High stakes are on the line as Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic face off Saturday in Boca Raton.
The winner will earn a spot in the upper echelon of the conference standings and vastly improve potential bowl possibilities.
GoMiddle.com breaks down who and what to watch when the Blue Raiders and Owls tee it up.
THE BIG STATS
HURRIES AND SACKS BY MT'S DEFENSE- FAU trails only Troy in the Sun Belt in passing offense and pass efficiency, which means the Owls are very dangerous every time Rusty Smith drops back to pass. FAU's offensive line hasn't allowed a sack in the last two weeks, but MT's defensive front leads the league in sacks. The cumulative effect of how many times the Raiders can hurry Smith into a forced throw, sack him, or hit him will be a key to the game. MT has to get to him.
MT'S RUSHING YARDAGE- The Raider ground game had a bit of a coming out party last week against WKU. While FAU poses more of a challenge than the Hilltoppers, the Owl run defense has still struggled. MT can open up much more of its offense if FAU is forced to respect the Raiders on the ground, particularly players other than quarterback Dwight Dasher on the ground.
YOU'LL KNOW IT'S GOING WELL IF...
MT'S DEFENSE EXCELS ON THIRD DOWN- Among several impressive offensive stats, one that stands out perhaps above all for FAU is the Owls' excellence on third down. FAU leads the league in that category and has converted more than 46 percent of its third down plays. On the flip side, MT's defense leads the league in third down defensive percentage. If the Raiders emerge with the upper hand on FAU's third downs, then MT will have taken a normal advantage for the Owls and turned it against them.
FAU BECOMES ONE DIMENSIONAL- FAU running back Alfred Morris is one of the best backs in the conference. It would be hard enough to stop him even if the Owls didn't also have an outstanding passing attack. MT has to find a way to contain Morris so that the Owls face more predictable down and distance situations. If the combination of Morris running and Smith passing keeps the defense off balance, it will be hard to keep the Owls from piling up points.
YOU'LL KNOW IT'S GOING POORLY IF...
IT TAKES EIGHT IN THE BOX TO STOP THE RUN- If Morris starts the game productive on the ground, MT may have to adjust to prevent him from wearing down the defensive front. That could mean trouble if the Owls are able to crank up their play action passing game in their pro style offense. The Blue Raider front seven needs to rise to the occasion against the run so the secondary can focus most of its time defending the aerial assault.
THERE ARE MISSED OPPORTUNITIES ON OFFENSE- This is a game that will require touchdowns to win. Although MT kicker Alan Gendreau has been perfect this season, the Blue Raiders would prefer to see him kicking extra points instead of field goals this week. Red zone trips need to end in touchdowns and anytime the MT offense is granted quality field position to start a drive, it needs to capitalize. In a game that could easily require five touchdowns to win, even a single missed opportunity could be the difference in victory and defeat.
FLORIDA ATLANTIC OWLS: WHO TO WATCH
QB Rusty Smith, 6-5/230, Senior
THE NUMBERS: 58.7 percent completion percentage, 1,611 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INTs
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Smith is arguably the Sun Belt's best quarterback and his arm makes the Owls a threat on every play.
BEST CASE: Smith is going to put up some numbers, but MT hopes to hurry him and prevent him from dominating the game through the air.
WORST CASE: If Smith has time to throw, he is capable of a career night every game. FAU's offensive line will pose a significant challenge to MT's talented defensive front.
RB Alfred Morris, 5-11/222, Sophomore
THE NUMBERS: 705 rushing yards, 5.2 yards per carry, 6 TDs
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Morris is a bruising runner that provides a great balance to Smith and the passing game.
BEST CASE: The Raiders want to hold Morris well under 100 yards on the ground to keep FAU's offense as one dimensional as possible.
WORST CASE: If Morris is able to run against the front seven, the Raiders will be vulnerable to big play action passes and are more likely to get worn down.
WR Chris Bonner, 6-3/205, Senior
THE NUMBERS: 21 catches for 432 yards, 5 TDs
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Bonner is FAU's best big play threat through the air, averaging more than 20 yards per reception.
BEST CASE: MT will gladly surrender some catches to Bonner if the secondary keeps him in front and prevents huge gainers.
WORST CASE: Bonner's combination of size and speed can win a lot of individual battles for deep balls and FAU will take some shots to him down the field.
DL Dino Cox, 6-3/280, Junior
THE NUMBERS: 18 tackles, 5 TFL, 3 sacks
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Cox plugs up space in the line and typically makes big plays if he gets his hands near the ball.
BEST CASE: MT wants to wall off Cox at the line to prevent him from breaking through quickly into the backfield, where he can do major damage.
WORST CASE: Cox's size and strength could prove very troublesome at the line of scrimmage if MT can't contain him.
LB Michael Lockley, 6-3/245, Junior
THE NUMBERS: 58 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 FR
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Lockley leads the Owls in tackles and is around the ball on most plays.
BEST CASE: Lockley is likely to rack up a lot of tackles again, but that is fine with MT as long as he doesn't cause turnovers.
WORST CASE: Lockley is around the ball so much that it's very possible he could strip a ball loose or tip a pass from the undersized Dwight Dasher.