By Zac Ellis
Previewing Vanderbilt’s matchup with Middle Tennessee on Saturday:
History Lesson: Vanderbilt is 14-3 all-time against Middle Tennessee and has won two in a row in the series. Last season, the Commodores used a 28-point second quarter to subdue the Blue Raiders, 47-24, at Vanderbilt Stadium.
Names to Watch (MTSU):
QB Brent Stockstill
The redshirt junior is among the most potent passers in the country. He has thrown for 7,238 yards and 61 touchdowns in the last two seasons alone, and he hung 399 yards on the Commodores in 2016. Stockstill’s 61 career touchdown passes are an MTSU program record, and it took him just 22 games to reach that mark.
WR Richie James
Few receivers in college football are as dynamic as James. In two seasons at MTSU, the Sarasota, Fla. product has hauled in 213 catches for 2,971 yards and 20 touchdowns. James needs just 26 more receptions to become Middle Tennessee’s all-time leader in that category. James and returning teammate Ty Lee combined for 168 receptions in 2016, the most by two teammates in FBS; the next closet team (Houston) had 151.
LB Chris Melton
Middle Tennessee’s top returning tackler (102) chipped in 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks a year ago. Melton also managed double-digit tackles in four games. Now he leads a veteran linebacker corps for new coordinator Scott Shafer, who is tasked with improving a defense that gave up 35.8 points per game in 2016.
Rush yards for Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb against Middle Tennessee last season. That number set a career-high for Webb, who also chipped in two touchdowns in the victory. In five career games against Conference USA opponents, Webb averages 139.4 yards on 26 carries, or 5.4 yards-per-carry.
School records broken by Middle Tennessee’s offense in 2016. The Blue Raiders set new program marks in single-season total yards, points scored, passing yards, passing yards per game, passing attempts, passing completions and touchdown passes. Though James, Lee and Stockstill return in 2017, MTSU’s offense must replace running back I’Tavous Mathers and his school-record 1,561 rushing yards.
Scoring percentage of Vanderbilt’s opponents in the red zone in 2016. The Commodores finished last season with college football’s stingiest defense inside the 20-yard line, allowing points on just 32 of 49 attempts, or 65.3 percent. That defense returns seven starters from a year ago.
The Big Question: Can Vanderbilt get to the quarterback? The Dores’ defense managed an SEC-low 15 sacks last season, and that unit lost sack leader Adam Butler to graduation. Pressuring Stockstill will be key to Vanderbilt’s attack, and head coach Derek Mason expects names like linebacker Charles Wright and end Jonathan Wynn to disrupt MTSU’s backfield.
Vanderbilt Needs To: Run the football. Webb ran all over Middle Tennessee last season, and this year’s Blue Raiders squad brings back no returning starters on its defensive line. Webb, alongside the likes of Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield, should take advantage of that new-look defensive front.
Did You Know? Middle Tennessee is 4-22 vs. SEC teams since the program moved to FBS in 1999. But three of those victories have come against Vanderbilt: 2001, '02 and '05. The fourth came just last season, when the Blue Raiders toppled Missouri, 51-45, on the road.
He Said It: “Yeah, it’s a chip. It sits there, it stares me in the face everyday. I haven’t let this football team forget it. Everyone can talk about what MTSU is playing for, but I know exactly what we’re playing for.” -Derek Mason, on Vanderbilt’s three straight losses in season openers
Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee kick off Saturday at 7 p.m. CT. The game is televised on CBS Sports Network.
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics. Check out his story archive and follow him on Twitter here.