It took eight long years and a global pandemic to reunite the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders and the Troy Trojans on the football field, but the “Battle for the Palladium” rivalry will be renewed on Saturday evening at Floyd Stadium. In fact, Saturday’s game will mark the first of two matchups this season between these former Sun Belt foes, with MTSU visiting Troy on Nov. 21.
Troy makes its season debut on Saturday looking to rebound from last year’s disappointing 5-7 (3-5 Sun Belt) campaign. It was a big step backward for a program that had won at least 10 games in each of the previous three seasons under former head coach Neal Brown. But the Trojans have reason to believe that better days lie ahead under second-year head coach Chip Lindsey. Their first test comes against an old rival on the road.
Middle Tennessee also expects to return to its winning ways following a disheartening 4-8 (3-5 Conference USA) season in 2019. Unfortunately, the Blue Raiders fell well short of those expectations in their opener two weeks ago, as they were totally overwhelmed by Army’s triple-option rushing attack and a stifling defense en route to an embarrassing 42-0 shutout loss. Long-time head coach Rick Stockstill now looks to regroup and prove that his team’s performance was little more than an aberration against an unconventional Army team. Do the Blue Raiders have what it takes to bounce back in their home opener against Troy on Saturday?
Troy at Middle Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Troy -3.5
When Troy Has the Ball
The Trojans had their issues last season, but an offense that averaged 458 yards (18th in the FBS) and 34 points per game certainly wasn’t one of them. A big reason for that success was quarterback Kaleb Barker (3,628 yards and 30 TDs), who has now exhausted his eligibility. That begs the question – Will the Troy offense be able to return to form with redshirt sophomore Gunnar Watson now under center? Saturday’s game should go a long way in answering that question, as Watson makes his first collegiate start against MTSU after beating out former Vanderbilt quarterback Jacob Free and junior college transfer Parker McNeil for the starting nod. The good news is that Watson will be surrounded by a wealth of talent and experience at the skill positions and his chances for success appear promising.
The Trojans return their top seven pass catchers from last season – including the dangerous trio of Kaylon Geiger, Reggie Todd and Khalil McClain – who combined for 160 catches, 2,101 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns in 2019. The Troy run game looks to be strong as well. Running back B.J. Smith, who ran for 1,186 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018, returns after missing much of last season with a knee injury. DK Billingsley, Smith’s replacement last season, also returns after averaging 5.8 yards per carry with 10 scores in 2019. True freshman Kimani Vidal is another Troy running back to keep tabs on after a stellar fall camp. Center Dylan Bradshaw and left tackle Austin Stidham return to spearhead the offensive line. Both players have all-conference potential, but concerns do linger for an O-line breaking in three new starters on Saturday.
While the Troy offense is a completely different animal than the one Middle Tennessee faced in its opener, the Blue Raider defense will likely have its hands full again on Saturday. MTSU returns just three starters from a defense that struggled mightily against the pass last season. And unlike against Army, the MTSU pass defense will likely be tested early and often against Troy. Reed Blankenship is a bonafide star at safety, and the Blue Raiders are deeper at cornerback this season, which leaves room for optimism. But a pass rush that only produced 11 sacks in 2019 will need to step up in a big way for the MTSU pass defense to maximize its potential in this matchup.