Terrance Owens. David Fluellan. Bernard Reedy. Alonzo Russell. Jeremiah Detmer. Chetham Norrals. Zac Kerin.
All are key players from the 2012 Toledo Rocekts football program that went 9-4, won eight-straight games, and was briefly ranked in the BCS rankings. They're mostly players that were featured in our Top 65 MAC Players Countdown. And they're all players that are back for the 2013 season when it kicks off this Saturday down south against the No. 10 Florida Gators.
We've talked about that group of guys. We've talked about just how explosive the offense is going to be. What we need to hit on is what's missing.
The big question mark that'll follow the Rockets everywhere they go this year will be in the linebacker corps: How do you replace Dan Molls and Robert Bell? Yes, Trent Voss stepped up and made a name for himself last year, and he returns again, but Molls and Bell combined for 266 tackles last year. That's an awfully large hole to fill.
In fact, Toledo had a preview of what life would be like without Molls: They lost him on the first play of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, when he was banged in the head covering the opening kickoff. Bell picked up the slack in that bowl, racking up 7 tackles (Voss and Mark Singer also picked up 7 tackles each; Junior Sylvestre tallied 6).
The defense was one of the more interesting parts of last year's team. It was a bend-but-don't-break mentality all year long. They gave up yards, but held in the red zone. They might give up the big play, but they could also come down with a big turnover. The team tallied 17 picks and 9 fumble recoveries all year. It was gamble big, win big for the Rockets last season, and it'll be curious if that's how it pans out in 2013.
Part of that, though, is that Molls and Bell were covering for younger players across the defense. That's not a concern this year. The entire starting D-Line returns this season. Names like Norrals and Ross Madison will be in the secondary to hold people back from the deep ball. If those other areas can step up, the linebackers can take the time to find their game and fill those playmakers shoes.
The first two weeks of this season might just be the toughest two weeks for any team in the MAC. This Saturday, the Rockets open up on the road against the Florida Gators on ESPN3 at 12:21 p.m.. It's the first time Toledo has played an SEC team in history. After that, the Rockets play their second SEC team ever as they travel to Missouri to face Gary Pinkel (who?) and the Tigers. It seems tough, absolutely. But, if you told me last year Toledo would take Arizona to overtime, beat Wyoming, and then take down ranked Cincinnati later on in the year, then I can tell you that either one of those games are in play.
They'll finally open up the Glass Bowl on September 14th against FCS program Eastern Washington, then go back on the road for MAC play against Central and Ball State. Toledo will defend the I-75 Trophy in Bowling Green on October 26th, and will play Northern Illinois for the MAC West crown (Be quiet, you know it's true) on November 20th.