Scouting MTSU

Middle Tennessee State woke up Friday with hurt feelings for two reasons.

First, the Blue Raiders lost the night before, and that in itself is depressing.

But worse, MTSU lost at home to a Division I-AA program that's not very old. And considering the Blue Raiders' reputation as an upset threat for bigger programs, getting knocked off that way was a body punch.

For a team that seeks out big-name game like Georgia, Alabama, LSU, and Clemson, being stunned by a newbie was painful.

"(I don't think" there will be a hangover from it," said coach Andy McCollum. "But the hurt part will be there and it should be."

The Blue Raiders of seventh-year coach and Marietta High graduate McCollum have always been a pesky bunch, and that's the group Georgia expects to see Saturday at 1 p.m.

"They've got a pretty good mad-on about now," said Georgia coach Mark Richt.

Richt talked to McCollum before MTSU played Alabama to open the 2002 season, and noted how confident the Blue Raider boss was. And for good reason, for Alabama held on to beat MTSU 39-34 in Tuscaloosa.

"They really had a chance to beat 'em," Richt said. "Alabama had a couple calls that kept drives going at the end of the game."

MTSU has 14 position starters back from that team, a big reason it was picked to finish third in the Sun Belt behind North Texas - which just lost to Oklahoma - and New Mexico State.

Six of the eight losses were by 10 points or less, but there's plenty of talent back.

"I think their team speed is outstanding," said Richt. "They really can run. You can see that on last year's tape, too."

The Blue Raiders lost some key players from that team, including tailback Dwone Hicks, the league's No. 2 rusher with 1,011 yards plus 11 touchdowns. Don Calloway, an 5-6, 186-pound senior from Miller County, is sharing time with Eugene Gross (Statesboro) as his successor. Brandon Westbrook, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound senior from Forsyth Central High in Cumming, anchors the offensive line. He moved from tackle, where he was an all-Sun Belt performer for two straight years.

"Our defensive coaches really like Gross and Calloway at running back," said Richt. "They like their center, too."

The Blue Raiders' offensive line two-deep has four seniors and nine breaking the 300-pound mark. Sophomore guard Shavasky Brown carries 338 pounds on a 6-1 frame, and tackle Brandon Parker is 6-7, 306 pounds.

Quarterback Andrico Hines was third in the Sun Belt with 159.4 yards per game passing last year, but his top target - Tyrone Calico - is gone. The Blue Raiders' 3-3 defense is led by linebacker Randy Arnold, a 5-11, 231-pound senior who was ninth in the league with 7.3 tackles per game.

MTSU lost the league's No. 6 tackler in Sheldon Durham, who had 8.1 stops a game and two sacks. The Blue Raiders were last among SBC teams with 13 sacks and fifth out of seven teams in total defense, allowing 400.8 yards a game. But that unit is off a superb effort a week ago. It racked up five sacks against FAU, and had held the Owls to 84 yards total offense through the first 54 minutes of the game. The Blue Raiders sent the Owls backward on six of 14 drives.

Safety Brandon Lynch (Hephzibah) and middle linebacker Alvin Fite led the way with nine tackles each.

"They're very physical on defense," said Richt. "They run and hit very, very well. They've got down linemen that can run."

MTSU is solid on special teams with returning kicker Brian Kelly and all-SBC punter Robert Billings. The Blue Raiders were first in the conference in kickoff coverage but last in kickoff returns and next-to-last in punt returns. MTSU was decent in both areas last week.

Last year: 4-8 (2-4 in Sun Belt Conference)
Offensive starters back:8
Defensive starters back:6
Specialists back: 2
Preseason all-Sun Belt: 2 (P Robert Billings and C Brandon Westbrook)

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