It all comes down to this for the MTSU football team.
The Blue Raiders head to Arkansas State on Saturday for the regular season finale and a chance to be crowned Sun Belt Champions with a win. Currently, the team has won five out of its last six contest, but it is been hit with the injury bug.
Several key contributors for the Blue Raider were hurt in last week's thrilling 24-21 win against Troy. Some of those were major including top defensive player junior linebacker Craig Allen, who was taken to Vanderbilt Medical Center with a neck injury. Earlier this week, he had surgery to repair a herniated disk. Also, leading receiver senior Anthony Amos and returner sophomore Reggie Whatley went down with injuries.
MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill said during Tuesday's weekly press conference that Allen went home the day before and is doing fine after surgery. As for Amos and Whatley's situation, he added their status will not be known until later in the week.
It has been an ongoing issue for MTSU with key players going down with season-ending injuries, including senior running back Benny Cunningham, junior cornerback Kenneth Gilstrap, senior wide out Tavarres Jefferson, and several others. However, the coaching staff has been pleased with the way other players have stepped up in their absence, including freshman running back Jordan Parker, who had a 98-yard touchdown run in the Troy win last week, and fellow freshman safety Kevin Byard.
Byard was named SBC Defensive Player of the Week after picking off two passes, including a game winning 77-yard interception return late in the final quarter to seal the win. He also had a forced fumble, a pass breakup, and six tackles against the Trojans.
Overall, the team has been pleased with players stepping in when called upon.
“It's just guys working their behinds off and paying attention during practice,” Blue Raider senior defensive end Omar McLendon said. “It's amazing to see all of these players step up.”
Saturday's contest against the Red Wolves will decide the defacto SBC champion. Both teams come in with identical 8-3, 6-1 records, and are on current long winning streaks. ASU has won six in the row, but was off last week. While, MTSU has won four in a row, and has not lost since Oct. 20 which was to SEC member Mississippi State.
The Red Wolves have won the last two meetings with the Blue Raiders, but MTSU has a 7-4 mark against ASU since both became charter football members of the SBC in 2001.
MTSU's defense will be tested once again by one of the top quarterbacks in SBC history, ASU senior Ryan Aplin.
In the Nov. 17 victory against Troy, Aplin became the league all-time leading passer with 369 yards passing a couple of weeks ago. His career total is now 10,307 passing yards, which surpassed former Florida Atlantic and current Tennessee Titans single caller Rusty Smith for the top spot. First-year Red Wolves head coach Gus Malzahn said it has been a joy to coach Aplin this season.
“He has had three different head coaches during his time here, and three different offensive systems,” Malzahn said during Monday's SBC weekly teleconference. “It's a tribute to him being able to be successful in all three offenses. We do not have a whole lot of seniors, so he has been a true leader for us.”
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, it looks like the Blue Raiders record is good enough to get a bowl berth. However, it is up in the air on where it will be spending the holidays.
Experts who cover the sport on a regular basis has MTSU going all over the place. A couple have the Blue Raiders going to the Independence Bowl on Dec. 28 in Louisiana. Some others have the Raiders going to Detroit for the Little Caesars Bowl (formerly Motor City) on Dec. 26. A trip to St. Petersburg on Dec. 21 or Mobile on Jan. 6 are also in the cards for MTSU. Finally, Liberty Bowl officials were in attendance at last week's game in Floyd Stadium. That game will take place on Dec. 31 in Memphis.
However, the team is not thinking about that, instead all it wants is its first outright SBC title in school history. The Blue Raiders shared the SBC title in 2001 and 2006.
“It's big for the program to able to play for the title,” Blue Raider junior quarterback Logan Kilgore said on Tuesday. “This is what we work towards every week. Every week we come in here and know that we are one step closer to our first goal. It's now do or die, and we are really excited for the entire program. It's been a team effort and its been a great ride.”
Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. inside ASU Stadium in Jonesboro, and it will be shown on ESPN3.com.