Like many college football enthusiasts, Jeremy Kellem had long wanted to see the current bowl system go by the wayside.
Kellem was ready for a playoff system — that is, until last year. That was when Kellem got the bowl experience firsthand as a safety for Middle Tennessee State University. His mindset changed shortly after the Blue Raiders’ 42-32 victory against Southern Mississippi in the New Orleans Bowl.
“I would just rather them keep the bowl system and let the mid-majors and everybody have an opportunity to play another game,” Kellem said. “Go to a foreign city, just enjoy the scenery and then play in the game — just get the whole bowl experience. I just think a playoff system would take away from that.”
At the moment, the bowl system seems to be working just fine for the Blue Raiders, who will play their third bowl game in the past five seasons when they match up against Miami University (Ohio) in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Thursday at 7 p.m. on ESPN. The Blue Raiders ended the regular season on a three-game winning streak to finish 6-6 and become bowl eligible.
But this season is still a drop-off from last, in which they went 10-3 and won the New Orleans Bowl.
MTSU faced plenty of obstacles right from the start this season. Before the season opener, the NCAA declared dual-threat quarterback Dwight Dasher ineligible after he accepted a $1,500 loan for a poker game. He was suspended for four games and made his season debut against defending Sun Belt Conference champion Troy, which thumped the Blue Raiders 42-13 in Murfreesboro — and on TV in front of a national audience.
From there it didn’t get much better, as MTSU lost four of Dasher’s first five starts and struggled to hold onto the ball, falling quickly to 3-6. They committed 33 turnovers on the year, tying Buffalo for the most in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“There in the middle of the year and in the beginning of the year when we lost games, it was about us,” MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said. “We didn’t protect the ball. We didn’t give ourselves a chance to win the game because we turned the ball over so much. The last three games of the season, we protected it. We created turnovers, and that was the difference in those last three games.
“We continued to play hard. We played hard every game all year. We played with great effort and passion. We just played a lot smarter from a ball-security standpoint.”
Knowing a loss in the last three weeks would cost them bowl eligibility, the Blue Raiders managed to turn the ball over just twice. They won all three games, including two on the road. In both of those games — at Western Kentucky and at Sun Belt champ Florida International — MTSU rallied from two-touchdown deficits.
“We were still able to reach one of our goals, and that is to play 13 games,” senior running back Phillip Tanner said. “I wouldn’t say [the season] was a disappointment. We learned a lot through this season. We learned we can continue to fight. We learned not to give up. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
The Blue Raiders have found themselves finishing in either a bowl game or in contention for one during each of Stockstill’s five years as head coach. He set the bar high his first year, capitalizing with a 7-6 record and an appearance in the Motor City Bowl.
After two 5-7 seasons, MTSU put together one of the best years in school history in 2009. Dasher became the fourth player in NCAA history to throw for more than 2,500 yards and rush for more than 1,000 in the same season. With Dasher leading the way, the Blue Raiders won a Sun Belt-record 10 games. They won their first bowl game as an FBS member since jumping up from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as I-AA) in 1999.
“We have been steadily rising,” said Kellem, a senior. “Last year we took a big jump. It is showing the steady improvement of this football program and what Coach Stockstill and his staff are doing.”
Others have taken notice, too.
Stockstill passed on a job offer last January to become the head coach of East Carolina, a member of Conference USA. He cited poor timing for his decision, as the offer came just two weeks before national signing day.
While this season might not have gone as he would’ve hoped, Stockstill has continued to build MTSU into a perennial power in the Sun Belt. The Blue Raiders were one of three league teams to reach a bowl this season.
But their goals extend beyond their conference. In addition to contending for Sun Belt crowns and annual trips to bowls, MTSU has huge aspirations.
“We are trying to put MT on the map and working toward possibly having a Boise State reputation one day, being a mid-major that is considered one of the best in the nation someday,” Kellem said. “That is the goal the MT program is trying to reach.”