Late last week Rick Stockstill sat in front of the television and watched ESPN’s coverage of the Notre Dame press conference to introduce the university’s new football coach, Brian Kelly.
An on-screen graphic detailed the recent records and bowl history of the Fighting Irish, including the fact that they have played in a postseason contest twice in four seasons. To illustrate what a woeful stretch that was, the graphic noted that Middle Tennessee State University also has earned two bowl invitations in the past four seasons.
“I’ll take it,” the Blue Raiders’ fourth-year coach thought.
Wednesday, he took his team to New Orleans for the second of those bowl games.
MTSU (9-3) faces Southern Miss (7-5), 7:30 p.m. Sunday in the New Orleans Bowl in a matchup that will be televised live on ESPN.
The Blue Raiders come into the contest with a six-game win streak and the most victories in the school’s Football Bowl Subdivision era. They are one of 28 teams to win nine times during the regular season and one of just three in the history of the Sun Belt Conference ever to do so. Their seven conference victories this season are as many as in the previous two years combined.
They forged their way into the postseason the hard way — without the benefit of an automatic invitation. That went to the Sun Belt’s regular-season champion, Troy, which will play in the GMAC Bowl on Jan. 6.
“From the very first day I got here, I said we would act, practice, dress, go to class and do everything like a winner,” Stockstill said. “We were able to win the conference that first year and go to a bowl. We are doing it again this year.”
A victory over Southern Miss would give MTSU its first 10-win season since 1992, when it won the Ohio Valley Conference and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs. It also would give the Blue Raiders three straight victories against teams from Conference USA – they have beaten Memphis twice since 2007, including a 31-14 victory earlier this season.
Additionally, MTSU has notable victories over Maryland in each of the past two seasons — substance that gains the attention of bowl committees.
“I do not think this program is going to take leaps and bounds by winning and I do not think it will crumble if we lose the game,” Stockstill said. “We are still building the program. We have been to two bowls in four years. I do not think you can say this is a make or break game. It is a great opportunity for us in a lot of different ways.”
Primarily, the New Orleans Bowl is an opportunity to showcase an offense led by junior quarterback Dwight Dasher, who ranks ninth nationally in total offense, and an attacking defense, which leads the country in tackles for losses and is seventh in takeaways.
“It is a bowl game and it is important, but it's just the next game,” Stockstill said. “It is just the 13th game. If you start talking too much about it, then you forget how to play the game. If you go out and play with great passion and play smart, which we always have, you will be fine. If you go out and change your mental approach it messes with everything you have achieved earlier in the season.”
In a way, it made sense that MTSU’s return to a bowl game was linked to Kelly’s newest job. The last time he moved was in 2006, when he led Central Michigan to the MAC title and a spot in the Motor City Bowl — against the Blue Raiders.
Kelly accepted the job at Cincinnati and left one of his assistants to coach CMU in that game, a 31-14 victory over the Blue Raiders.
Three years later, he is on the move again — and MTSU is in a bowl game again.
“When you are building a program there are steps that you go through and a process that must occur,” Stockstill said. “I am not into quick fixes and I am not going to take any short cuts when building this program. To me this is just another step in the growth and process of building this program.”
One that has not gone overlooked even in comparison to one of the more renowned programs in college football history.