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Opponent Preview: Murray State Racers

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NCAA Football: Murray State at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Murray State at a glance

Location: Murray, Kentucky

2018 record: 5-6, 5-3 in the Ohio Valley Conference

Head Coach: Mitch Stewart (5th year, 15-29 overall). Stewart is no stranger to the Peach State, playing his college football at Valdosta State, then serving as the offensive corrdinator at Newnan High and wide receivers coach at Georgia Southern under Chris Hatcher.

Home Stadium: Roy Stewart Stadium (capacity: 16,800)

Alumnus of Note: Several, actually. On the college gridiron alone Murray State is the alma mater of noted offensive coordinator Tony Franklin (Cal, Middle Tennessee State) and current Virginia Tech boss Justin Fuente. But their accomplishments pale in comparison to those of W. Earl Brown, the talented actor who played Dan Dority on HBO’s Deadwood and Kenny, the intrepid but ill-fated TV news cameraman in 90s slasher classic Scream. What an icon.

Well, that’s.... better?

The Racers enter their fifth season under Stewart, and have shown improvement in essentially every season of his tenure. That’s the good news. The bad news is Racer football was in a pretty sad state when he took over and things are now just, well, okay. Murray State finished the 2018 5-3 in FCS’s Ohio Valley Conference, a solid mark on the whole. But it was an up and down campaign. Stewart’s squad dropped its first three games, then got on a hot streak in conference play (including a victory over then FCS #19 Eastern Illinois), before losing three of their last four (including a season-ending 48-23 loss to the Austin Peay team Georgia began 2018 by shellacking).

But given the Racers 3 wins in 2017, including a dismal 2-5 conference mark, being respectable is a step up.

And friends, I’m not going to lie to you here. That’s what Murray State is. A respectable FCS program. This is not Georgia Southern under Paul Johnson or Appalachian State in their Michigan killing prime. While I am sure they are all fine young men, whose mothers love them very much, and who will uniformly become great contributors to society, the chances of Murray State beating Georgia in Sanford Stadium next month are about as good as the chances of Kirby calling me down to take some snaps at slot receiver. The reasons for this are several and varied, and because I spent a fair amount of my July researching them, I’d like to point them out in excruciating detail below.

Offense

Murray State had three quarterbacks who saw significant game action in 2018. They’re gone, with the exception of redshirt sophomore Preston Rice. The 6’1, 220 pound Tennessee native appeared in every game of the 2018 season, but only threw 12 passes, completing 6. Gone is senior starter Drew Anderson, who parlayed a 2864 yard, 20 touchdown season into a camp invite with the Arizona Cardinals.

Anderson was a great fit for Stewart’s version of the up tempo, pass happy “Hatch Attack”, completing 60.1% of his attempts. Murray State threw the ball 58.8% of the time in 2018, largely because they had a veteran QB capable of standing in and delivering. That’s a percentage that would obviously make a balance aficionado like Mike Bobo shriek. But it’s what the Racers will do. Against a UGA secondary that’s markedly bigger and faster than their usual competition, it’s going to be a struggle. Rice looks to me to be more mobile (even scoring on a 21 yard touchdown run in the Racers’ 48-10 loss at Kentucky).

Murray does return leading receiver Malik Honeycutt (29 catches, 477 yards, 4 TDs). But the Racers’ leading rusher last season, D.J. Penick, transferred to Colorado State-Pueblo after starting for two seasons. Second leading rusher, Rodney Castille (471 yards, 5.9 yards per carry), is back, but is the only player with significant carries to return. The 5’11, 189 pound junior is shifty, but I expect he’ll have a hard time getting on track against the Bulldog defense.

What I’m saying here is that Murray State isn’t really built to score many points against a veteran UGA defense whose strength will likely be on the back end. So if the visitors are to keep this one close they will need to force a defensive struggle.

Defense

Oh dear. This may be even worse. Murray State gave up 34.9 points per game in 2018, and that was with a pair of NFL talents who are now gone: free agent defensive back and Macon native Marquez Sanford, and third round draft pick LB Quincy Williams. Both are now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and both will be sorely missed.

Williams in particular was a force for the Racers last season, leading the team with 111 tackles. He also returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Also gone is 2018’s team sack leader, defensive end Kenney Wooten. For perspective, the defense had 20 sacks last season and the now-graduated Wooten accounted for 10.5 of them. I’m not saying Coach Stewart won’t find someone to fill these voids. I’m just saying he’s unlikely to have done so by the first weekend of September.

Special teams

Well here’s the bright spot. The Racers do have themselves a real ripper of a punter in Australian Steve Dawson.

Dawson had never played a down of American football before the 2018 season, but punted 54 time’s for an average of 42.1 yards per kick. A full 30% of his kicks were downed inside the 20, and and 10 went for 50 yards plus. Dawson is one of the 28 kickers on the watch list for the inaugural FCS punter of the year award and was voted preseason first team All-OVC. All of which I think means that Georgia is going to have to go 70 yards plus to score repeatedly on the Racers. That’ll slow things down a little, eh mate?

The Bottom Line

League Media picked Murray State to finish fifth in the Ohio Valley Conference due to heavy personnel losses. And while I fully expect them to be, at worst, the fourth best team in that league, I’d be lying if I said I expect this one to be close at halftime. Much like last year’s opener against Austin Peay this one will be about getting freshmen some work and resting up before a relatively tougher game against Arkansas State and a true top ten showdown with Notre Dame two weeks later. Avert your eyes if you have a weak stomach.

Prediction: Georgia 59, Murray State 9.