College football went off mostly without a hitch on Thursday night as there were three FBS teams in action. Double-digit favorite Southern Miss went down against South Alabama and UAB had some issues with Central Arkansas and failed to cover all of the game numbers, including the early ones before the line moved.
That means that the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders would be well-served to make something of a statement for the conference in their game against the Army Black Knights on September 5 with a 1:30 p.m. ET kickoff. Army is -3.5 with a total of 55.5 at BetMGM Sportsbook in the opener for both teams.
MTSU was supposed to play Duke on September 5. Instead they’ll get the Army triple option offense. Fifth-year defensive coordinator Scott Shafer used to see the option pretty regularly against Georgia Tech and the Army one is similar enough that he should be able to have his team prepared for it, but this is a Blue Raiders defense that allowed 4.9 yards per carry last season and has gone in the wrong direction in YPC each of the last two years.
The triple option requires a lot of depth and a lot of gap responsibility. It can really wear a team down, which seems concerning with the quirky workout and practice schedules as a result of COVID-19. MTSU does return five starters on defense, not that it really matters because they’re working on learning a new scheme for this one-week deal.
Offensively, the Blue Raiders return nine starters, including quarterback Asher O’Hara. O’Hara transformed into a legitimate dual-threat quarterback taking over for coach’s kid and all-time leading passer Brent Stockstill. O’Hara accounted for nearly 3,700 yards through the air and on the ground and had a strong 20/8 TD/INT ratio along with nine rushing scores.
The Blue Raiders were thought to be getting some running back health with Power Five transfers Martell Pettaway from West Virginia and Amir Rasul from Florida State, but both players opted out. We’ll see if returning leading rusher Chaton Mobley gets the carries or if the Blue Raiders move down the depth chart to find somebody else.
On the offensive line, the Blue Raiders do return four starters from a unit that allowed only 22 sacks last season, but O’Hara’s legs were a big part of that. The Blue Raiders had over five yards per carry, but, again, that was more about O’Hara than their rushing prowess.
Few teams in college football had as big of a contrast from 2018 to 2019 as Army. The Black Knights went from 11-2 to 5-8. They went from back-to-back double-digit winning seasons to no bowl berth. They also got blown out by Navy in their final game of the season by a 31-7 score.
A lot has changed for Army going into the 2020 season. Quarterback Kelvin Hopkins is gone. Backup quarterback Jabari Laws had 76 rushing attempts last season and 20 passing attempts, so he did get to play, but lost the quarterback competition to Christian Anderson. It will be the senior that had 67 carries and 23 pass attempts last season. Laws was a much more efficient passer, but Anderson gets the first crack, presumably because of his command of the offense.
Army ran for more yards per carry in 2019, but a +10 turnover margin became -1 and Army fell on the wrong side of the close games more often. They were 4-1 in games decided by seven or fewer points in 2018. They were 1-4 in 2019. Isn’t regression fun?
Leading rushers are really not all that important with Army, as they just have a bunch of dudes carrying the rock week in and week out, but the backs struggled by and large. Army was pressed into using a lot of different offensive linemen last season and a lot of guys got to play because of injuries, so replacing three starters isn’t a huge deal.
Nate Woody could be a big upgrade as defensive coordinator. It was clear last season that Army missed Jay Bateman, who took the job at North Carolina. Woody replaces John Loose, who was promoted to assistant head coach. Woody was with Michigan last year, but was the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech and Appalachian State prior to that.
Defensive numbers are very much skewed for Army because they the time of possession, but the fact that they allowed 23 points per game and 4.6 yards per carry last season is concerning when they limited the number of drives for the opposition. They return seven starters on defense, so the experience level will be heightened after only returning four last season.
The side is kind of a crapshoot here, but the over 55.5 is the play for me. We saw a lot of missed tackles in Thursday’s games and we’re likely to see the same here with an option offense on one side and a slippery quarterback on the other. Neither team plays with a lot of tempo, but we could see a lot of big plays in this game.