Six weeks before the season begins, Rick Stockstill ponders the unknowns.
While the Middle Tennessee State football coach is unsure of what lies ahead, his counterparts have taken their best shot at predicting the future.
On Wednesday, Conference USA released its preseason coaches poll. MTSU, in its first year in the league, has been picked to finished third out of seven teams in the East Division and received one first-place vote. All 14 C-USA coaches voted but they could not vote for their own team.
East Carolina (11 first-place votes) was picked to win the East, with Marshall (two) tabbed to finish second. Tulsa was the unanimous choice to win the West.
“I like our team from an attitude, character standpoint,” Stockstill said on Tuesday at an event in Franklin. “I think we got some good players. We got to get some guys who are hurt, we have to get them back and hopefully they will be back. Right now, there is always just that unknown until you get into August and see how some of the young guys we redshirted last year, how much they’ve improved over the summer.
“But it is an exciting time. We’ll know more about our team after a couple weeks in August.”
MTSU also put two players on the preseason first team — safety Kevin Byard and kick returner Reggie Whatley.
Byard, a third-year sophomore from Lithonia, Ga., had 74 tackles, a team-high four interceptions and forced two fumbles last year. Whatley, a fourth-year junior from Rome, Ga., was the lone kickoff return specialist on the first team. He totaled 762 kickoff return yards last year. His 30.5-yard average on 25 returns was a school record and ranked fourth nationally.
Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato was named the preseason Offensive Player of the Year. Rice defensive back Phillip Gaines was tabbed the Defensive Player of the Year. Tulane kicked Cairo Santos was chosen as the Special Teams Player of the Year.
MTSU finished 8-4 last year and in a three-way tie for second in the Sun Belt Conference. But the Blue Raiders did not receive a bowl invitation. They return 18 starters, including senior quarterback Logan Kilgore.
The season begins on Thursday, Aug. 29, at home against Western Carolina. MTSU’s conference opener is on Sept. 21 at former Sun Belt foe Florida Atlantic. The Blue Raiders also have non-conference games against North Carolina, BYU and Memphis.
“I think it is tougher,” Stockstill said of the schedule. “BYU lost four or five games by a total of 15 points. North Carolina is picked to be really high in the ACC. Whether they are or not, I don’t know. They say Conference USA is better than the Sun Belt. So we’ll see. But I think it is a very demanding schedule. Memphis will be better than what they were last year. So we’ll tee it up, get out there and play it and see what happens.”
Conference USA Predictions
(voted by 14 league coaches)
1. East Carolina (11) 95
2. Marshall (2) 82
*3. MTSU (1) 70
4. UAB 54
5. Southern Miss 40
*6. Florida Atlantic 28
*7. FIU 23
1. Tulsa (14) 98
2. Rice 76
*3. Louisiana Tech 72
4. UTEP 46
*5. North Texas 39
6. Tulane 31
*7. Texas-San Antonio 30
*first year in C-USA