In 2017, Middle Tennessee actually had one of the better defenses in Conference USA. The Blue Raiders allowed an average of 24.7 ppg and was able to carry the team through a rough stretch for the offense.
Here’s what that defense did against three Power 5 teams on the schedule: 28 points in a loss to Vanderbilt (and that was with the Commodores laying off the gas for much of the second half), 23 points in a win over Syracuse, and 34 points in a loss to Minnesota. Middle’s defense was good at preventing explosive plays, but both Vanderbilt and Minnesota were able to find repeated success (Vanderbilt in the passing game, Minnesota running the ball.)
Under Rick Stockstill, Middle has turned into a classic G5 program that reliably finishes near the top of its conference every year, but isn’t really much of a threat to beat Power 5 teams, and especially good ones — ensuring that the checks for visiting Power 5 teams keep coming. In 12 years under Rick Stockstill, Middle is 5-26 against Power 5 teams and 74-46 against everyone else. Granted, two of those five wins have come in the last two years, as the Blue Raiders beat Missouri in 2016 and Syracuse last year — but neither of those teams were all that good.
Of course, Vanderbilt might not be that good.
All four projected starting defensive linemen for MTSU have at least some starting experience entering the season. Senior defensive end Jahmal Jones has made 15 career starts, and had 5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks last season. Junior tackle Malik Manciel (11 career starts, 5 tackles for loss, and a sack) is another solid player. Tackle Rosheem Collins (5 career starts, 2.5 tackles for loss) and end Tyshun Render (4 career starts, 1 tackle for loss, 0.5 sacks) are a bit more questionable.
The real issue for MTSU here: size. While Collins is listed at 6’1” and 316 pounds, Jones (6’3”/257), Manciel (6’3”/254), and especially Render (6’4”/238) are all undersized by the standards of the Southeastern Conference. Going against Vanderbilt’s experienced offensive line, this group might not hold up.
The second level of the defense is much the same story as the first level: solid players for the Conference USA level who look tiny compared to SEC players at the same position. That’s a little unfair; middle linebacker Darius Harris (6’2”/238) is at least an SEC-sized linebacker and has 18 career starts to boot. On the other hand, weakside linebacker Khalil Brooks fits the mold very well: a monster against C-USA teams (61.5 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks), Brooks nonetheless is pretty undersized for a linebacker at 5’11” and 200 pounds.
At the third linebacker spot, Chris Melton has 12 career starts but is nonetheless listed behind sophomore DQ “Dairy Queen” Thomas, who has made one career start and was a minor contributor last year.
The philosophy here seems to be to prevent big plays at all costs, sacrificing turnovers in the process. It’s also an experienced unit: strong safety Jovante Moffatt (25 career starts) and cornerback Darryl Randolph (17 career starts) have been doing this quite a while, and free safety Reed Blankenship started 12 games as a true freshman last year.
The cornerback spot opposite Randolph is a question mark. O.J. Johnson is a senior, but has only made one career start, and he’ll get an immediate test against Vanderbilt’s passing game.