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Better Know a Conference-USA Opponent: The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

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Ralph Webb loves these guys.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The School: Middle Tennessee State University

Record: 0-0 (0-0 in Conference USA). MTSU was 8-5 in 2016. That year, they hung 51 points on Missouri, but lost to Vanderbilt by 23 points. Months later, Vandy lost to 4-8 Mizzou to create an ouroboros of shame for all parties involved.

Ranking: Unranked in the AP Top 25 and Coaches' Poll. The formulas have Middle Tennessee rated 71st in the Real Time RPI (Vanderbilt is 62nd). Idaho is currently ranked 49th, so I’m not sure why I’m putting any stock in these rankings.

Mascot: The Blue Raider. Like the floundering NFL franchise, only sad! I don’t know what the regional Tennessee equivalent to Mark Davis is, but I’m sure he’d threaten to move the university to Pahrump if possible.

Location: Murfreesboro, TN. The Reno to Nashville’s NashVegas (Christ, what an awful nickname)? That can’t be right. Which Nevada city was founded by traveling salesmen and exhausted carnival folk?

Coach: Rick Stockstill, Stockstill is the Papa Murphy’s pizza of coaches. He’s never really good (one 10-win season in 11 years at MTSU) and never really bad (one 10-loss season). He’s always just sort of there — relatively inexpensive and fulfilling enough to get you through a night of lowered expectations.

Conference: Conference USA. Conference-USA used to be the home of teams like TCU, Louisville, and Houston. Now it’s got Floridas Atlantic and International. YOU ARE TO BLAME FOR THE IMPENDING KIFFIN RENAISSANCE.

All-time vs. Vanderbilt: 3-14

In the Last 20 Years vs. Vanderbilt: 3-2! Never forget; MTSU cheated in 2005.

The Last Time We Saw These Guys: Ralph Webb, fresh off an opening night loss to South Carolina where his coaching staff couldn’t figure out which quarterback to use, decided to do everything himself. The All-SEC tailback ran for 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns to remind everyone he’s the best running back in the state of Tennessee.

Kyle Shurmur got the start AND the opportunity to play the entire game but underwhelmed, throwing for just 113 yards and a sub-Osweiler 4.0 yards per attempt.

Is Vandy Favored?: YES. By as many as 3.5 points! For reference, Vandy was a 4.5-point favorite in 2016 and ground the Blue Raiders into dust. Expect a slightly less cathartic win this year.

Most Potent Offensive Threat: Brent Stockstill. The coach’s son lit up the Vandy secondary in 2016, throwing for 399 yards and three touchdowns. He’s tossed 61 passing touchdowns the past two seasons. Over the same span, Commodore quarterbacks have combined for 20.

Good lord.

Most Potent Defensive Threat: Chris Melton is an efficient weakside linebacker who will be tasked with blocking Webb’s path once he bursts through the trenches. He didn’t do such a good job last year — only three assisted stops as Vandy ran wild — but will be playing with a chip on his shoulder. Fellow linebacker Darius Harris had a monster game against the ‘Dores last fall (12 tackles, 1.5 for loss), but he’s fallen down the depth chart and might not play much Saturday.

Matchup to Watch: Kyle Shurmur vs. his own potential. Shurmur’s 2016 numbers don’t look great, but his late-season surge was the reason Vanderbilt snuck into a bowl game at 6-6. He averaged more than 314 passing yards per game in the final three contests of the regular season to make a borderline unwatchable offense fun again, but fell apart in Vandy’s bowl loss to NC State (three interceptions, 3.4 yards per pass attempt).

If the Commodores are going anywhere in 2017, they need Shurmur to be the player who torched Tennessee for 416 yards, not the guy who completed 36 percent of his passes against Florida. We’ll get a better idea of whether he’s made the leap from prospect to player on Saturday.

Interesting Fact: The No. 4 “fun fact” on an actually-published list of them about Murfreesboro is that you can “make your pie, your way.” Tired of those fascist pizza shops in your hometown that force you to eat melted Velveeta over a loaf of pumpernickel? NO MORE! In Murfreesboro, we support freedom of choice for our pizzas! You can have:

  1. pepperoni
  2. black olives
  3. end of list

Bonus Fact!: MTSU’s original mascot was based on Nathan Bedford Forrest, alleged first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. I know I brought this up last year, but I feel like it’s something that shouldn’t be ignored.

MTSU fan: Vandy sucks!
Relevant reply: Your mascot is a 200-year-old racist.
MTSU fan: You’re gonna lose 10 games this year!
Relevant reply: Like, racist-even-for-the-time racist. That’s so racist. Next-level racist.
MTSU fan: We changed that mascot years ago!
Relevant reply: (tilted head, furrowed brow, the sound of air being sucked over teeth)

If Middle Tennessee State wins, we: whittle down our expectations for an SEC East title. Listen, it’s a long shot, but an experienced defense, an All-SEC tailback, and a rising quarterback mean Vanderbilt can make some waves as the East continues to slog through a down period. The Commodores have all the pieces Derek Mason wanted in place to kick off his fourth year as head coach. Now it’s time to move.

Losing to Middle Tennessee — a good team, but not a great one — dampers those expectations significantly. The ‘Dores can still make waves after a season-opening loss and rise up to the hope of another postseason bid -- but it’ll be a lot harder.