Middle Tennessee gets 3rd billing as C-USA newbies

BY foxsports • July 24, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — At every turn, it's new territory for Middle Tennessee football, which begins play this season in Conference USA.

Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill and senior quarterback Logan Kilgore got a taste of just that Wednesday, while participating in the league’s media day in Irving, Texas.

"It has been extremely exciting," Stockstill said by telephone while navigating the various media outlets and requirements. "We are dealing with new media outlets and exposing our program to many new markets. And we’re learning more every day about our new opponents."

Well, some of them anyway, as the Blue Raiders enter as new C-USA members with Sun Belt Conference brethren North Texas, Florida International and Florida Atlantic. After another year in the Sun Belt, Western Kentucky makes the same move next year.

"It’s a great opportunity to talk to a bunch of new people with Fox and all the television stations and media outlets down here," said Kilgore, who guided the Blue Raiders to an 8-4 record last season that didn't earn a bowl bid.

That most likely wouldn't happen to a team from C-USA, which has five bowl tie-ins. That includes the Liberty Bowl, where the winner of the league championship game on Dec. 7 will be sent to play a representative from the Southeastern Conference.

"It's great to be playing different teams and have an actual conference championship game," Kilgore said of the C-USA title game that will be played at the home stadium of a division champion. "And there are all the other bowl tie-ins. If we go 8-4 this year, we won’t be sitting at home watching other teams play bowl games."

In its first season, Middle Tennessee is picked to finish third in the East Division, behind predicted winner East Carolina and Marshall and ahead of UAB, Southern Miss, FAU and FIU. Defending champion Tulsa was picked to win the West ahead of Rice, Louisiana Tech, UTEP, North Texas, Tulane and Texas-San Antonio in descending order.

Marshall junior quarterback Rakeem Cato Jr. was named the preseason offensive player of the year, while the predicted top defender was Rice senior defensive back Phillip Gaines.

"Who knows?" Stockstill said about the league's official predictions that also had two Blue Raiders — sophomore safety Kevin Byard and junior kicker returner Reggie Whatley — on the preseason all-league team. "I never put much credibility in those preseason rankings. They don’t mean a thing.

"Last year, we were picked to finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt, and we finished second. Every year is different. To be honest, I don’t care where we are picked to finish at the start of the season. It’s where we finish at the end of the season."

What does matter is what happens on the field, including the season opener on Thursday, Aug. 29 against visiting Western Carolina. The Blue Raiders open league play on Sept. 21 at FAU. The C-USA home opener is Oct. 5 versus East Carolina.

"Looking at the league, there are a lot of teams who bring back eight or nine starters on both sides of the ball, so it is an experienced league," Stockstill said. "And it’s a very talented league. What stands out to me the most is just how explosive the offenses are.

"There are several dynamic quarterbacks, including ours, and there are a lot of skilled guys. So, there should be a lot of points generated."

The Blue Raiders return eight starters to an offense that put up 49 points in a win at Georgia Tech last season and another 48 at Memphis.

Kilgore has passed for more than 4,800 yards and 34 touchdowns; sophomore running back Jordan Parker gained 851 in only six starts last season; and MTSU returns four starters to an offensive line that has allowed only 15 sacks the past two seasons, lowest in the country.