MURFREESBORO, Tennessee — The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders know they have only themselves to blame for missing out on a bowl game two of the last three seasons. If they forget, coach Rick Stockstill is happy to remind them about losing three of their final four games in 2014.
"We didn't do the fundamental things necessary to win a game," Stockstill said. "We turned the ball over against FIU, we turned it over at UTEP. We missed kicks, we didn't tackle well in either game. To me, it was disappointing. There were some other 6-6 teams that went to bowl games and we didn't. At the end of the day if we'd just played a little bit better in two of those last three games, we'd have gone."
That left the Blue Raiders at 6-6 after back-to-back 8-4 seasons. They go into their third year in Conference USA looking for their fifth bowl game in 10 years, and Stockstill has eight starters back on both offense and defense.
Safety Kevin Byard said how Middle Tennessee finished last season is a good lesson learned.
"I feel like coming into this season we have a big chip on our shoulder, and it's great motivation coming into this season," Byard said.
Some things to watch at Middle Tennessee this season:
PICK A STARTER: Austin Grammer started all 12 games last season and ranked 17th nationally completing 65.4 percent of his passes. He threw for 2,557 yards with 17 touchdowns and ran for 169 yards with two more TDs. But the redshirt junior competed with redshirt freshman Brent Stockstill — yes the coach's son — in fall camp. He has played in only one game, completing 2 of 3 passes for 41 yards in the season opener before redshirting. Coming out of high school, Stockstill was rated among the nation's top 30 dual-threat quarterbacks. The head coach said he is in no hurry to name a starter, choosing to let both compete.
REPLACING WHATLEY: Reggie Whatley is gone after averaging 6.8 yards per carry for the Blue Raiders last season. Stockstill said Shane Tucker, Jordan Parker and Jeremiah Bryson now all are healthy and all will play. I'tavius Mathers, a transfer from Mississippi, will be sitting out this season.
NFL DISTRACTION: The Blue Raiders have a history of sending players to the NFL, most recently defensive tackle Jimmy Staten in 2014 by Seattle. They could add another next spring with Byard. The redshirt senior has 15 career interceptions and has returned four for TDs starting every game he's ever played. He ranked seventh nationally last season with a team-high six interceptions. Stockstill says anyone distracted by the future won't play, and Byard said that's not an issue because he wants to win games first.
O-LINE SHIFTS: Darius Johnson is moving from tackle inside to guard to help the Blue Raiders bulk up the interior. Maurquice Shakir is replacing Isaiah Anderson at right tackle after sitting out last season as a redshirt, and Shakir is listed at 318 pounds — nearly 50 pounds heavier than Anderson.
TOUGH START: The Blue Raiders aren't playing the easiest schedule after opening up hosting Jackson State. They visit Alabama on Sept. 12, host Charlotte and then head to Illinois. They finally get their second Southeastern Conference team in the first five games when Vanderbilt visits Oct. 3 in the Commodore's first visit to Middle Tennessee since 1920. Then Middle Tennessee must hit the road to CUSA rival Western Kentucky.
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