(Part 9 of a 14-part Conference USA preview series)

Middle Tennessee State returns two of its three main playmakers, but will need to upgrade defensively in order to challenge Western Kentucky for Conference USA Eastern Division supremacy.

In a league that featured the nation's top two scoring offenses (WKU and Louisiana Tech), the Blue Raiders ranked third in C-USA in scoring (39.7 points per game), second in rushing (191.8 yards per game), third in passing (325.8 ypg), second in total yardage (517.7 ypg) and first in red zone offense (45 touchdowns, 10 field goals in 59 possessions).

Still, the Blue Raiders (8-5, 5-3) lost three of five down the stretch. Following a 77-56 conquest of Florida Atlantic in the regular season finale, MTSU dropped a 52-35 Hawai'i Bowl verdict to Hawai'i.

Coach Rick Stockstill enters his 12th season in Murfreesboro with six returning starters, including his son, junior quarterback Brent Stockstill. Despite missing the final three games with a broken collarbone, Brent Stockstill was the conference's second-leading passer with 3,233 yards, 31 touchdowns and only seven picks in 414 attempts. He is also the team's leading returning rusher (45 carries, 240 yards) following the graduation of first-team All-C-USA running back I'Tavius Mathers. Besides setting a school record with 1,561 rushing yards and 17 TDs, Mathers was second on the team in receiving with 66 catches for 633 yards and three more scores.

Senior Shane Tucker, who ran for 413 yards and two TDs while starting four games in 2015, is back with the team after missing the entire 2016 campaign with an injury. Junior Maurice Gordon, a junior college transfer from Navaro (Texas), is also vying for carries.

First-team All-Conference honoree Richie James (105 receptions, 1,625 yards, 12 TDs; 38 carries, 339, 4 TDs), the league's No. 2 receiver, is back for an encore. In just two years, James has climbed to No. 2 on the Blue Raiders' career list in receptions (213) and receiving yardage (2,971).

James is complemented by sophomore Ty Lee (63-699-9), who led the nation in receptions and receiving touchdowns by a freshmen, and senior Patrick Smith (28-332-4).

MTSU will have to retool its offensive line. Right guard Chandler Brewer and right tackle Carlos Johnson, a pair of juniors, return from a group which allowed the fewest sacks in C-USA (14) despite attempting a league-high 491 passes.

Former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer has been placed in charge of a defense which ranked 11th in the conference in scoring (35.8 ppg), seventh in rushing (198.7 ypg), seventh in passing (250.8 ypg) and ninth in total yardage (449.5 ypg).

Eight of the top nine tacklers return.

Junior end Walter Brady, a Missouri transfer, brings some much-needed experience up front. Prior to sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules, Brady logged 40 tackles and seven sacks to gain Freshman All-America honors.

Juniors Chris Melton (102 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) and Darius Harris (74 tackles, 8 TFL, 1.5 sacks) and seniors D.J. Sanders (66 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, 9 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles) and Myles Harges (47 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack) form a seasoned linebacker brigade.

All four starters return in the secondary, which consists of senior cornerback Mike Minter (49 tackles, 2 INTs, 10 PBU), junior corner Darryl Randolph (63 tackles, 2.5 TFL), senior strong safety Alex Dale (61 tackles) and junior free safety Jovante Moffatt (76 tackles).

First-team All-Conference kicker Canon Rooker accounted for 112 points while converting 16-of-19 field goals with a long of 46. Junior Matt Bonadies punted 58 times at a 38.8-yard clip.

Both return specialists are back in juniors Desmond Anderson (16 kickoff returns, 20.5-yard average) and James (17 punt returns, 7.5).

2017 MIDDLE TENNESSEE SCHEDULE

(All Times Central and Subject to Change)

DATE OPPONENT TIME

Sept. 2 Vanderbilt 7 p.m.

Sept. 9 at Syracuse 2:30 p.m.

Sept. 16 at Minnesota 2:30 p.m.

Sept. 23 Bowling Green 6 p.m.

Sept. 30 at Florida Atlantic* 6 p.m.

Oct. 7 FIU* 2 p.m.

Oct. 14 at UAB* 5:30 p.m.

Oct. 20 (Fri.) Marshall* 6 p.m.

Nov. 4 UTEP* 6:30 p.m.

Nov. 11 at Charlotte* 1 p.m.

Nov. 17 (Fri.) at WKU* 7 p.m.

Nov. 25 Old Dominion* 2 p.m.