The long summer is over and football season is back as Middle Tennessee prepares to kick off the 2009 campaign at Clemson on Saturday in Death Valley.
What are the big items that will determine the outcome? Who should you pay close attention to on the Clemson side of ball?
GoMiddle.com breaks down who and what to watch when the season begins at 5 p.m. on Saturday.
THE BIG STATS
TURNOVERS- Giveaways were a common thread in some of Clemson's most crushing defeats last season and turnover margin can often be an equalizer for an underdog in a tough road game. In order to have the best chance to win, Middle Tennessee probably needs to be +2 in turnover margin. The best way for the Blue Raiders to have an opportunity to achieve that is for Dwight Dasher to play within himself and not force bad throws, while the defense needs to force Clemson signal caller Kyle Parker into some uncomfortable situations in his first start.
THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS- This was a real weak link for Clemson's offense in 2008, as the Tigers converted less than 30 percent of their third down opportunities. Offensively for Middle Tennessee, the Blue Raiders will need to execute on third downs to sustain drives and maintain their ability to control the offensive tempo of the game. A couple of long drives early with MT's no huddle attack could help tire the Clemson defense and make the Tigers more vulnerable late in the game.
YOU'LL KNOW IT'S GOING WELL IF...
IT STAYS CLOSE EARLY- Playing a season opener in front of a sellout crowd guarantees that Clemson will come out of the tunnel with great emotional fire. Middle Tennessee must match that and stave off the Tigers' opening onslaught. If the Blue Raiders stay competitive early and get through the first half within 7-10 points, they could certainly pose a threat in the second half against a Clemson team that has had terrible difficulty closing games in recent seasons. Last year, the Tigers were outscored by 20 points in the fourth quarter.
MT'S OFFENSE IS BALANCED- A balanced offense means more than just being able to run and pass the ball. The Blue Raiders need to involve several receivers in the passing game to be truly balanced. With Clemson cornerbacks Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor both up for the Thorpe Award, MT needs multiple receiving threats to rise to the challenge in order to test the entire Clemson defensive backfield. If Dasher is able to spread the ball around to multiple targets and the Blue Raiders can be at least marginally effective on the ground, MT can put up some points.
YOU'LL KNOW IT'S GOING POORLY IF...
CLEMSON HAS EARLY BIG PLAYS- Riding that emotional rush in the first quarter will probably lead Clemson to try to hit on a couple of big plays. The Tigers will look to get the ball to either C.J. Spiller or Jacoby Ford and the Raiders have to send a message on the first couple of series that they are capable of getting both speedsters to the ground. Early fireworks for Clemson would put MT in a deep early hole.
MT CAN'T RUN THE BALL-Phillip Tanner and the rest of the Blue Raider ground attack has to be able to at least keep Clemson's defense honest against the run. MT will likely put the ball in the air a lot but the Raiders will need to be able to churn out some yardage on the ground at critical points in the game. If they can't, Clemson's secondary and pass rush could prove too tough.
THE NUMBERS: 1,770 all purpose yards and 11 touchdowns in 2008
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Spiller is Clemson's most explosive talent and is capable of scoring every time he touches the ball in every phase of the game.
BEST CASE: MT finds a way to contain Spiller and forces other Tigers to step up in order to defeat the Raiders.
WORST CASE: Spiller proves too shifty and versatile and provides enough big plays to prevent MT from keeping the game close.
THE NUMBERS: First college game
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Parker won the starting job over Willy Korn during camp. He has impressed with his accuracy and decision making, but will be tested in his first college start.
BEST CASE: MT contains Spiller enough that Parker has to step outside of his comfort zone in the passing game, allowing the Raiders opportunities at some big defensive plays.
WORST CASE: With a successful running game to support him, Parker manages the game by getting the ball to the right playmakers and avoids mistakes.
THE NUMBERS: Has one career start in 26 games
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Gilchrist is a natural corner that has risen to the top of the free safety depth chart. Overshadowed in the secondary by All-Conference candidate corners, Gilchrist will be pressured by MT's spread passing attack.
BEST CASE: Gilchrist struggles with his responsibilities against MT's five wide receiver sets and gets beat for a couple of big plays.
WORST CASE: Gilchrist uses his natural cornerback instincts to excel in man coverage assignments, which would only strengthen an already excellent secondary.
THE NUMBERS: 55 receptions for 710 yards and four touchdowns in 2008.
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Ford is legitimately one of the fastest players in college football and sets up to be Kyle Parker's favorite target in the passing game.
BEST CASE: MT's secondary proves capable of shadowing Ford and forces Parker to not rely on him as a security blanket.
WORST CASE: Ford gets loose for a couple of big gainers through the air and adds an additional explosive threat to the one already provided by Spiller on the ground.
THE NUMBERS: Ten TFLs in 10 games last season; 11 career sacks
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Sapp teams with opposite defensive end Da'Quan Bowers to form a fierce pass rush, but Sapp is more of a question mark because he's coming off a serious knee injury and hasn't fully lived up to monstrous expectations.
BEST CASE: Sapp is neutralized by a combination of MT's pass blocking and the offense's quick release passing game, preventing him from creating havoc in the Raider backfield.
WORST CASE: Sapp's much hyped first step off the ball proves too fast for MT to contain and he blows up a couple of plays before they develop, raising the risk of turnovers.