With the Sun Belt Conference road opener on the horizon for Middle Tennessee, this week's Dime Package takes a look at the continued rise of the Sun Belt, the great debut of a Blue Raider freshman, and much more.
THE TIMES HAVE CHANGED-Back in the early years of this decade and the early years of the Sun Belt Conference, it would have been unfathomable for a team with Middle Tennessee's non-conference credentials (decisive win over Maryland and the narrowest of narrow losses at Kentucky) to be an underdog on the road against a fellow league member, especially one that was not picked to be a major contender for the conference championship. That's exactly the situation we have though as the Blue Raiders prepare to travel to Arkansas State. The Red Wolves have opened as five point favorites on the strength of their non-conference win at Texas A&M, an 83 point explosion against Texas Southern, and a three point loss to Southern Mississippi last week. This is the kind of matchup beyond the two preseason league favorites (Florida Atlantic and Troy) that highlights the much improved depth of the Sun Belt.
THE UNSUNG HERO-It would have been very appropriate if Eldred King could have made it one more yard for the game winning touchdown at Kentucky Saturday night. Then he might have gotten a bigger share of the spotlight that he certainly deserves. While much of the attention has been placed on freshman Malcolm Beyah's breakout arrival on the scene, King has quietly put up a very solid start to his Blue Raider career as well. The junior college transfer leads the team in receptions with 12 and has shown some of the best hands on the roster. He's overlooked because he hasn't been the big play threat that others have been, but he's been steady and has been a key factor in sustaining drives. His production has also been on a continuing increase. King caught two passes against Troy, four against Maryland, and six against Kentucky including the final play.
AN UNPARALLELED START-King may be the unsung hero, but Beyah is certainly deserving of all the attention he has received as well. The true freshman from Chamblee (Ga.) has gotten his college career off to a dynamite start. Statistically, it's easy to argue that he has gotten off to the best three game start of any MT true freshman since the program joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2001. In his first three games, Beyah has 11 receptions for 255 yards and three touchdowns. Unless we've overlooked somebody, the only true freshman since 2001 that would be close to comparable would be Eugene Gross. Gross began his college career in 2003 with 132 rushing yards on 32 carries in his first three games against Florida Atlantic, Georgia, and Clemson. He scored two touchdowns and also had 20 receiving yards. Those numbers pale in comparison to Beyah's debut though, who is threatening to take the league by storm. At his current pace, Beyah would catch 44 passes for 1,020 yards and 12 touchdowns. There are still a lot of games remaining and nothing is guaranteed, but it's hard to say anything other than 'Wow' in regards to Beyah's arrival.
DOUBLE TROUBLE IN JONESBORO- Arkansas State's quarterack/running back combination of Corey Leonard and Reggie Arnold is certainly one of the most dangerous one-two punches in the conference. The duo is off to a great start in 2008. Arnold has 352 rushing yards and three touchdowns, while Leonard has thrown for nearly 650 yards and seven touchdowns. Leonard is also a threat on the ground. He has tallied nearly 200 yards rushing in the first three games, including an 86 yard rushing effort in Arkansas State's win over Texas A&M. It's their combined production that makes Arkansas State a legitimate threat in the Sun Belt.
DOMINATION THAT IS HARD TO EXPLAIN-Middle Tennessee has completely owned the series with Arkansas State since the two programs joined the Sun Belt in 2001. The Blue Raiders have won all but one meeting since then and each of their victories have been by wide margins. How do you explain it? You can't really. It's not like Arkansas State has been a perpetually bad team. In fact, ASU has been .500 or better in Sun Belt play three times in the league's seven year history and has never fared worse than its 2-4 league mark in 2001. But even in the program's best year, its 5-2 league mark in 2005 that resulted in a New Orleans Bowl berth, Middle Tennessee dismantled Arkansas State 45-7 in Murfreesboro.
ONE OF THE DEANS-Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts is now one of the deans of Sun Belt coaching. Roberts is in his seventh season with the program and is tied with Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Rickey Bustle in conference head coaching experience. Troy head coach Larry Blakeney and Florida Atlantic head coach Howard Schnellenberger are the only league coaches to have been at their schools longer, but Troy didn't enter the Sun Belt until 2004 and FAU didn't come on board until 2005. None of the Sun Belt's original seven head coaches from 2001 are still in the league.
SCORING FROM EVERYWHERE-Middle Tennessee has scored seven touchdowns so far this season and four of them have been on plays of 20 yards or more. The Blue Raiders have shown they are a threat to score from anywhere on the field thanks to precision passing from Joe Craddock and a bevy of threats on the outside. As the schedule shifts to softer defenses, the offense may find an even higher gear, particularly in the running game, where the talents of Phillip Tanner and Desmond Gee have yet to be on true display against three stout run defenses.
MT SUCCESSFUL IN SUN BELT ROAD OPENERS-Entering Saturday's game at Arkansas State, the Blue Raiders hope to improve on their 4-3 mark in Sun Belt road openers. In league road openers, MT has beaten Louisiana-Monroe (2001), Idaho (2003), Florida Atlantic (2005), and North Texas (2006). The Blue Raiders have fallen short in league road openers against Arkansas State (2002), Louisiana-Lafayette (2004), and Florida Atlantic (2007). In their four wins, MT has outscored its opponent by an average of more than 20 points per game.
MORE TOOTH IN THE D-Middle Tennessee's two efforts against Maryland and Kentucky signaled a major shift in the program's defensive efforts against major conference opponents. The Blue Raiders yielded just 17 points per game in the two contests against the Wildcats and Terrapins. Not counting games against Vanderbilt, MT allowed an average of 39 points per game to major conference opponents from 2001-2007 and never gave up less than 23 (2007 vs. Virginia). The Blue Raiders allowed 40 points or more in such games 10 times and gave up 50 or more four times. The current talent on the defensive side of the ball is quite arguably the best the program has ever had.
SETTING THE TABLE-With the national spotlight coming to Floyd Stadium on September 30th when the Blue Raiders host Florida Atlantic for an ESPN2 game, it's imperative that Middle Tennessee posts a road win over Arkansas State to keep momentum building. While the team and the program has proven that it deserves sellout crowds, a win over the Red Wolves will help to solidify the momentum the team has built with many casual fans in the area that appreciate what the Blue Raiders have done in the last two weeks. A road win will keep MT in the conference championship race and add further evidence that this young team is maturing more quickly than even the most optimistic fans had expected in preseason.