“I couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve accomplished," Toledo football head coach Jason Candle told media during post-game availability at last season's Dollar General Bowl. "They took a knee at the 50-yard line in the Glass Bowl this summer and said they wanted to hang a number up on the face of the press box, and they did that.”
2017 was a bittersweet season for the Rockets, who claimed their first conference title in over a decade. However, the season ended with the touchdown-favored Toledo Rockets getting demolished 34-0 in the Dollar General Bowl by Appalachian State to finish with an 11-3 record.
In two full seasons as Toledo’s head coach, the 38-year old Candle is a respectable 21-7. But the road doesn’t necessarily get easier in 2018 after the departure of several of the team’s centerpieces.
The program’s all-time leading passer Logan Woodside was drafted by the Bengals in the seventh round. Running back Terry Swanson, outside linebackers Ola Adeniyi and JaWuan Woodley, and offensive linemen Brant Weiss and Elijah Nkansah are just several more significant departures that the program must replace this September.
Junior Mitch Guadagni and freshman Eli Peters are competing for the role of chief signal caller for the new-look Toledo offense. With Swanson gone, returning running backs Art Thompkins and Shakif Seymour are expected to pick up the pace. The receiving corps of Diontae Johnson, Cody Thompson, Jon’Vea Johnson, and Danzel McKinley-Lewis remains one of the deepest and strongest in the country. There are several frontrunners in the Big Ten who would happily exchange their group of wideouts for Toledo’s talented bunch.
The offensive line and defensive line are greatly transforming from what we saw in the trenches in 2017. Defensively, Toledo’s most vital asset appears to be its secondary, which returns with an experienced pair of safeties in Josh Teachey and Khalil Robinson.
It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Rockets to match or exceed their 11-win total from the previous season. Replacing a program-defining quarterback is no easy task, but we’ve seen teams in this conference complete the challenge. Northern Illinois claimed the MAC throne in 2014 just one season after the departure of Heisman finalist quarterback Jordan Lynch. But in order for Toledo to repeat as champions in Detroit, the Rockets must establish a talented defense and Guadagni/Peters must perform better than a typical first-year starter.
Week 1: VMI Keydets (FCS) @ Toledo Rockets
As an established MAC program, there is no reason for Toledo to struggle with an FCS school. But VMI isn’t a typical Week 1 FCS opponent — it’s worse. The Keydets finished 0-11 last season and were blanked 62-0 by their only FBS opponent, an Air Force team that finished 5-7. This is the perfect game to give reps to both Guadagni and Peters and figure out new plays, schemes, and starters because this game will be over by the time the first quarter clock winds down to zero.
Prediction: Toledo (1-0) 58, VMI 6
Week 3: Miami Hurricanes @ Toledo Rockets
For the second consecutive year, the Hurricanes present the most daunting challenge on the Rockets’ entire schedule. Miami nearly ran the table last regular season, but Toledo did strike some fear into Hard Rock Stadium when the two collided in late September. The Rockets entered halftime with a 16-10 lead behind a solid passing attack, but fumbles and the inability to stop Hurricanes’ running back Mark Walton (204 yards) swung the game back in Miami’s favor. Miami sustained its undefeated record while handing Toledo its first loss in a 52-30 result — a game that was closer than the scoreboard suggested.
Expect Mark Richt’s Hurricanes to win this one with a similar score but without a major first half scare in the Glass Bowl on September 15.
Prediction: Miami 48, Toledo (1-1) 24
Week 4: Nevada Wolf Pack @ Toledo Rockets
There isn’t much traveling for Jason Candle’s program in September. The Rockets open with a trio of games at home, and this MAC-Mountain West matchup should result in the team’s second victory of the season. Nevada has been on a consistent downward plunge since Colin Kaepernick brought the Wolf Pack to a 13-1 record in 2010. Last season, Nevada bottomed out at 3-9 with its worst finish since 2000. Toledo paid a visit to Reno on Week 3 of 2017, only edging Jay Norvell’s Wolf Pack by a score of 37-24. But after a test against Miami in the Glass Bowl, Toledo should rise above .500 with a victory against a struggling Group of 5 program.
