The biggest game of the Sun Belt season is less than 24 hours away as Troy and Middle Tennessee set to do battle Tuesday night on ESPN2.
The annual Battle for the Palladium pits the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (3-1) against the Troy Trojans (2-2) at Movie Gallery Stadium in Troy, Alabama. This game will help determine if the Blue Raiders can stay on track toward a conference championship, after a great start with wins over Memphis and Maryland.
The Trojans have won the last three games in the series including a heart-breaker in 2006, which saw Troy come back from down 13 with two minutes to play.
This game still stings, as a Blue Raider victory at home would have given coach Rick Stockstill his first outright conference championship as a rookie head coach.
These two teams look to be the class acts of the Sun Belt this season, and a victory by either side will immediately make them the favorites for a New Orleans Bowl bid.
The Blue Raiders will be looking to continue their impressive air and ground attack led by junior Quarterback Dwight Dasher. Dasher has become the state's best quarterback, amassing over 1,000 passing yards and 250 rushing yards in four games. He has accounted for 10 Blue Raider touchdowns this season.
The Trojans counter with an in-state product at quarterback in Levi Brown. The Mt. Juliet (TN) native has a completion percentage nearing 65 percent as well as close to 1,000 yards passing this season.
Both teams employ a spread installed by Tony Franklin, Franklin is the current offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee.
The key to this game will come down to the defense of the Blue Raiders and the attitude of the Troy Trojans.
The Blue Raider defense has shut down the running attack of Memphis along with forcing four turnovers in a road victory against Maryland.
Defensive ends Chris McCoy and Jamari Lattimore will be looking for another big day against a pass happy team. These two ends have combined for five sacks in this young season.
To combat Troy's affinity for the pass, the Blue Raiders will be relying on an experienced secondary to not allow the big play. Big plays nearly cost the Blue Raiders in Maryland as they gave up 37 and 64 yard passes to Maryland.
Troy will bring the Sun Belt's best defense to take on Middle's spread. The team known for their NFL caliber defenders, (DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora, Leodis McKelvin) will once again bring talented players to the contest.
Defensive end Brandon Lang led the Sun Belt in sacks last season. Defensive tackle Kevin Dixon is a transfer from Nebraska. Troy's other Defensive end, Cameron Sheffield was sixth in the league in sacks last year.
That's just the defensive line.
At linebackers, the Trojans have two of the best names in college football: Boris and Bear. Seniors Boris Lee and Bear Woods combined for over 220 tackles last season, they roam all over the field.
Troy's defense was good enough to give Florida fits for a quarter, it will be imperative that the Blue Raiders come out of the gates quickly and put some points on the board.
For all of Troy's statistical success, the team tends to have periods of almost playing on "auto pilot." Games where Troy is ahead, they tend to let teams back in. If the Trojans do happen to fall behind, they tend to lose their swagger.
Troy could easily be compared to the Sun Belt's version of Southern California. They tend to lose at least one game they shouldn't in conference.
With that in mind, the experts in Las Vegas have put Troy at a 4.5-point favorite for Tuesday's game.
Predicting a winner will come down to whether or not the Blue Raiders can establish an offensive rhythm and put touchdowns on the board as opposed to field goals. If Troy can hold Middle Tennessee to threes, momentum will certainly favor Troy.
If Middle falls behind quickly, they have the offense to get back in the game, but it certainly will be to their advantage to try to take out the home crowd with a quick score.
With that in mind, I expect the Blue Raiders to be able to score around 30 points, as Dwight Dasher is only getting better in the Tony Franklin spread, as both a running and throwing threat. Troy will be hard pressed to keep up the scoring with the Blue Raiders.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee 34 Troy 30.