Seven months later, the snub still stings.
When Logan Kilgore listed his goals Wednesday at Conference USA Media Day in Dallas, the Middle Tennessee State quarterback made sure to slip in a jab at his old conference.
“I want to take our seniors to the bowl game that we deserved last year,” he said. “I’m excited to be in a new conference that has more than two [bowl tie-ins]. From what I see, it is a conference that doesn’t take the fourth-place team over the second-place team. So I’m excited.”
Kilgore and the Blue Raiders continue to find motivation from the way last season ended – or didn’t end.
Days after MTSU announced it would leave the Sun Belt Conference for C-USA, it failed to receive a bowl berth despite an 8-4 record. The Sun Belt, with only two bowl-tie ins, had five teams with at least six wins – the minimum for bowl eligibility. Thus, the league had to lobby bowls for bids for several of its schools.
The Blue Raiders finished in a three-way tie for second place in Sun Belt play and defeated rival Western Kentucky, which finished fifth. But it was the Hilltoppers, not MTSU, that received a bowl invitation.
"There is no doubt we deserved that game,” Kilgore, a senior captain, said. “It is what it is. Now, looking back, it has probably been a blessing. Everyone has a huge chip on their shoulders and we’re ready to get going. I don’t think there has been any lackadaisicalness over the summer. I think everybody is just eager to get rolling.”
MTSU begins preseason camp on Aug. 1 and opens the season on Aug. 29 at home against Western Carolina. The first Conference USA game is on Sept. 21 on the road against old Sun Belt foe Florida Atlantic.
One of six new teams in the league, the Blue Raiders say they’ll have to prove they belong.
“That is a staple of my message – I want to play with an edge, chip on our shoulder, a toughness mentality,” coach Rick Stockstill said. “Obviously, going into a new conference a lot of these people don’t know anything about Middle Tennessee and we don’t know a lot about them either. A sign in our locker room says prove it every day. That is what we are going to do whether it is in January or March or Aug. 1. We are going to bust our tail and prove every day to get better as an individual player and as a coach.”
Picked to finish third in the C-USA East Division by the league’s 14 coaches, the Blue Raiders’ foes – new and old – say they’re not a team to overlook.
“Even if they didn’t have a chip, they’re good players, good coaches,” Southern Miss coach Todd Monken said. “I don’t care what league you’re in if you have been together for a while with the same system and your players believe in that, there is a lot to it. The level won’t matter. It is not like they are jumping to the SEC for God’s sakes. I anticipate they’ll do real well. I wish we weren’t playing them.”
MTSU returns 17 starters, with nine on offense. That includes Kilgore, leading rusher Jordan Parker, two of last year’s top three receivers and four offensive linemen. They’ll try to keep up with a league known for high-flying offenses. Last year, the Blue Raiders averaged 26.6 points, which was sixth-most in the Sun Belt would have ranked ninth in C-USA.
Florida Atlantic linebacker Randell Johnson doesn’t think MTSU will struggle to trade scores with the league’s best.
Johnson and the Owls were torched by the Blue Raiders 38-14 in 2012 and lost 31-17 in 2011.
“When they came there my sophomore year, they scored 21 points in like two minutes. I don’t know how they did; it was so fast,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘All right, next year we’ll be ready for them.’ Last year all they did was pound the ball. They had almost 300 yards rushing. They’re a great team. They have great coaches. They’re going to do well in this league. They can win [the division].”
East Carolina and Marshall are expected to provide the biggest resistance. ECU was picked to win the East and the Thundering Herd, led by C-USA preseason offensive player of the year Rakeem Cato, was tabbed to finish second.
Kilgore wouldn’t say how comparable the Sun Belt is to the Conference USA.
But the senior thinks a better ending is in store for the Blue Raiders.
“We’re just excited,” he said. “It might be worse. It might be better. But it is just new and I think that is exciting for the fans, especially the way last year ended. It was a great time to get out of that league.”