The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 113: Middle Tennessee
Coach: Rick Stockstill (35-40, seventh season)
2011 record: 2-10 (1-7 in Sun Belt, seventh in Sun Belt)
Look back: The Blue Raiders have had their struggles in recent years. After a 10-3 record in 2009, the program has lagged a bit finishing 6-7 in 2010 and last season's disappointing 2-10 record. Right from the start, Middle Tennessee struggled with three straight losses to open the season including two against non-conference foes Purdue and Georgia Tech. A last-second win over Memphis in Week Four was short-lived after the team suffered a tough, 36-33 loss in double-overtime to Western Kentucky the following week. The team bounced back with a 38-14 win over Florida Atlantic but then injuries to QB Logan Kilgore and RB Benny Cunningham put a strain on the team causing the Raiders to end the season on a six-game losing streak.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 5/6
Defensive starters lost/returning: 5/6
Key losses: S Eric Russell, WR Malcolm Beyah, LB Darin Davis, LB Gorby Loreus, C Arness Ikner
Top returnees: QB Logan Kilgore, RB Benny Cunningham, LB Leighton Gasque, DL Kendall Dangerfield
Strengths: Back from injury, Kilgore's development at quarterback will be key for the success of the Blue Raiders. Last season, the sophomore threw for 2,231 yards and 18 touchdowns however he struggled with 12 interceptions so cutting down the turnovers will be crucial. Jeff Murphy filled in during Kilgore's absence giving the team a solids backup option at the position. The running back position is stocked with talent including returning starter Benny Cunningham, who had 546 yards on 115 carries with four touchdowns before suffering his injury. William Pratcher led the team in rushing last season with 634 yards with two touchdowns and the duo gives the team a nice one-two punch. Tavarres Jefferson returns as the team's leading receiver. He had 51 catches for 398 yards and a touchdown. He will be joined by Kyle Griswould and Anthony Amos.
Weaknesses: Last season, the defense ranked 110th in points against (36.8) and was 103rd overall in the country in total defense. In the offseason, Stockstill added assistant coach Tyrone Nix and made him co-defensive coordinator with Steve Ellis in hopes to see some improvement. That will be difficult as the team loses its top four tacklers from last season including safety Eric Russell. Linebacker Leighton Gasque led the team in sacks (7.0) and will be asked to be the leader on this squad. Placekicker Alan Gendreau is gone which means the team will need to find someone you can pick up the offensive slack.
Outlook: Middle Tennessee hope that last year's two-win season – the worst in the seven-year tenure of Stockstill – was just an abnormality. The addition of new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner as well as six returning starters, should provide much needed continuity on offense. However, it will be how well the defense can develop and adapt that will make or break this team. The schedule features three early winnable games against McNeese State, FAU and Memphis. Two non-conference games against Georgia Tech and Mississippi State won't be easy especially on the road.
Sept. 1 McNeese State
Sept. 8 Florida Atlantic
Sept. 15 at Memphis
Sept. 29 at Georgia Tech
Oct. 6 Louisiana-Monroe
Oct. 13 at FIU
Oct. 20 at Mississippi State
Oct. 27 North Texas
Nov. 1 at Western Kentucky
Nov. 17 at South Alabama
Nov. 24 Troy
Dec. 1 at Arkansas State