This year's homecoming game for Mississippi State will feature the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State. MTSU has been a team in the past that if overlooked could pull off the upset(especially before a big SEC game, they come before the Alabama game this season). However, this year's Blue Raider squad doesn't have that feel. They had an abysmal year on the defensive side of the ball in 2011, giving up north of 36 points per game. This came after giving up over 28 points per game in 2010. The Middle Tennessee defense has struggled mightily since the departure of former MSU co-defensive coordinator (now the DC at Texas).
Manny Diaz was the defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee after stops at Florida State and NC State. He was the defensive coordinator in Murfreesboro from 2006 to 2009. During that span, the Blue Raiders gave up 25 points per game and had a combined record of 27-23. Combined in the two years since Diaz left, they have given up over 32 points per game and have gone 8-17 (including a 2-10 record in 2011).
The Blue Raiders should be in line for improvement on the offensive side of the ball as they return most of their skill position players from 2011. They return their starting QB, starting RB, and all 4 starting WRs. They return their Right Guard and Right Tackle but lose starting Left Guard and Starting Left Tackle, as well as their starting Center. So the offensive line will need some young guys to step up. On the defensive side of the ball, the Blue Raiders return their starting front 4 along the defensive line. However, they lose two of the three starting linebackers and in the secondary the lose all but one starting cornerback, Kenneth Gilstrap.
Key Returning Players:
Overall 2011 Analysis:
2011 was a rough year for Rick Stockstill and the Blue Raiders. They finished with just two wins and gave up a lot of points in the process. The two opponents that MTSU was able to beat (Memphis and Florida Atlantic) combined to go 3-21 in 2011. In some games the Blue Raiders scored early and were able to keep it close, in games they lost big, they just got behind in the beginning and were never able to recover. They faced one SEC team in 2011 (Tennessee) and lost 24-0. They were beaten by Hugh Freeze's Arkansas State Red Wolves 45-19. It was the first time ASU had ever beaten Middle Tennessee at Floyd Stadium.
2012 MSU vs. MTSU Positional Battles:
Quarterback - Advantage: MSU
This is not a homerun victory for MSU as Logan Kilgore gained valuable experience in 2011. He threw for over 2,000 yards and nearly 20 TDs. If he can back up his 2011 season with a good 2012 campaign he can climb into the record books at MTSU. Having said all of that, I give Tyler Russell the advantage here. More talent, and more talent around him.
Tailbacks - Advantage: MSU
By season's end Benny Cunningham had become the starter for the Blue Raiders. He rushed for over 500 yards and 4 TDs. With a full season as the feature back, he might be able to reach the 1,000 yard mark. However, it's a talent issue here at tailback, with depth also coming into account. LaDarius Perkins is a more talented back and with Nick Griffin to complement him, the Bulldog backfield should be hard to stop for MTSU.
Wide Receivers - Advantage: MSU
The advantage in experience here goes to MTSU. They return all 4 starting WRs from 2011 and 3 of them will be seniors. I think the talent level here, by no surprise, again favors MSU. The depth also favors MSU. Chad Bumphis, Ricco Sanders, Chris Smith, Arceto Clark and company should have a big day for MSU in this one.
Offensive Line - Advantage: MSU
I hate to sound like a broken record, folks, but there are two different levels of talent at this position and Mississippi State's is simply head and foot above MTSU. The MTSU offensive linemen simply aren't as big and strong as the Bulldog offensive linemen, either. This could be a long day if MTSU's undersized defensive line lets the Bulldog O-linemen begin to wear them down. This is where the SEC truly proves it is the most dominant conference in the country, the lines of scrimmage.
Defensive Line - Advantage: MSU
The Blue Raiders will return all 4 starters here. The only problem with that is that the 4 starters from last year weren't all that productive. The one bright spot here from 2011 was Shubert Bastien who started as a true freshman. Same old song and dance here, though. Mississippi State is simply bigger, faster, and more talented. Josh Boyd, Kaleb Eulls, P.J. Jones, Denico Autry, Curtis Virges, and Quay Evans should dominate the MTSU offensive line and make it a long day for the Blue Raiders.
Linebackers - Advantage: MSU
This is the position that will be really hard on MTSU in 2012, especially in comparison to an SEC foe. The Blue Raiders will be replacing two of three starters at linebacker from 2011. MTSU really lacked a playmaker at this position last year and unless one emerges in 2012, the linebackers could be up against when they come to Starkville. There's no question the X-factor at linebacker for Mississippi State is Cameron Lawrence. Lawrence and company have more talent and trump the MTSU linebacking core without question.
Defensive Backfield - Advantage: MSU
Logan Kilgore is good quarterback who is expected to be even better in 2012, however the MSU secondary is sure to be the best he will face in 2012. Jonathan Banks and Corey Broomfield should make for a nightmarish day for Kilgore. If Kilgore is able to get out of Starkville without throwing an interception, he will be a lucky man. This MSU secondary is on a mission in 2012 and will likely be the better secondary in most games they play.
2012 Overall Analysis:
In 2012 MTSU will be a more talented team and will be somewhat experienced, but they are still not ready to compete with an SEC team the caliber of Mississippi State. If Dan Mullen can have the Bulldogs focused and ready for this one(it is the homecoming, it is possible they might not be completely focused) they should make it a tough trip for the Blue Raiders. The battle in the trenches will be one that is a mismatch from the beginning. The skill position players for MSU are faster and more athletic. This match up clearly favors MSU. For MTSU, they must approach this game with a "nothing to lose" attitude and I'm positive they will. If they come in prepared and ready to be aggressive and the Bulldogs aren't completely focused, then they could have a chance. However you twist it, this game is definitely the Bulldogs game to lose.