Prediction: Toledo (2-1) 31, Nevada 23
Week 5: Toledo Rockets @ Fresno State Bulldogs
Fresno State was one of the greatest surprises of the 2017 season. The Bulldogs catapulted out of the cellar after a 1-11 season in 2016 and nearly won the Mountain West. First-year head coach Jeff Tedford upset Boise State on the regular season’s final week before falling to the Broncos in the conference championship. But the season ended on a high note as the Bulldogs registered their 10th victory of the year against Houston in the Hawaii Bowl. Quarterback Marcus McMaryion, wide receiver KeeSean Johnson, and inside linebacker Jeffrey Allison are just several names of talented returning players to this rising Fresno State squad. Etching an upset victory 5,700 miles away from home is no easy task for Toledo. This will be a fun back and forth game, but Fresno State’s defense — ranked 10th in opposing points per game last season — will be the x-factor that spoils Toledo’s road opener.
Prediction: Fresno State 27, Toledo (2-2) 22
Week 6: Bowling Green Falcons @ Toledo Rockets
39 wins, 39 losses, 4 ties. The Battle of I-75 is one of the conference’s most storied and intense rivalries, and the all-time series is currently deadlocked. Despite a pair of Bowling Green conference titles this decade, Toledo has claimed the trophy each of the last eight seasons, dating back to 2010. Defense was optional in last year’s crosstown match, as the Rockets blew away with a 66-37 victory. Bowling Green’s offense does look more promising this year with developing talent like quarterback Jarret Doege and running back Andrew Clair. The Falcons’ defense is still questionable. Expect another high-scoring result in early October with the replica of the I-75 sign staying in Toledo.
Prediction: Toledo (3-2) 43, Bowling Green (1-1) 31
Week 7: Toledo Rockets @ Eastern Michigan Eagles
Let’s take a moment to remember the greatest highlight of the 2017 edition of this MAC West showdown.
How drunk was this announcer? pic.twitter.com/8qTiOkvY0P— Barstool Eagles (@EMUBarstool) October 7, 2017
But on a serious note, it was a fantastic competition, with Toledo prevailing at the Glass Bowl by a score of 20-15. Since Chris Creighton’s Eastern Michigan team seemingly plays every game within one possession (9 of 12 games in 2017), expect a tight one when this series heads to Ypsilanti in mid-October. The main matchup to watch will be Toledo’s superior offense led by Seymour, Thompson, and Diontae Johnson against Eastern Michigan’s forceful defense which includes Maxx Crosby and Brody Hoying. This battle on the grey field will be a tossup, but the Eagles will edge the Rockets late by a Paulie Fricano field goal (one that actually sails through the uprights, Jay Feely).
Prediction: Eastern Michigan 23, Toledo (3-3) 21
Week 8: Buffalo Bulls @ Toledo Rockets
So far, this prediction has the Rockets trudging through a rough patch to begin 2018. That’s a fairly common occurrence in the Group of Five when a legendary quarterback hands off the ropes to a brand new starter. But things won’t ease up much when a talented Buffalo team charges into town on October 20. Tyree Jackson and Anthony Johnson are the cream of the crop when it comes to QB-WR combos in this conference. Toledo’s corners will struggle stopping the future NFL receiver, and Johnson will likely register over 150 yards and a score or two on the stat sheet. But fear not, 2017 MAC champions, better days are ahead as the schedule eases up in the next several weeks.
Prediction: Buffalo 42, Toledo (3-4) 31
Week 9: Toledo Rockets @ Western Michigan Broncos
It’s been a seemingly long time since the boat set sail from Kalamazoo off to the lakes of Minneapolis. But the 2017 Western Michigan Broncos proved to us how quickly a 13-1 Cotton Bowl season can turn into a middling 6-6 without a bowl invite. Western Michigan’s hangover year following a long-awaited MAC championship is exactly the season Toledo must avoid in 2018. This is the game where the Rockets start surging up the standings. With no Sam Beal to worry about in the secondary, Diontae Johnson and Cody Thompson are primed for memorable games in Kalamazoo, and the Rockets run away with a comfortable victory. A .500 record never felt so good.
