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Middle Tennessee State was Woody Widenhofer’s Waterloo. Could it be the same for Derek Mason?

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The Commodores open the season against the Blue Raiders, who are on the schedule for the fourth year in a row.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Arkansas State vs Middle Tennessee Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

We’re starting a summer series of breakdowns of Vanderbilt’s 2018 opponents. The Commodores open the season on September 1 at 6:30 PM CT against the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders, who are up first.

Opponent: Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders. Or “Middle Tennessee,” as they occasionally insist on being called.

Date and Time: September 1, 6:30 PM CT at Vanderbilt Stadium

All-time series record: Vanderbilt leads, 15-3. The Commodores won the first 12 games in the series from 1915-56, then lost three in a row from 2001-05. Vanderbilt has beaten MTSU three years in a row.

Last meeting: Vanderbilt won, 28-6, in Murfreesboro on September 2, 2017.

Last year’s record: 7-6, 68th in S&P+

Head coach: Rick Stockstill (79-73 in 12 seasons)

Returning starters: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)

Bill Connelly’s Middle Tennessee State preview

Middle Tennessee State is the first opponent of the season for the second year in a row, the final game of a four-game series between the Blue Raiders and the Commodores signed a few years ago. Vanderbilt has already won the two matchups in Murfreesboro — 17-13 in 2015, 28-6 last year — and also won the first matchup in Nashville in 2016 by a 47-24 score. In the last two years, Vanderbilt fans have been much more concerned about the team’s ability to beat the Blue Raiders than the final scores justified. The final score in 2016 was a bit misleading, with Vanderbilt actually getting outgained by 151 yards but Middle Tennessee shooting itself in the foot, repeatedly, with penalties and turnovers. But 2017 was a straight domination, with Vanderbilt holding Middle Tennessee to 230 yards of total offense (64 on the ground) and keeping the Blue Raiders out of the end zone for the first 48 minutes of the game.

So... why should we be concerned heading into this year’s matchup?

Well, the defense that dominated Middle Tennessee last year largely wasn’t seen the rest of the season: Vanderbilt infamously allowed 43 ppg in SEC play (while managing to hold four nonconference opponents to a total of 30 points, but whatever.) And now that defense has a new coordinator and has to replace seven starters.

The retooled defense will get an early test from a high-powered Middle Tennessee offense that returns eight starters from 2017, including quarterback Brent Stockstill (son of the coach), who’s back for what feels like his eighth year in Murfreesboro. While the Blue Raiders averaged 25.5 ppg in 2017, that’s dragged down by a six-game midseason stretch when since-graduated backup quarterback John Urzua was starting in place of the injured Stockstill. With Stockstill at the controls, the offense averaged 30.7 ppg and beat Syracuse a week after the disappointing performance against Vanderbilt.

Also returning are the Blue Raiders’ top three receivers from 2017, including Ty Lee, a 5’9”, 175-pound speedster who caught 79 passes for 955 yards and five touchdowns. That list doesn’t include star Richie James, who left for the NFL but missed much of 2017 with injuries (though he did catch the Blue Raiders’ lone score in the Vanderbilt game.) The Raiders also bring back linebacker-turned-runningback Tavares Thomas, who ran for 507 yards and 9 touchdowns after taking over the starting job midway through the season, and three starting offensive linemen.

Of course, this offense got overwhelmed by Derek Mason’s defense in 2017 — in part because Thomas was still a linebacker when that game was played, leaving the Blue Raiders without much of a run game in that matchup (non-quarterbacks attempted 16 rushes for 74 yards in last year’s game.) How Vanderbilt’s defense will deal with the more punishing running style of Thomas is an open question, though, and the Blue Raiders’ passing attack could open up more this time around as a result. In any case, Vanderbilt will have a chance to show that the defense has been fixed in the offseason in this early game.

While MTSU returns eight starters on the defensive side of the ball, that unit was decidedly not a strength of the 2017 team. MTSU was capable of shutting down bad offenses — holding Bowling Green to 13 points and UTEP to 3 points — but decent-to-good offenses tended to shred them. And two of the three starters that the Blue Raiders have to replace are the team’s two starting cornerbacks. In other words, Kyle Shurmur gets to open the season facing a defense that will be breaking in two new cornerbacks.

In other words, Vanderbilt’s offense can score points against MTSU. The open question is whether the retooled defense is able to slow down MTSU’s high-powered offense. If the answer to that question is “yes,” this actually could be a blowout. But if the problems that plagued the defense in 2017 rear their ugly head, this is going to be a shootout, and Vanderbilt could lose. The S&P+ predictions have Vanderbilt favored by 4.4 points and give the Commodores a 60 percent chance of winning; early offshore lines have the Commodores as a six-point favorite. The former feels a bit more realistic than the latter (Bill C.’s ratings oddly have Middle Tennessee projected to drop 15 spots in spite of returning 16 starters, including the starting quarterback), and this is a game that Vanderbilt could easily lose.

This should be an early barometer game for the season. If this is a loss, it either means that the defense hasn’t actually been fixed or that the offense isn’t capable of keeping up in shootouts — either of which is probably a death knell for Derek Mason’s tenure, much like a season-opening loss to MTSU was a death knell for Woody Widenhofer in 2001. A shootout win likely portends more shootouts, which at least means this will be a fun 4-8 team instead of an unwatchable team. A blowout win and we can, at least for a couple of weeks, throw out a lot of the negative vibes that we’ve had about this program since the 2017 season ended.