MURFREESBORO — Rick Stockstill can’t downplay this as just another game.
But the Middle Tennessee State coach doesn’t see Saturday’s regular-season finale at Arkansas State as a potential defining moment for the football program.
The teams enter with identical 8-3 overall records and 6-1 marks in Sun Belt Conference play. The winner captures the league title.
Though MTSU shared the Sun Belt title twice (2001 and 2006), the Blue Raiders last won an outright championship in 1992 when Boots Donnelly guided them to an Ohio Valley Conference crown.
“That’s important, obviously,” Stockstill said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “But winning this game or winning this outright championship, to me, is not going to validate anything. We want to win this game because we want to win the championship. We’ll let the people on the outside say, ‘Hey, that’s the first one outright’ and all that stuff. But, for me, I want to win this game and I want to win this conference championship for these players.”
The Blue Raiders ride a four-game winning streak and three weeks ago locked up bowl eligibility for the fourth time in school history. A win over the Red Wolves could earn them a spot in the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve in Memphis.
MTSU last beat Arkansas State in 2009, the same year the Blue Raiders won 10 games, including the New Orleans Bowl.
That season was without a conference title as a loss to Troy landed them in second place. It also, however, featured seven straight wins and an upset of former ACC power Maryland, which is considered one of the best triumphs in school history.
“If you close the door today — the season is over today — I’ll look at every one of those players in the eye and tell them it was a great year,” Stockstill said. “But it is not over yet. We still have two games left. I said it a month ago, we’ve got a lot of meat on that bone. We’re going to try to get a big chunk of it this weekend. We’ll look back and reflect on this year when it’s done but I’m extremely proud of this team.”
Playing for a conference championship looked like a pipe dream after a season-opening loss to Football Championship Subdivision foe McNeese State. Compound that with last year’s 2-10 season and the Blue Raiders seemed to be headed on an unlikely downward spiral after reaching bowls in 2009 and 2010.
MTSU, however, stuck to its team mantra of “ignore the noise” and won three straight games. The exclamation point was a 49-28 whipping of Georgia Tech. Backed by a stingy defense and a plethora of younger players stepping up for an injury bitten team, the Blue Raiders have won six straight conference games after losing to Louisiana-Monroe — one of five bowl-eligible teams in the Sun Belt.
Even so, MTSU enters as a 10-point underdog to Arkansas State, the defending conference champ. Driven by the league’s top scoring offense (35.6 points per game), the Red Wolves have won six straight in former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s first year as coach.
But that doesn’t scare the Blue Raiders, who have won five road games and put together one of the biggest one-year turnarounds in the country.
“Match up with what people have said every week and match up with what has happened and that speaks for itself,” quarterback Logan Kilgore said. “We were an underdog coming into the season, you see what happened there. We were an underdog, 21 points to Georgia Tech, you saw what happened there. Ten points to Western [Kentucky], saw what happened.
"Tune in on Saturday and we’ll see what happens.”
• Allen update: Junior linebacker Craig Allen was released from Vanderbilt University Medical Center on Monday night.
Stockstill said Allen’s “spirits were great” after he underwent surgery on Sunday to remove a herniated disc. Allen suffered the injury in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game against Troy. After making a tackle he remained motionless and had to be taken off the field by an ambulance. Later that night he regained movement and feeling in his extremities. He is expected to make a full recovery.
“He said he is going to play this week and I told him we’ll just slow down a little bit on that one,” Stockstill said with a smile. “But his spirits are great. Myself, his teammates, everybody, we’re just so thankful he’s going to have a full recovery. He’s doing good.”
Stockstill did not expect Allen to make the six-hour bus ride to Jonesboro, Ark., just days after major surgery. Defensive end Omar McLendon, who played against Allen in high school in Georgia, was one of several teammates who visited Allen in the hospital.
“He’s still pretty banged up but he’s still the same guy,” McLendon said. “I feel like if it was any lesser of a man, they wouldn’t have made it through. Craig is Craig. I come in there and he is already talking junk and talking about how they had all these tubes in him and he was trying to tell them to take them out. I was just happy to see him with a smile on his face, still the same guy.”