What It Will Take to Beat Middle Tennessee

Alabama's season opener at Bryant-Denny Stadium against Middle Tennessee is just over 17 weeks away. Obviously, that means it's about time to start talking about what it will take for the Crimson Tide to beat the Blue Raiders on September 3.

To dispel any notion of suspense, Alabama will win, and this game will be more about looks than anything else. Any other outcome figures to be the beginning of a very, very long season for Alabama.

The bad news is that Middle Tennessee went 5-6 a year ago with most of the same players currently on this year's squad. Middle Tennessee had a 4-4 mark in the Sunbelt Conference, and losses included narrow margins to Florida Atlantic ((27-20), Louisiana-Lafayette (24-17) and North Texas (30-21) as well as sound defeats at the hands of Florida (52-16), New Mexico State (44-10) and Troy (37-17).

Head Coach Andy McCollum is 30-38 in six seasons at Middle Tennessee.

But Middle Tennessee might provide a formidable challenge in any of three phases: offense, defense and special teams.

If Alabama's pass defense is ranked first (or close to first) in the nation after this game as it was at the conclusion of last season, it won't be because it wasn't presented with a respectable challenge.

Middle Tennessee has most of its cogs back from a passing attack that ranked 15th in the nation in passing offense in 2004, including its quarterback and four of its top five receivers. They had the top passing attack in the Sun Belt Conference a year ago, so that will be a nice early test for a squad that had the best pass defense in the land a year ago.

As a sophomore in ‘04, lefty quarterback Clint Marks unseeded junior Josh Harris for the starting spot after just one game and proceeded to complete 70.4 per cent of his passes (259-of-368) in 2004. Marks finished the year with a 138.07 pass efficiency rating and totaled 2,749 yards on the season.

Primarily because of Marks, the Raiders will have a wildly different offensive look than when it gave the Tide a tough test in Legion field three short years ago. Then, Andrico Hines and Dwone Hicks (RB) gave the Tide defense fits with their legs. Hiines couldn't be contained in the pocket and actually being as effective as Hicks, who was being touted as the Raiders' Heisman Candidate (although it was a short-lived campaign).

Middle Tennessee's passing attack looks genuinely potent. Marks will have at least four options to throw to, although he loses leading 2004 receiver Kerry Wright (76 catches, 1,048 yards).

In a career day against Arkansas State (okay, so it was against Arkansas State), Marks threw for 447 yards and completed 30-of-34 pass attempts to set a school record in the category. He didn't seem to have any lapse in the spring game passing for 207 yards on 14-of-20 passing, including a 39-yard touchdown toss to Cleannord Saintil according to the Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Saintil & Chris Henry both started a year ago and combined for 100 catches and 962 yards. Pierre Ingram, a 6-4, 212-pound junior, did not produce as much on the field a year ago because of a hamstring injury that limited him, but he had three catches for 35 yards in thee Raiders' spring game and is expected to be a key in replacing Wright.

True freshman Jay Robinson, a 6-4, 200-pound receiver from Wetumpka is also hoping to contribute. Robinson was a quarterback in high school and he graduated early in order to enroll at Middle Tennessee for the spring.

Middle Tennessee rushed for 106 yards per game in 2004, and return leading tailback Eugene Gross, who totaled just 412 yards in 11 games. Tailback DeMarco McNair led MTSU in the spring game, running for 61 yards on 11 carries. Gross added 30 rushing yards and 75 receiving yards in the spring game.

The Blue Raiders have just about everyone back on both sides of the ball. They lost just 15 lettermen and returned 54 lettermen from last year's team.

On defense 10 starters return for Middle Tennessee. That's the good news. The bad news? They were 86th in the country in total defense allowing 412 yards per game. Most of those yards were allowed through the air – 273 yards per game, 112th in the nation. Therefore, it can be seen as good or bad news that all four defensive backfield starters return.

The Blue Raiders will have their third defensive coordinator in three years since Bradley Dale Pevetoto took a position at LSU. Mark Criner takes the reigns of the MTSU defense, but his philosophy is expected to be similar to that of his predecessor, which will allow for more carryover.

While Middle Tennessee has some pieces in place on offense and defense, they seem to have a clear advantage over Alabama in special teams. Placekicker Colby Smith made 15-of-17 field goals in 2004, including three of four attempts from 40 yards and beyond (his long was a 42-yarder.)

Smith, A Lou Groza award finalist, also will handle the punting for Middle Tennessee. With the pass-heavy offense, Smith got lots of punting experience in 2004 - five attempts per game. He averaged 39.9 yards per punt and dropped 11 of those inside the 20-yard line.

Kickoff man Paul Wheeler had 11 touchbacks and 39 kickoffs returned in 2004. He averaged kicking the ball to the 9.1 yard line (onside kicks not included) and opponents average starting position after his kickoffs was just beyond the 24 yard line.

Wheeler will be familiar with the Crimson Tide since he is entering his fourth season handling the Raiders' kickoff duties.

The main question to be answered: Will Alabama finish the game without exposing any weaknesses while keeping a lid on a large portion of the offensive arsenal, or will the Blue Raiders push Alabama before wilting in the second half?

NEXT UP: What will it take to beat Southern Miss?

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