Along with OVC foes Jacksonville State (no. 25) and Eastern Kentucky (no. 9), Murray State University begins this year ranked no. 18 in Lindy's 2012 FCS Pre-season Top 25.
After finishing last season with a 7-4 record, Coach Chris Hatcher has led the Racers to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1999-2000.
While the Racers lost special teams and defensive specialist Dontrell Johnson and backfield threat Mike Harris to graduation, Murray State returns a remarkably strong passing defense and prototypical "Hatch Attack" quarterback Casey Brockman, who is entering his final season as a Racer.
Brockman was named to the 2012 CFPA Awards Watch List after posting a monster 2011 campaign, completing 66 percent of his passes for 3,276 yards and 25 touchdowns and rushing 91 times for 390 yards and four touchdowns.
Hatcher employs an offensive scheme called the "Hatch Attack" for most of each game, in which the offense has a design set of plays run in no-huddle and usually involving four and five-receiver sets with the RB and QB in Shotgun formation. The plays vary from WR screens to HB delays to QB scrambles, often keeping a defense on their heels as the offense is called at the line.
If run smoothly, Hatcher's offense usually generates anywhere between 80-100 plays of forward progress and is a very high powered system that accumulates tons of points over short periods of time.
One of the main reasons the Racers have been improving, however, has been a credit to the defense. While Murray State remained miserable at defending the run last season, allowing a startling 194 yards per game, the secondary was exceptional at forcing turnovers and shutting down the passing game by allowing only 201 yards per game.
This could be the year the Racers find the delicate balance between defending both effectively, as senior defensive end Kevin Robinson and junior linebacker Qua Huzzie joined Casey Brockman on their respective CFPA Awards Watch Lists this summer.
Robinson finished last season with an OVC-best seven sacks on the year, along with 36 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and six quarterback hurries. He will provide a major anchor for an improving defensive line looking to pressure the quarterback and clog the running lanes that were so open last year.
If Robinson was the immovable object last year, then Huzzie was the unstoppable force. Huzzie led the OVC last year with 14.5 tackles and finished with 80 tackles in just 10 games. He also finished with three sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and four pass deflections on the season.
Almost 20 transfers and new recruits will be expected to step in and immediately produce both in the running and passing game, as well as provide significant depth in the secondary and on the defensive line.
The Racers biggest challenges come straight out of the gate, however, as Murray State opens the season in Tallahassee, Fla. against the pre-season Top 10 Florida State Seminoles on Sept. 1 on ESPN3. The following week, the Racers home opener is against FCS powerhouse Central Arkansas, who last year finished 9-4 after losing to Montana in the FCS playoffs, 31-28.
Regardless of the final record, the Racers have one hell of a schedule this year and a ton of can't-miss games, and we'll be keeping a close watch on their season here at mkysports.com.