Vandy making rare trip to play neighbor Middle Tennessee

Derek Mason figures Vanderbilt's loss in the Independence Bowl told Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill how to attack his Commodores.

At least that's what the Vanderbilt coach would do remembering how North Carolina State picked his defense apart.

''If I'm MTSU, I go back and look at the N.C. State game, and I'm going to test exactly who they are, and test us and see if we fixed any of those issues,'' Mason said. ''In the bowl game, we saw about eight perimeter screens. So I would expect MTSU is going to put the ball on the perimeter and make us tackle and make us get it on the ground. That's really who they are. We're going to see it early and often.''

These teams whose stadiums are 37.3 miles apart will meet Saturday night in the season opener for both teams, and it's Vanderbilt - the Southeastern Conference program - making the trek down to Murfreesboro for only the third time in an intermittent series that began in 1915. The Commodores lead the overall series 14-3, and Mason is looking for a third straight win against Middle Tennessee and his first win to open a season.

Stockstill says his Blue Raiders know the challenge and the opponent very well after Vanderbilt routed Middle Tennessee 47-24 last season. Stockstill also is expecting Mason to have made changes this offseason.

''First games are always different because you don't know what changes your opponent has made,'' Stockstill said. ''Obviously, they don't know what changes we made. So there's always that unknown in the first game. It's always there.''

Here are some things to know about Saturday night's game:

THE QUARTERBACKS: Brent Stockstill is fully healthy after missing three games late last season for Middle Tennessee, and he threw for a school-record 31 touchdowns along with 3,233 yards. The left-handed quarterback guided an offense that set a single-season school record averaging 517.7 yards total offense per game, and the Blue Raiders scored 47.6 points per game at home last season.

Kyle Shurmur started all last season for Vanderbilt as a sophomore and averaged 185.3 yards passing per game. He guided an offense that ranked sixth nationally scoring 93.5 percent of its trips inside an opponent's 20.

RUNNING THROUGH C-USA: Vanderbilt senior Ralph Webb already has nine different school rushing records through his first three seasons, and some of his best games have come against Conference USA teams. He ran for a career-best 211 yards against Middle Tennessee last year and 155 yards against the Blue Raiders in 2015. In five games against the league, Webb has seven touchdowns and 697 yards.

I KNOW YOU: Scott Shafer, head coach at Syracuse between 2013 and 2015 , is the Blue Raiders' new defensive coordinator. He also had the same job at Stanford in 2007 before Mason went to Stanford in 2010 for the first of four seasons. Mason, who also coordinate Vanderbilt's defense, is expecting Shafer to make the Blue Raiders more physical and aggressive. Middle Tennessee ranked 109th nationally last season giving up 35.8 points per game.

TOUGHER SCHEDULE: The Commodores are tied with Duke for the ninth-toughest schedule with their opponents featuring a .606 winning percentage among FBS teams, and LSU is the only SEC team with a more challenging slate than Vanderbilt. The Commodores will play nine bowl teams from last season starting with Middle Tennessee coming off an 8-5 season. The Blue Raiders might beg to differ with the numbers. After hosting Vanderbilt, they visit Syracuse and Minnesota.

QUOTABLE: ''Be great. There's no other option,'' said Webb when asked about what he can accomplish as a senior. How does he define that? ''Winning. Can't be great without winning.''

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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