The 2010 Middle Tennessee season ended in the broadest of manners much the way it began. Off the field distractions aside, what defined the Blue Raiders campaign was turnovers, inept quarterback play, and a defense that never developed an identity. There's not much room to debate Middle Tennessee's appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl was a microcosm of the season wrapped up in a single performance.
Although the play on the field determines the wins and losses, it's the drama that unfolded in the off season that led to what can now only be labeled a disappointing season relative to the expectations.
In our preview of the bowl matchup against Miami we touched on a number of those events that led to such a dramatic off season, and it is those events the season was rooted in.
First, came the million dollar plus per year offers that Memphis and East Carolina threw at head coach Rick Stockstill. By spurning those teams to stay in Murfreesboro, it appeared the continuity of keeping the program in tact was going key a repeat of the 10-win 2009 season. But soon thereafter, one of the up and coming coaching stars, Manny Diaz, took his defensive philosophy and energy to Mississippi State leaving the Blue Raiders in need of a new defensive coordinator for the first time in four years.
That was followed by the departure of offensive coordinator Tony Franklin when he found himself at odds with the Middle Tennessee administration over conducting his off season coaching clinics on campus. That fracture in the relationship resulted in Franklin resigning to team up with an old friend, Sonny Dykes, who took over the Louisiana Tech program.
Despite wanting to retain the playbooks and terminology on both sides of the ball, Stockstill elected to go outside the program rather than promote from within. Even if Stockstill doesn't question that decision in hindsight, what does need questioning is why he hired coordinators that appear to be polar opposites of their predecessors, particularly given the fact Stockstill forced both to retain Franklin and Diaz's playbooks.
The end result of those decisions produced the nation's worst turnover margin. The revelation of Dwight Dasher's improper loan further magnified an already difficult proposition going into the season. Simply put, there was way too much drama in the off season that had far more reaching affects than anyone ever realized when summer predictions were unveiled.
One positive that can be taken away from 2010 is the resiliency the young men in blue displayed to get to a bowl game and that's a life lesson that will serve them well throughout their lives.
And that was echoed by Mr. Blue Raider himself, Phillip Tanner, as the team tried to claw and scratch its way to three straight wins in the final three games to secure a bowl birth.
"Wins and losses do not define a man's life," said Tanner during the three game win streak.
As we look ahead to 2011, the program has a lot of holes to fill. When Stockstill took over the program, it was clear then it would probably be 2011 before he would have fully filtered out all of the problems left by the previous staff. Obviously, last year's 10-win season was an aberration mixed among the three losing seasons in his five years at the helm.
Realistically, 2011 is where many have been looking - not so much to see what Stockstill's imprint will be on the program (because that is already largely understood) - but rather to see if Middle Tennessee will begin to produce championships in the Sun Belt Conference.
Stockstill's recruiting philosophy has been the right one focusing on high school kids with academic personal integrity. However, Middle Tennessee's deficiencies were on display and exposed in the bowl game. The Blue Raiders were significantly smaller than a MAC team that hadn't been to a bowl game in six years, and although the Blue Raiders displayed quicker and faster athletes than Miami, the differential certainly wasn't enough to create any significant advantage. In other words, Miami was much bigger and fast enough. This should concern Middle Tennessee fans.
Known as a strong recruiter, Stockstill has landed and developed only a handful of impact football players and NFL prospects. The Blue Raiders will see a lot of redshirt freshmen and true sophomores on the field next season, and it's then when we'll know if Stockstill is landing impact recruits that can deliver championships. Next month's recruiting class also is going to need to produce a couple of immediate impact players - particularly on defense- if the Blue Raiders are to be in the running for a conference championship.
Stockstill is likely to be successful sticking to his recruiting philosophy, because it's the best way to build a program, but he also needs to land more Division I prospects and not marginal players bettered suited for a lower division. Hopefully, he can find those impact recruits without sacrificing his philosophy.
Stockstill's evaluation of his coordinators should be long and thorough. One or both probably shouldn't be back next season, but with two year contracts it's likely Mike Schultz and Randall McCray will be on the Middle Tennessee sideline next year.
Look for Middle Tennessee to be picked anywhere from third to fifth when the preseason polls begin coming out six or seven months from now. Decreased expectations will be a plus for a program that seems to perform better under the radar, but it will also have a not so pleasant impact on both BRAA and season ticket drives.