The State of the Program Entering I-A
By the time Middle Tennessee State decided to move its Blue Raiders to I-A football in 1999, their I-AA zenith had been passed. Appearing in four straight I-AA postseason tournaments from 1989 to 1992, the Blue Raiders went 39-13 over that four-year period yet failed to advance beyond the quarterfinals in any given season.
In 1989, Middle Tennessee went 8-3 in the regular season. They dismissed Appalachian State 24-21 at home in the first round before running into Georgia Southern in the quarters. The eventual national champions bulldozed the Blue Raiders 45-3, leaving longtime coach James Donnelly and his crew to hope anew the following season.
1990 saw the Blue Raiders improve to 10-1 in the regular season, and they took care of business once again in the first round against Jackson State 28-7. But a trip to Idaho ended MTSU’s season early yet again as Boise State held on in the 20-13 quarterfinal matchup.
Regressing back to 8-3 in 1991 under first-year quarterback Kelly Holcomb, Middle Tennessee needed overtime to pull out a 20-19 victory over Sam Houston State in their first-round showdown. Eastern Kentucky would await in the quarters, and for a third straight year Donnelly’s crew missed out on a semifinal berth when the Colonels prevailed 23-13.
1992 would feel an awful lot like 1989 by the time the season ended. Going 9-2 in the regular season, the Blue Raiders once again hosted Appalachian State in the first round. Advancing to meet Marshall after a 35-10 victory, Middle Tennessee then fell flat as the eventual national champion Thundering Herd pounced to defeat the Blue Raiders 35-21.
In Holcomb’s final season at quarterback, the Blue Raiders would return to the postseason with a 8-2-1 record in the regular season. But once again a trip to Huntington to face Marshall ended in an ignominious return home to Murfreesboro after being walloped 49-14. Falling back toward mediocrity in the mid-1990s, the Blue Raiders would fail to return to the postseason in their final four years of I-AA competition.
By 1999, as they prepared for a move to the top flight, Middle Tennessee was also forced to say goodbye to their veteran coach. Donnelly, the former defensive back who had spent two decades at his alma mater leading the program, decided to hand off the program to another coach as the program transitioned to I-A football. The Blue Raiders would enter a new era with a new figurehead, as the school hired Baylor assistant Andy McCollum for a return to the town where he had been an assistant throughout the 1980s.
The First Season
McCollum and the Blue Raiders were in for a rough start to their I-A existence. The 1999 season began with a trip to Starkville to face Mississippi State. Middle Tennesse would have the misfortune of catching the Bulldogs at the start of what is still their last ten-win season to date, and the SEC stalwart bludgeoned the Blue Raiders 40-7 in their eye-opening welcome to the top division.
Heading further west the following weekend, Middle Tennesse was able to score more points, but the end result was still a 34-19 loss to the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson. Returning home on September 18, the Blue Raiders finally won a game, 52-42, against I-AA Wofford. But the momentum would not last, as they ended September with a trip to Lafayette and lost to a Ragin’ Cajuns team that would only grab one more victory through the entire season.
Things got even worse to start October, as a home game against I-AA Troy dealt the Blue Raiders yet another defeat. Stymied by their former I-AA foes, Middle Tennessee fell to 1-4 on the season with an embarrassing 45-31 defeat in Murfreesboro. It was a cruel way to start an overmatched October, as MTSU promptly lost 58-6 at Arkansas, 42-18 at Louisiana Tech and 10-0 to Northeast Louisiana in Monroe.
The losing streak ended on November 6, as the Blue Raiders found a I-AA opponent they could actually beat up. Welcoming Tennessee-Martin to Floyd Stadium, Middle Tennessee smacked around their lesser competition 70-14 to move to 2-7 on the season. Central Florida, though languishing at 3-6 at the time, would not capitulate nearly as easily, and the Knights dealt Middle Tennessee’s eighth loss of the season 39-14.
A final home game at least gave fans of the Blue Raiders a winning memory to hold onto through the offseason. Against another directional state school, Middle Tennessee knocked off I-AA East Tennessee State 24-7 to finish a 3-8 campaign. Though MTSU had failed to get their first win against a fellow I-A team, there was a modicum of positives in their results that offered hope for the seasons to come.
How Have They Fared Since?
2000 opened with back-to-back defeats at Illinois and at Florida, but the Blue Raiders would rally for the team’s first winning season at the I-A level. Entering the month of October 1-3, Middle Tennessee won two straight and then capped the campaign with a three-game winning streak in their final three contests.
They would move to the Sun Belt in 2001, ending a two-year period of independence by beating up on their new league rivals en route to an 8-3 record. Only a loss to North Texas on October 13 prevented the Blue Raiders from claiming the conference crown in their first year as a member, their other two losses coming on the road against the SEC’s Ole Miss and LSU.
But the inaugural Sun Belt season proved a case of beginner’s luck, as McCollum’s teams soon found themselves mired in mediocrity. A pair of 4-8 seasons in 2002 and 2003 were followed by 5-6 and 4-7 records, the Blue Raiders unable to regain their winning form. After 2005, the school dismissed the only I-A coach they had known. Replacing McCollum was South Carolina receivers coach Rick Stockstill, moving west across the Appalachians to Middle Tennessee and the first head coaching job of his burgeoning career.
Stockstill would go 7-5 in his first regular season as MTSU’s head coach, claiming a share of the Sun Belt title and earning the team’s first bowl berth since its earlier incarnation in the division-neutral NCAA of the early 1960s. Invited to the Motor City Bowl, the Blue Raiders were outgunned by rookie quarterback Dan LeFevour and the Chippewas as Central Michgan won 31-14 in Detroit.
Following this breakthrough, Stockstill’s teams slumped to 5-7 in both 2007 and 2008 before a breakthrough ten-win season catapulted them to national prominence in 2009. After losses to Clemson, Troy and Mississippi State had left the Blue Raiders just 3-3 midway through October, Middle Tennessee responded with a six-game winning streak to complete the regular season. The loss to the Trojans would relegate the Blue Raiders to second in the Sun Belt standings, but a nine-win regular season earned Stockstill’s squad a trip to the Mississippi delta to face Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl. On the shoulder and legs of do-it-all quarterback Dwight Dasher, the Blue Raiders prevailed 42-32 for the school’s first bowl victory in the modern era.
Regressing to 6-6 in 2010, the Blue Raiders fell below .500 when they lost to the Miami RedHawks in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Alabama at the end of the season. 2011 would continue the pains of what had turned quickly into a massive rebuilding project, as Middle Tennessee slipped to 2-10 with wins over only 2-10 Memphis and 1-11 Florida Atlantic.
2012 marked a return to respectability (if not the postseason), as Middle Tennessee returned to winning ways with an 8-4 campaign. In position to win the team’s first Sun Belt championship since their inaugural season a dozen years before, the Blue Raiders instead went to Arkansas State and promptly found themselves shut out in the 45-0 whitewash. Instead of earning one last league crown in their final year as a Sun Belt member, the Blue Raiders were relegated to a tie for second behind the Red Wolves. As the two Louisiana schools tied with them in the standings nabbed up the league’s last affiliated bids, Middle Tennessee failed to earn a postseason appearance for their troubles. Moving forward into the future and putting the Sun Belt in their rearview mirror, Middle Tennessee moves on in 2013 to Conference USA hoping that Stockstill and crew can improve upon their 12 mostly-competitive years in their former league.