Prediction: Toledo (4-4) 37, Western Michigan 12
Week 10: Ball State Cardinals @ Toledo Rockets
Last year in Muncie, Toledo absolutely manhandled the 2-10 Cardinals on their home turf. Despite trailing by four to end the first quarter, the Rockets wore out the Ball State defense with five touchdowns of 60 yards or more. Every scoring drive was completed in under five plays, allowing Toledo to coast to a one-sided 58-17 victory. A yearlong injury plague on the Ball State sidelines definitely contributed to the lopsided score, but even in a brand new 2018, there should still be a sizable gap between the programs. Toledo will continue its offensive surge after beating Western Michigan, thanks to terrific follow up performances by Diontae Johnson and Cody Thompson.
Prediction: Toledo (5-4) 51, Ball State 17
Week 11: Toledo Rockets @ Northern Illinois Huskies
Out of all games on the conference schedule, none will have a greater impact on the MAC West race than this intense battle in DeKalb, Illinois. Toledo’s skill position players on offense will be put to the test against All-American Sutton Smith and the NIU defense. Surprisingly, Toledo’s offensive line won the battle in the trenches during the 2017 matchup. The departures of Brant Weiss and Elijah Nkansah will be tough to replace when Northern Illinois attacks the backfield, but Toledo has enough talent in other areas to eke out a slim victory in the Land of Lincoln.
Just like the Eastern Michigan game, this is a tossup on Toledo’s schedule. Although I predict the Rockets to win this one, I still believe the Huskies (with one MAC loss) will wind up in Detroit for the conference title for the first time since 2015.
Prediction: Toledo (6-4) 19, Northern Illinois 16
Week 12: Toledo Rockets @ Kent State Golden Flashes
Kent State will still be Kent State in 2018. Newly hired head coach Sean Lewis will attempt to revitalize the program in much need of a culture change, but turning the Golden Flashes into winners immediately will be no easy task. Although it’s a road game against an outmatched opponent, this isn’t necessarily a trap game for Toledo either. Outside of the Week 1 contest again VMI, this should be Toledo’s most dominant all-around performance of the season. By racking up their seventh win 140 miles away from home, the Rockets should lock up a spot in bowl season for the fifth-straight year.
Prediction: Toledo (7-4) 33, Kent State 7
Week 13: Central Michigan Chippewas @ Toledo Rockets
The Rockets won’t have to wake up ridiculously early to shop for a Black Friday victory against this Chippewas team. Central Michigan also enters 2018 without a veteran quarterback, as former Chippewa Shane Morris has handed the reigns to sophomore Tony Poljan. The Chippewas were a different team in November last year, firing off five-straight victories to end the regular season. But last year’s Central Michigan will be this year’s Toledo — a 3-4 team that catches fire once the September leaves die and a sheet of frost rests on the trees. This senior day win will mark the final game in the Glass Bowl for Cody Thompson, Jon’Vea Johnson, Tyler Taafe, Jameson Vest, and many more impactful veterans.
Prediction: Toledo (8-4) 28, Central Michigan 21
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Toledo Rockets vs. Colorado State Rams
The 8-4 record lands Toledo into a far, far away place known as Idaho. “The Gem State” is the same location where the Buffalo Bulls upset Arizona in March Madness last year, so the MAC has seen some form of postseason success in the Northwest. The 2012 season marked the last time Toledo received an invite to the Potato Bowl, so as one of five or six teams with bowl bids, the Rockets seem due to return soon. The MAC hasn’t won a bowl game in the United States since December 22, 2015 (Akron beating Utah State in the Potato Bowl) and Toledo didn’t fare too well in the postseason against Appalachian State in Mobile.
It will be interesting to note if the MAC finally turns around their unfortunate postseason trend this December (1-10 in last two seasons). But in this Potato Bowl, Candle’s Rockets will finish 2018 with their second loss to the Mountain West and an 8-5 record.
Prediction: Colorado State 35, Toledo (8-5) 24
Overall, this would be a respectable season — not terrible, not great, and action-packed with an exciting sprint to the finish in the regular season. A few Rockets may be showered with All-Conference honors, including a few of the receivers, Tyler Taafe, Kahlil Robinson, Jameson Vest, and perhaps Shakif Seymour. Jason Candle will likely stay in Toledo for another season, but his name may be circling in rumors for some Power 5 jobs, such as Illinois and Maryland.
Toledo kicks off its season opener against VMI on September 1 at 7 pm EST. The game can be streamed on WatchESPN’s ESPN3 service.