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2016 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Toledo Rockets

New coach and new questions, same Toledo

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Toledo vs Temple Robert Duyos-USA TODAY Sports

Usually in the Mid-American Conference, when coaches leave programs, calamity ensues. After 2015, and the departure of head coach Matt Campbell, it would be easy to see how that could happen. But perhaps Toledo isn’t like every other MAC program.

2015 was a weird year for the Rockets. Through a weird twist of fate and tiebreakers, Toledo had the best record in the MAC but didn’t play for a MAC Championship. They also had a game canceled because of weather. Despite that, they still landed in double-digit win territory, and won their second straight bowl game. Not bad for a program that consistently plays second fiddle in MAC West attention to Northern Illinois and doesn’t get the recruiting hype wagon rolling like Western Michigan.

Consistency in the MAC is reserved for only the most elite of programs. Toledo can count themselves among that group with a successful 2016 campaign. Making an internal hire last time worked out quite well when Campbell was promoted from the offensive coordinator to the head coach. Jason Candle is hoping to continue that trend and make 2016 a year to remember.

Five Players to Know:

Kareem Hunt, RB: A big reason why Toledo was ranked third in the MAC on offense and put up 35 points a game with 461 yards was Kareem Hunt. The running back finished just one yard shy of 1000, and put 12 scores on the board. In the MAC, having a standout running back makes life considerably easier, and with the offensive line that Toledo has returning, Hunt looks to pick up 2016 where he left off 2015.

Terry Swanson, RB: As if one outstanding running back wasn’t enough, there’s also Terry Swanson, who also finished just shy of 1000 yards last season and hung seven scores of his own. It’s an embarrassment of riches for the Rockets, but make sure you’re aware of which Toledo running back is running left, right, and through most MAC defenses.

Cody Thompson, WR: In case you’re also a fan of passing as well as rushing, Toledo returns their leading yardage receiver from 2015 also. Thompson went for 825 yards and five TDs, surprisingly so as a true sophomore. As his junior season opens, Thompson is a considerable threat that has to be accounted for.

Corey Jones, WR: Because apparently a 1-2 punch at running back wasn’t enough, Toledo also has a similar situation at wide receiver with Corey Jones returning also. Jones caught 55 balls (team lead) and had five TDs on the year, good enough for a 2nd Team All-MAC selection. He was also a standout special teamer, landing 1st Team All-MAC as a punt returner.

Logan Woodside, QB: Offensive skill players like the ones above are great weapons to have but it’s getting it to them that counts. Junior Logan Woodside returns at QB after redshirting last season with injury. Woodside doesn’t need to be phenomenal, and in true anti-MACtion, may just need to be a serviceable game manager for the Rockets to be very very good.

Four Games Not to Miss:

September 2nd @ Arkansas State: Season openers on the road against high octane offenses don’t usually work out well for most MAC teams, but Toledo isn’t your average MAC team. You can bet Arkansas State will want some vengeance for the 2014 GoDaddy Bowl, a 63-44 Toledo smashing.

September 30th @ BYU: Like passing? Like Friday night football? Then this is one that you’re probably going to want to set your DVR for. Especially if you plan on going to the bathroom or the kitchen at any point. You’ll want to have a pause button.

November 9th vs Northern Illinois: Sure, it’s cool because it’s at The Cell. But it’s also the biggest hurdle Toledo has to clear to route the MAC West championship through the Glass Bowl. Tiebreakers didn’t work out too well last year. A win hear makes them may not be needed again.

November 25th @ Western Michigan: The final hurdle to clear for Toledo to head to Detroit may very well come down to a day after Thanksgiving showdown with Western Michigan. Most in the know seem to believe that the MAC West is going to come down to either NIU/WMU/Toledo. With a Rockets win, that path gets markedly easier.

Three Ways the Season is a Success:

The defense goes from unknown to known. The offense? Good shape. The defense? Your guess is as good as ours. Last season’s defense was outstanding, giving up only 20.8 points per game, good for their best total in years. This year just four starters return, and there are questions. It doesn’t have to be a standout unit, it just has to keep the stellar offense off the field long enough to grab a beverage and catch their breath.

Beat Bowling Green. It’s a rivalry game at home. Those are ones that new coaches do well to win and do so in convincing fashion.

Make it to Detroit. It goes without saying that Rockets fans deserved a trip last season. And in truth, for the rest of the MAC West, it would be kind of nice to have someone other than NIU there, right?

Two Things to Watch Out For:

Transition Issues. Internal hires are the great crapshoot. For as many that succeed there are others who just cannot handle a position that is CEO instead of direct manager. Candle has handled the position well in preseason, but to think it couldn’t be an issue would be ignoring an issue that has plagued coordinators and coaches far more experienced than him.

QB controversy. Though Woodside is assumed to be the starter solely on experience, it’s a three-way race for the position, and all could feasibly see time at some point. Keep an eye out for exciting freshman Mitchell Guadagni.

One Bold Prediction:

It comes down to tiebreakers again. With the way the schedule stacks, don’t count out NIU/WMU/Toledo having a weird ménage à trois of matching MAC records. It’s going to suck for Rockets fans and Candle to have their Detroit fate come down to a similar ending as 2015, but in reality, that would be a tremendously successful year.