Pre-Snap Read: Middle Tennessee

Previewing Saturday’s season-opener between Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee (6:30 p.m. CT on SEC Network Alternate):
History Lesson: Vanderbilt holds a 15-3 lead in the midstate series, and it faces Middle Tennessee on Saturday for the fourth consecutive season. The Dores have won three straight against the Blue Raiders, including last season’s 28-6 victory in Murfreesboro.
Names to Watch (Middle Tennessee)
QB Brent Stockstill
The redshirt senior owns virtually every career passing record in Blue Raider history and enters 2018 with 8,951 passing yards to his name. Stockstill is the NCAA’s active leader in career passing yards per game (288.7) and ranks second in career touchdown passes (77).
WR Ty Lee
The junior returns at Middle Tennessee’s leader in catches (79), receiving yards (955) and receiving touchdowns (five). Lee is a consistent target for Stockstill: last season, Lee hauled in 6.1 catches per game, which ranked 19th nationally in FBS.
LB Khalil Brooks
The Blue Raiders improved from 96th in total defense in 2016 to 35th in the same category in 2017 under new coordinator Scott Shafer, and Brooks was a big piece to that puzzle. The Preseason All-Conference USA honoree amassed 17.0 tackles for loss – 21st nationally – and chipped in seven sacks last fall.
The Statistical
Vanderbilt’s net rushing yards against Middle Tennessee in 2017. The Commodores won in Murfreesboro last season despite a lackluster performance on the ground; they managed just 71 yards on 35 carries, with then-senior Ralph Webb pitching in 49 yards on 24 attempts. Vanderbilt could use more from Khari Blasingame, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and its other returning backs on Saturday.
Middle Tennessee’s rank among FBS teams in tackles for loss in 2017. Under Shafer, the Blue Raiders’ defense amassed 96 tackles for loss on the season, led by Brooks’ 17. In all, 20 MTSU players recorded at least one tackle for loss last fall, a note surely not lost on Vanderbilt offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
Touchdown passes thrown by Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur in 2017, a new program record. Shurmur’s total surpassed Whit Taylor’s previous mark of 22 touchdown tosses set in 1982. Moreover, Shurmur’s 2,823 passing yards in 2017 were third-highest single-season total in Vanderbilt history. The then-junior threw for 296 yards and three touchdown passes in last season’s win over Middle Tennessee.
The Big Question: Can the Commodores pressure Stockstill? Vanderbilt largely neutralized Middle Tennessee’s quarterback last season in Murfreesboro, when Stockstill managed just 166 passing yards and an interception on 31 attempts. More importantly, the Dores kept Stockstill out of the end zone in a 28-6 Vanderbilt win. Once again, VU’s defense must hone in on MTSU’s primary weapon under center.
Vanderbilt Needs To: Force turnovers. Last season, Vanderbilt ranked 97th nationally in turnover margin (-0.42). The Dores committed 14 turnovers against just nine takeaways. Under new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, Vanderbilt’s offseason has been defined by a new focus on ball-hawking. Expect the Commodores to fly to the ball against Middle Tennessee and keep Stockstill, in particular, out of rhythm.  
Did You Know? Vanderbilt is 30-5 all-time against current members of Conference USA.
He Said It: “Teams aren’t made this time of year. Teams are made in the summer. I thought we had a good summer. Now this team has to get ready to play football.” –head coach Derek Mason
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.