blue Raiders lost three straight games, including on the road at Brigham Young and to league foes East Carolina and North Texas. But a thrilling 51-49 nationally-televised game on Fox Sports 1 catapulted the Blue Raiders into a five-game winning streak down the stretch before losing to Navy in the bowl game.
"I feel a lot of people thought we weren’t going to be very good coming into the new league," senior defensive end Shubert Bastien said today about last season. "We had to prove a point that we are a program that is going to compete at the top of Conference USA for many years to come."
The Blue Raiders return five starters on offense and eight to a defense that was one of the best in the league last year. Nationally, the Blue Raiders ranked fifth in turnovers gained, tied for 12th in turnover margin, 14th in fewest penalties, 25th in third-down conversions and 31st in rushing yards.
But Middle Tennessee has a big hole to fill with the departure of three-year quarterback Logan Kilgore, who enters training camp this week with the New Orleans Saints after signing as an undrafted free agent. He passed for more than 7,800 yards and completed 61 percent of passes the past three seasons.
That makes for plenty of questions throughout spring drills and at media day and now into training camp for Stockstill, who has three quarterbacks from which to choose, but only one with any experience, albeit limited.
"You had Logan there for three years," Stockstill said of his starting quarterback, "and you didn’t have to talk about it because he was entrenched as the quarterback. Now, he’s gone, and now you’ve got a new quarterback coming in and everybody wants to know who that’s going to be and how it is going to unfold and everything."
The answer on the starter, however, may not come until opening week or even a few weeks into the season, according to Stockstill. Third-year sophomore Austin Grammer has the only experience, having played 151 snaps in 10 games. Redshirt freshman A.J. Erdely and true freshman Brent Stockstill, the coach’s son, are also in the mix that appears even heading into the opening of camp next week.
"We’ve got three really good quarterbacks," Stockstill said, "and I feel good about them. Two of them have never played and one has played very, very little in mop-up duty basically. All three have a lot to learn, a lot to experience.
"I’m not in a hurry. I don’t think it is fair to any of those three, and I don’t think it is fair to our team to say, ‘Hey, we are going to name a starter by the first week of August, the second week of August.’ They need more reps. They need more practice."
Senior wide receiver Marcus Henry said the offense will do just fine with whichever quarterback wins the job.
"All of the young quarterbacks are actually doing pretty great," said Henry, whose coming off a career year of 38 catches for 549 yards and three touchdowns, including 24 receptions for first downs. "They have talent. Now all they need is some experience, but they all have the same ability to be a great quarterback."
EAST DIVISION Points
1. Marshall 91
2. Middle Tennessee 73
3. Florida Atlantic 60
4. WKU 57
5. Old Dominion 33
6. UAB 31
7. FIU 19
WEST DIVISION Points
1. North Texas 66
2. Rice 65
3. UTSA 62
4. Louisiana Tech 38
5. Southern Miss 24
6. UTEP 18
Offensive Player of the Year: Rakeem Cato, Sr., QB, Marshall
Defensive Player of the Year: James Rouse, Sr., DL, Marshall
Special Teams Player of the Year: Hunter Mullins, Sr., P, UAB