The 2022 MAC Championship Game kicks off in Detroit this Saturday, and for the first time since 2017, the Toledo Rockets are apart of it.
Toledo has been on the doorstep throughout the Jason Candle era, but the Rockets finally pieced together a return trip by clinching the MAC West division after 10 weeks of action. Toledo earned the nod as the betting favorite over Ohio in this conference title matchup despite boasting a 7-5 record while in the midst a two-game losing streak.
But with a fresh slate Saturday, the Rockets hope to capitalize with their immense level of talent which includes a MAC-best 11 all-conference selections, including seven who are defensive starters. From the recent track record of favorites in the MAC title game to Toledo’s quarterback situation, here are several storylines to watch for the Rockets on Saturday in Detroit:
Beware of (under)dog
Conference championship weekend is typically a victory lap for teams that enter their league title games as favorites. But not for the MAC. In four consecutive years, the underdog has emerged as the victor in the MAC Championship Game.
- 2018 Northern Illinois (+3) defeated Buffalo, 30-29
- 2019 Miami (OH) (+6) defeated Central Michigan, 26-21
- 2020 Ball State (+13) defeated Buffalo, 38-28
- 2021 Northern Illinois (+3.5) defeated Kent State, 41-23
The last favorite to win in Detroit was 2017 Toledo, which was a commanding 20.5-point favorite over Akron. But since that December afternoon five years ago, Ford Field has been a dance floor for the underdogs. This year, the Rockets are 1.5-point favorites according to oddsmakers, and they’ll hope to avoid the same fate the previous four favorites suffered.
Finn or Gleason?
The starting quarterback of Toledo is a mystery on a week-by-week basis. In Week 13, it was primary starter Dequan Finn although seasoned backup Tucker Gleason finished the game. In Week 12, it was Gleason. In Week 11, it was Finn. In Week 10, it was Gleason. In Week 9, it was Finn.
As evidenced by Toledo’s recent quarterback history, Finn has been through a fair share of injuries this year. First, it was a shoulder injury in the Week 9 loss to Buffalo. Two games later, in a win over Ball State, Finn suffered a leg injury but returned in time for the regular season finale. However, after attempting 11 passes and uncharacteristically limiting himself to one rush excluding sacks against Western Michigan, Finn was sidelined for the remainder of the contest. He was seen in a walking boot and street clothes on the broadcast while Gleason finished the contest.
When healthy, Finn is a dynamic playmaker. The Second Team All-MAC quarterback is two starts removed from a season-high 301 passing yards. He also fired six touchdowns without an interception in a comeback win over Kent State back in October. Finn also adds an element of mobility to Toledo’s offense, rushing for 522 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns on an average of 5.5 yards per carry.
But the question is, how healthy is Finn? If Toledo needs to ride with Gleason, he’s proven serviceable in the past. Gleason started and won a key tiebreaker game over MAC West runner-up Eastern Michigan, where he delivered three passing touchdowns on a 238-yard outing. The following week against Bowling Green, Gleason unleashed his previously undiscovered mobility when he rushed for 106 yards, in addition to posting 329 passing yards, in the rivalry matchup. He accounted for five total touchdowns in the victory.
Toledo will face Ohio backup quarterback CJ Harris in the MAC title game, but regardless of whether it’s Finn or Gleason, the Rockets trot out the more veteran quarterback in this matchup.
Relighting the Candle
No active MAC head coach has multiple conference championships. Former Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey is the most recent to claim multiple MAC titles, earning one in 2014 and another in 2018. This Saturday, Toledo’s seventh-year head coach Jason Candle can become the only active coach in the league with more than one win in Detroit, as well as join Carey, Dave Doeren, Butch Jones, Tom Amstutz, and Bob Pruett in the exclusive club of coaches to attain this feat in the MAC Championship Game era (1997-present).
In his second year at the helm, Candle led the Rockets to decisive 45-28 victory over Akron in the 2017 MAC Championship Game. Despite claiming bowl eligibility every season on the job, this is Toledo’s first return trip to Detroit under Candle.
And yes, Toledo still has active players who won the 2017 MAC title. Senior free safety Zachary Ford, tight end Jamal Turner, offensive tackle Mitchell Berg, outside linebacker Nate Givhan, and guard Kelvin Ateman were redshirted freshmen on the 2017 conference championship roster. So in addition to Candle, there is a horde of players vying for their second MAC championship five years later.
The 2022 MAC Championship Game between the Toledo Rockets and Ohio Bobcats kicks off at Ford Field in Detroit at 12 p.m. ET. The game is viewable on ESPN.