Since Rick Stockstill arrived at Middle Tennessee State more than seven years ago, season openers have offered daunting challenges.
Only once in six tries has his team started with a win and always it has played either a Sun Belt Conference foe or an opponent from a BCS conference. Not this time.
The Blue Raiders open with McNeese State (La.), which went 5-5 last year in the Football Championship Subdivision, 6 p.m. Thursday in Murfreesboro.
McNeese State offers a reprieve from opening up with an ACC or Big Ten foe and doesn’t carry the same implications as a conference game. Stockstill, however, cautions that on the heels of a dreadful 2-10 season, the Blue Raiders can’t assume any wins.
“We’re not looking at the second game by any stretch,” he said earlier this month. “We haven’t done anything to prove to ourselves or to prove to anybody that we’re good enough to overlook anybody.”
The Blue Raiders ride a six-game losing streak and are eager to put 2011’s woes behind them.
On paper, the schedule provides a chance to get off to a fast start. MTSU won't leave the state until the last weekend in September and for just the third time in the Stockstill era it begins with two straight home games. After McNeese, it plays the only two teams it beat last year — Florida Atlantic in the conference opener on Sept. 8 followed by a road game at Memphis.
If all goes right, the Blue Raiders could be 3-0 heading into a bye week before heading to face Georgia Tech and its powerful triple-option offense. First they must get to 1-0 for the first time since 2006.
“It’s just as important as if we went 12-0 last season,” quarterback Logan Kilgore said. “This is a new year. I know this team is seeking out our identity, and what better way than to start strong.”
Before 2011, the MTSU typically overcame opening disappointments.
The last time it won its first game was 2006 against Florida International, but that was also the beginning of a trend — one that ended last year. In Stockstill’s first five seasons at the helm, MTSU won at least five games after the first week. In 2009, the Blue Raiders won 10 of their next 12 after a disappointing season-opening loss at Clemson.
So MTSU knows that one game — the first game — doesn’t necessarily set the tone for the rest of the season.
Regardless, this year, the Blue Raiders don’t want to take their chances by falling behind early.
“Most opening games are lost, not won,” Stockstill said. “We have to be fundamentally sound to cut down on mistakes that will beat you. We have to have mental intensity. Without that, you can't play as physical, you can’t play as tough or efficiently as you’d like to play. We had a lot of seniors last year that were backed up by freshman, and you knew that the freshmen weren't going to push the seniors. This year, I like our competitive edge, our competition for playing time.”