The Palladium will be on the line when Middle Tennessee and Troy face off Tuesday night at Troy, but something much bigger than a rivalry trophy might be at stake as well.
The Blue Raiders and Trojans will be competing for early Sun Belt supremacy and the chance to sit in the conference title chase driver's seat.
GoMiddle.com breaks down who and what to watch when the two rivals tee it up.
THE BIG STATS
RUSHING YARDAGE- Both teams love to pass the ball, but it's probably not a coincidence that the team that has rushed for the most yards has won the last five games in the series. Middle Tennessee has not rushed for even 100 yards against Troy since 2005, the last time the Blue Raiders defeated the Trojans. While both teams want to make big plays through the air, each side will need to be able to move the chains on the ground in key situations. The team that does it better will be in position to win.
SACKS AND HURRIES ON LEVI BROWN- The Blue Raiders have to be able to pressure Trojan signal caller Levi Brown. He is very accurate when he is able to sit in the pocket and calmly go through his progressions. MT has to put some heat on Brown and get him on the ground a few times to help prevent him from gaining any consistent comfort level.
YOU'LL KNOW IT'S GOING WELL IF...
MT HITS ON BIG PASSING PLAYS- Troy's secondary has had some struggles in the early part of the season. The Trojans had to replace every starter from 2008 and the growing pains have been evident. Troy has surrendered nine touchdown passes and has only intercepted two passes through its first four games. Opponents are averaging 12.1 yards per reception against the Trojans and opposing quarterbacks have put up a pass efficiency rating of 148.03 against the Troy secondary. If the Blue Raiders strike for long yardage through the air, it will be a sign that Troy is still having problems in the defensive backfield and that MT's offensive line is able to protect Dwight Dasher.
TROY'S DEFENSIVE ENDS ARE NEUTRALIZED- Trojan defensive ends Cameron Sheffield and Brandon Lang are a terror of a tandem. The two playmakers have a knack for disrupting offenses in the backfield. Both are seniors and fit nicely in with the Troy tradition of having stellar athletes in the front seven. If the television and P.A. announcers don't say their names very often - particularly early in the game - then there is a good chance MT's offense will be effective.
YOU'LL KNOW IT'S GOING POORLY IF...
JERREL JERNIGAN HAS EXPLOSIVE PLAYS- Jernigan is a threat to touch the ball as a runner, receiver, and kick returner and he is good at all three aspects. With MT's struggles covering kicks, Blue Raider fans will have to hold their breath when Jernigan catches a kickoff. Troy will work to get the ball in his hands early and Jernigan will be wanting to have a breakout game after a relatively slow start to the season so far. If he gets turned loose against the Raiders, the climb to victory will be much more uphill.
MT LOSES IN THE TRENCHES- Troy's defensive front seven is arguably the Sun Belt's best and features great players both along the line and at linebacker. It will be a challenge for MT to run block and pass block against the athletic group. On the flip side, the Raiders have to generate some penetration against Troy's offensive line, a group that averages nearly 310 pounds per man. It should be pretty clear in the first quarter which side is winning the physical battles at the line of scrimmage. That will also be a good indicator of the ultimate outcome.
TROY TROJANS: WHO TO WATCH
QB Levi Brown, 6-4/219, Senior
THE NUMBERS: 64 percent completion percentage, 1,097 yards, 5 TDs, 4 INTs
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Brown is a legit candidate for Sun Belt player of the year and is arguably the league's most accurate quarterback.
BEST CASE: Brown is going to put up some numbers, but the hope for MT is that the Raiders can mount a pass rush against him and cut down on his time in the pocket.
WORST CASE: Brown could throw for a lot of yards and touchdowns if he has time to throw and he generates a comfort level with multiple receivers.
WR Jerrel Jernigan, 5-9/184, Junior
THE NUMBERS: 119 receiving yards, 96 rushing yards, 272 kick return yards
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Jernigan is Troy's most versatile threat in the running, passing, and kicking game.
BEST CASE: MT is able to tackle Jernigan in the open field to prevent his receptions from swelling into big plays.
WORST CASE: Jernigan elusiveness and strength make him too hard to bring down and he exploits what has been a struggling Blue Raider kick coverage unit.
LB Boris Lee, 6-0/245, Senior
THE NUMBERS: 34 tackles, 0.5 TFL
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Lee is the central figure of the Troy defense and a proven playmaker in big games.
BEST CASE: Lee isn't able to disrupt the Raider offense either in the backfield or by jumping quick routes.
WORST CASE: Lee was a big factor in last year's Troy win against MT with an interception that set up a touchdown. Another similar big play could be enough to secure another Troy victory.
DE Cameron Sheffield, 6-2/249, Senior
THE NUMBERS: 22 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 QB hurries, 1 forced fumble
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Sheffield has been a huge factor defensively in the early part of the schedule. Statistically he has been Troy's best defender.
BEST CASE: MT neutralizes Sheffield's pass rush and is able to throw around his long arms that can easily bat down passes.
WORST CASE: Sheffield could easily cause a turnover with a hit on the quarterback or a deflection that results in an interception.
DE Brandon Lang, 6-4/256, Senior
THE NUMBERS: 21 tackles, 1 sack, 4 hurries
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Lang was honored as the preseason Sun Belt co-defensive player of the year. He is capable of being a one man wrecking crew.
BEST CASE: Like Sheffield, MT has to neutralize Lang's ability to get in the backfield.
WORST CASE: If Lang and Sheffield both have big games, MT will be very hard pressed to win.