Well, the Blue Raiders are not the same team they were last year, when they went 6-1 and co-Belt champs, and were 7-6 overall, including a loss to Central Michigan in the Raiders first ever bowl game.
But they arenít going to be that bad, either, according to Adam Sparks, the MTSU beat writers for the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal.
I talked with Sparks yesterday and hereís our Q and A:
Q: Weíve heard about a lot of players getting injured, quitting and kicked off the team. Is it as bad as it seems?
A: The one I would point out is d-lineman Sean Mosley who quit right before camp. He would have been a four-year starter. That hurt the depth. Center Jack Padrick is gone for the season with an injury. He was a true freshman, so itís hard to say how he would have done. They are having a hard time replacing him. They donít know if they have a guy who can consistently snap the ball.
Other than that, the defensive and offensive lines are not in bad shape. The defensive line is a strength of the team even with Mosley gone. Ends Erek Walden (6-2, 246) and Tavares Jones (6-2, 242) are both preseason All-Conference picks. [Walden is already the career leader in sacks with 20.5]
Q: Joe Craddock is replacing Clint Marks at quarterback. Howís he look?
A: If you measure him in a combine, he would be well ahead of Marks. He has a much stronger arm and real good mobility, and Marks really didnít have either of those. The question is how he will handle being the starter. [Craddock is a junior, but his only game experience came last year, when he was 9-of-24 for 75 yards and 1 INT].
Heís 5-10, 5-11, so thatís not in his favor. I tend to think heíll be much better by game six or seven than he will be early in the season when he is still getting used to being out there.
Q: It looks like FAU and MTSU are the only teams in the Belt that are not using some form of the spread offense. What are the Blue Raiders doing on offense?
A: They are multiple and do a little of everything. They would like to spread things out more starting last year, but personnel dictated otherwise with a pocket passer and not enough good receivers. This year the quarterback can run better and they have better receivers, so youíll see something between what FAU runs and the spread.
Q: What are some other strong areas for MTSU?
A: The defensive secondary was good last year and will be better this year. There are three starters back. Donít forget kick returning. Safety Damon Nickson (left) ran back two kickoffs last year, one against FAU, and Iím interested to see if people kick to him this year with the new rule in effect. DeMarco McNair is a solid runner, and they throw Desmond Gee in there and he can break off some big gains. [Nicksonís runback against the Owls was 94 yards, longest for the Raiders in D I-A].
Q: Possible weaknesses?
A: They lost all three starting linebackers, so there is concern there, but from what I have seen the guys there now look pretty decent.
Q: OK, given all that, what is your prediction for Saturday?
A: I am going to pick MTSU in close, low-scoring game, something like 17-14. It is hard to pick against the team. They were 4-0 in the Sun Belt on the road last season. They did what they needed to win games.
A lot will come down to Craddock. He may throw four picks and he may throw four touchdowns. I have no idea how heís going to do.
At this point in the season defenses are farther along that offenses, so that should keep the scoring down.
The FAU/MTSU series is long by FAU standards, as this will be the fifth time the teams have played. All but one of the games have been closely fought, but the one that will always stand out and is even enshrined on the Founders and Builders Memorial is the first one.
August 28, 2003, Floyd Stadium, Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Opening night of FAUís third season. The Owls, still a I-AA team were trying to rebound from a 2-9 season, but were opening against I-A MTSU.
Both teams struggled on offense in the first half, and special teams helped FAU stay in the game. After a scoreless first quarter, MTSU scored on a 10-yard pass, but missed the extra point. FAU took the lead when they recovered a blocked punt in the Raiders end zone, but a 39-yard field goal with 9 seconds left in the half made it 9-7 Raiders.
MTSU later stretched the lead to 19-7 with 6:11 left in the fourth quarter and looked to be in control.
Thatís when FAU came alive. With Jared Allen at QB, the Owls went on a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a TD on a 7-yard pass from Allen to Roosevelt Bynes that cut the deficit to 19-14.
FAUís defense held and forced MTSU to punt, and the Raiders kicker did his job, kicking it out of bounds at the FAU 2. That left the Owls with 98 yards to cover.
FAU would need seven plays to get the ball the Owls 38, where they faced a fourth down with enough time for one play.
Allen took the snap with six seconds left, he scrambled, at one point nearly losing the ball, before finding Bynes open downfield. The defender went for the pick and missed, which left Bynes free to run in for the 62-yard score with no time left on the clock.
In FAUís 22nd game, it had beaten a I-A team, going in the record books as the I-AA team that needed the fewest games before accomplishing that.