Before the 2010 season started, it was hard not to have high expectations.
There were a lot of things that the Blue Raiders had going for them, and even the most pessimistic of fans (including myself) were looking forward to building on the previous season’s success.
Coming off their first bowl win since the move to Division I, the boys in blue had several returning starters on both sides of the ball, including an quarterback that could break a big play on any given down.
The only dark cloud in an otherwise bright offseason appeared when talented defensive coordinator Manny Diaz moved to greener pastures and took a job with the Mississippi State 'Dawgs. The expectations swelled again, however, when Rick Stockstill passed up two lucrative contracts to stay on the sidelines as the head coach of the Blue Raiders.
Everything was in place for a great season, and folks began to talk about a conference championship, AP ranking and changing conferences as if they were foregone conclusions.
Then August 27th came along...the day that Dwight Dasher was suspended indefinitely for violating the NCAA amateurism legislation. This was the beginning of an up and down season that was filled with too many downs and not enough ups.
Here’s a quick season recap: In the time it takes Chris Johnson to run 40 yards, the officials had reviewed a questionable fumble, and the bottom of the Big Ten barrel Minnesota Golden Gophers had escaped Floyd Stadium with a win. A too close win against Austin Peay led to an embarrassing loss to a Memphis team that ended up with only one win on the season.
Fans thought we had weathered the storm when we beat ULL convincingly on the road. It turned out that we were just in the eye of the storm, as even the return of Dasher could not prevent losses to Troy and Georgia Tech by a combined score of 84-27.
A strong homecoming win against ULM proved to be another small hill on the season’s roller-coaster ride, as they followed it by plunging into embarrassing losses against Arkansas State and North Texas.
However, everyone knows that roller coasters save a little surprise for the ending, and sure enough that’s what the Raiders have done. Stock applied the paddles and somehow shocked a dead Blue Raider team back to life for the last three games of the season. They certainly were not pretty, but pretty does not matter...winning does, and that’s what MT did over the past three weeks. They found a way to win games and somehow sneak into a bowl game.
If you had told me after the embarrassing loss on national television to Arkansas State that we would be heading to a bowl game, I would have told you that you were completely crazy. Not even the best NFL team could win with a quarterback that throws an interception every other pass (just ask the Vikings this year) and a defense that gives up more points than a blind goalie.
Something changed though, and while Dasher will never be an NFL quarterback, he has taken better care of the ball. The defense found its rhythm behind all-conference players Jamari Lattimore, Rod Issac and Jeremy Kellem. The running attack has picked up, and all of a sudden a season that looked to be forgettable might just be salvageable.
Will we win the bowl game? Maybe, maybe not...Miami is a solid team that has had an amazing turnaround this season. They have all kinds of momentum coming off a big win against the heavily favored (and ranked) Northern Illinois Huskies. They specialize in stopping the run, so the matchup, at least on paper, favors them.
While I obviously want us to win the game, I think how we got there is just as important, if not more so, than whether we win or lose.
When you start thinking about the future of the program, this turnaround can do wonders. First, it sends a message to the underclassmen. Instead of a dismal 3-9 or 4-8, they finish the regular season with a .500 record. They go to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in Blue Raider history.
The rising juniors and seniors have faced adversity and found a way to overcome. When faced with basically three “playoff games,” they stepped up and made the plays when they had to. Things like that stick with you as a player.
Furthermore, think about the impact this has on recruiting. Sadly, we are not Ohio State, USC or any of the SEC schools. UT had a poor season, but they will still have top-quality recruits next year. USC can be suspended for several seasons, and sure enough, kids will still go play there.
If MT has an abysmal season, it is far different. We fight tooth and nail for good recruits, and a bad season can have a lasting impact for years to come.
When a solid 3-star recruit has to make a choice between us and another school, we have to give them a reason to come here. Playing time only goes so far when the playing time comes in blowout losses. When you can throw out the words “bowl games” and “television exposure” to recruits, you can make a big difference in their decision-making process.
All in all, has it been a good year? The simple answer is no. Embarrassing losses on national television, plus losses to subpar Memphis and North Texas teams, mean that I cannot call this a good season.
However, it has NOT been a bad season. A few good players have emerged, and we finished the season on a roll and have a chance to bring home another bowl win. The ride has been bumpy at times, but like a good roller coaster, it keeps you coming back time and time again.