Battle for the Palladium: More than a trophy

Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson

Neither Troy coach Larry Blakeney nor Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill is placing too much emphasis on tonight's Battle for the Palladium.

While it is a rivalry game that could ultimately decide the conference champion, neither coach is ready to put that much pressure on their respective teams.

“I think it’s the second conference game for both teams and I don’t think whoever wins this game they’re not going to crown the winner of this game tomorrow night as the league champion. There’s still a lot of football to be played. Whoever wins this game, it just gives you a leg up a little bit, but you still have a lot of football games to play.”

Both Troy and Middle Tennessee are 1-0 in Sun Belt Conference play. Only Louisiana-Monroe has a better record at 2-0. Troy has won the conference title each of the past three seasons, including sharing the trophy with Middle Tennessee in 2006.

Troy has won the last three games in this series by an average of 17.6 points per game, and has taken four of the last five.

But Middle Tennessee comes into Movie Gallery Stadium in Troy, Ala., with a boatload of confidence after winning its past three games, including an upset of Maryland. And Stockstill knows that if his team is going to contend for only its second bowl game since joining the FBS, it starts with a win over the Trojans.

For that reason alone, Stockstill said the game is less about the rivalry and more about the future of the program.

“We don’t look at it as much as a rivalry as we do as an important conference game,” Stockstill said. “For us to accomplish our goals that we have each year and especially this year, this is a game that we need to win because it’s a conference game and not so much because it’s Troy. We’re not emphasizing this game any more because it’s a so-called rivalry.”

Still, the game has all the trappings of a good rivalry and most of them surround first-year Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. Franklin spent two years as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Troy and was responsible for the resurgence that brought the Trojans their first conference title and first-ever bowl victory. In 2006, he turned the Trojans from the worst offense in the conference to leading the league in passing and ranking second in total offense.

Franklin left the Troy to become the offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2008, but was fired after six games.

That’s when Middle Tennessee seized the opportunity to bring Franklin in and perform a similar offensive turnaround for the Blue Raiders. Heading into this game, Middle Tennessee ranks second in the conference in total offense and quarterback Dwight Dasher ranks sixth in the nation in individual total offense.

"Tony is a good friend and a great football coach,” Blakeney said. “I have the highest respect and regard for him. He knows how to coach football and get people in the right places to score points. I feel like we have the same type situation here. We’ll line up and play for 60 minutes of history. It will be an element interesting for the people.”

And interesting for the rest of the league.

Troy was picked to win the conference title and Florida Atlantic was slated to challenge. However, the Owls have started the season 0-4, leaving the door open for just about any team to take the conference.

“I’ve said all along that I think there’s four or five teams that can win this conference,” Blakeney said. “[Middle Tennessee] seems to rise to that level week in and week out and every team can have something to say about it, certainly. The strength of the league is probably at a peak since I’ve been involved with it. Every team in the league is good enough. You don’t need to go to sleep at the switch or you’re going to come up with a loss.”