The first full day of college football bowl season wraps up with a fun little game in Montgomery, Alabama. The Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders take on the Arkansas State Red Wolves in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. Most fans won’t be at the edges of their seats for this one, but what makes the bowl season great are games like this that have the chance to be pleasant surprises. Arkansas State is favored by 3.5 at 5Dimes Sportsbook for a game that seems to have both progams excited.
Coaches are buying tickets for the students to attend the game and this is what college athletics should be all about. Aside from those guys that will go to the next level, it is about the experience. What enhances the experience is getting the fan base there to support you. Middle Tennessee’s last two bowl games have been in the Bahamas and Hawaii, which certainly isn’t a bad gig for the players, but it isn’t great for the students of the smallish school in Murfreesboro, who have a four-hour trek down I-65. In response, Arkansas State’s AD and its head coach, Blake Anderson, have been buying up tickets so that the students from Jonesboro can save a little scratch for the six-hour road trip. Kudos to both programs and both coaches.
Middle Tennessee State rolled Old Dominion in the regular season finale to pick up a sixth win and head for a bowl game. These two teams used to play annually in the Sun Belt, but have not played in quite some time. The Blue Raiders went 6-6 straight up and 5-7 against the spread, but a large portion of the season was played without star quarterback Brent Stockstill. MTSU was 9-3 to the under, which we’ll address further in a bit. Arkansas State went 7-4 this season, with a cancelled loss against Miami wiped from the slate. This is the seventh straight appearance in a bowl game for the Red Wolves. Arkansas State was 6-5 ATS this year.
To say that Brent Stockstill makes a huge difference is an understatement. For the second straight season, backup John Urzua failed to hold up his end of the bargain with the starter out. Urzua has 16 touchdowns against 17 picks over the last two years. Stockstill wasn’t great, with a 58.3 percent completion percentage, but his 14/5 TD/INT ratio certainly stood out. Star wide receiver Richie James, who will see NFL work at some point, was also limited this season, as he had just 21 catches. Taking away offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s top two weapons was rough, but the Blue Raiders persevered with 4.3 yards per carry and still managed 5.7 yards per play. That was 1.2 yards per play down from last season, but the Blue Raiders lost a 1,500-yard back in I’Tavius Mathers and missed James most of the year after he had 105 catches for 1,625 yards last season. James will not play in the bowl game, but Stockstill is back and the top three rushers for the Blue Raiders all had at least five yards per carry.
With the huge drop in offensive production, the sole reason that the Blue Raiders are bowling is because of the defense. Rick Stockstill, yes, the QB’s father, made a terrific hire with Scott Shafer, the former Syracuse head coach. Shafer inherited a defense that allowed 35.8 points per game and 4.5 yards per carry last season. The turnovers by Urzua didn’t help and the defense went into a shell with Stockstill out that allowed the opposition to hang huge numbers late in the season. Under Shafer’s watch, even with Stockstill down and out for the majority of the year, this defense only allowed five yards per play and just 3.5 yards per carry. MTSU held the opposition to 24.2 points per game. The defense gave up a good number of completions, but limited the big plays that hurt so much last season. The coordinators, Shafer, specifically, should be a big advantage for Middle Tennessee State during the prep period for this game.
On the other hand, stability has been kind to Arkansas State. The Red Wolves have had head coach Blake Anderson for four seasons now, after they had three one-and-done coaches in Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, and Bryan Harsin from 2011-13. Ironically, Arkansas State’s offensive coordinator is former Middle Tennessee State OC Buster Faulkner, so that could be an edge for the Red Wolves. Arkansas State ran a ton of plays this season. The Red Wolves managed 80 plays per game and wound up just shy of 500 yards per game with an average of 6.2 yards per play. Junior quarterback Justice Hansen, originally recruited to Oklahoma, had a 34/15 TD/INT ratio with a 63.7 percent completion percentage on 430 attempts. Warren Wand battled injuries, but wound up with 5.4 yards per carry. Hansen can move a little, with 116 carries for 388 yards, which was a big help for an Arkansas State offense that needs to be creative. Without any elite skill position talent, seven different receivers had at least 20 catches and that made the Red Wolves tough to defend. This game will test Middle Tennessee State’s pass defense in a big way.
The Arkansas State defense is solid, but unspectacular. There are a lot of inefficient offenses in the Sun Belt Conference and Arkansas State hit all of them. The Red Wolves never played Appalachian State and lost at home to Troy in the season finale. Arkansas State also didn’t get to see Idaho’s Matt Linehan. The Red Wolves held opposing quarterbacks to a 51.1 percent completion percentage, but allowed an average of more than 14 yards per catch. The Red Wolves held the opposition to 3.6 yards per carry, but their collective opponents only had 3.9 yards per carry overall. Middle Tennessee State’s running game is among the better ones that the Red Wolves will see this season.
College Football Free Pick: Middle Tennessee State +3.5
That hook is pretty important here in a game that looks like it could be a pretty balanced affair. With Stockstill back, the Blue Raiders scored 38 points per game over their last three games and had 30 in his first game back against a lowly UTEP team. He really does make all the difference for this team. Middle Tennessee State hasn’t won a bowl game since 2009, so there may be a bit of a motivation edge on their side as well. The Blue Raiders look like the pick in this one.