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2023 MAC Championship Game Storylines: Toledo Rockets

Toledo can become the first back-to-back MAC champion since 2011-12 Northern Illinois.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Ford Field opens its doors Saturday morning for the annual MAC Championship Game. This is the venue’s 20th edition of the event, and fittingly, this year’s matchup is identical to the first-ever MAC Championship Game at Ford Field.

Toledo and Miami (OH) square off for the MAC title for the first time since 2004. Both teams have qualified, and won in Detroit, with their current head coach. Toledo is the reigning MAC champion, winning recent conference titles in 2017 and 2022, while Miami (OH) returns to Ford Field for the first time since claiming the throne in 2019.

The 2023 MAC Championship Game between Toledo and Miami (OH) kicks off at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN in Detroit.

In preparation for the game, let’s look at three storylines for Saturday through a Toledo Rockets lens:

A rare shot at back-to-back in the MAC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 03 MAC Championship - Toledo vs Ohio
Toledo defeated Ohio 17-7 in the 2022 MAC Championship Game. The Rockets can be the first repeat winner in over a decade.
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If there’s one thing to know about predicting MAC champions in the preseason, it’s usually to avoid selecting the previous year’s champion to repeat. After all, no team has claimed back-to-back MAC titles since Northern Illinois did in 2011 and 2012. Toledo is looking to buck that trend.

But it’s been quite some time since the prior champion made it as far as Toledo already went. The last time any team punched a ticket to Detroit in consecutive years was 2015, when Northern Illinois and Bowling Green met in the MAC Championship Game for the third consecutive season, also squaring off in 2013 and 2014.

Toledo emerged in last year’s MAC title game over Ohio in a wire-to-wire 17-7 result. This Saturday against Miami (OH), the Rockets receive the opportunity to join an exclusive club of repeat champions since the inception of the conference title game — one that comprises of 2011-12 Northern Illinois, 2006-07 Central Michigan, and 1997-00 Marshall.

Additionally, quarterback Dequan Finn — the 2023 Vern Smith Leadership Award recipient, which honors the MAC’s most valuable player — will become the first quarterback to start in consecutive MAC title games since former Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch attained this at Northern Illinois in 2012 and 2013.

Finn can join even more rarefied air and become the first starting quarterback to win consecutive MAC Championship Games since Dan LeFevour of Central Michigan in 2006 and 2007. The only other quarterback in this exclusive category is Marshall’s Chad Pennington, who won three-straight conference crowns from 1997 to 1999.

Lighting the third Candle on the MAC title wreath

MAC Championship - Toledo v Ohio
Toledo head coach Jason Candle can become the second head coach to win three MAC Championship Games.
Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Three days before the game kicks off in Detroit, Toledo head coach Jason Candle received a lofty, but familiar honor. He was named MAC Coach of the Year for the second time in his career, becoming the 12th multi-time recipient of the award and only the third to claim it twice in the 21st century. Last time Candle was bestowed the honor in 2017, his Rockets defeated Akron in the MAC Championship Game several days later.

Candle didn’t receive the award before his 2022 MAC championship, but he can join an even more exclusive club of coaches Saturday. Since the conference title game was introduced in 1997, only one coach has won the MAC at least three times. Former Marshall head coach Bob Pruett led the Thundering Herd to five league championships — four consecutive titles from 1997-00 and another in 2002. If Toledo edges Miami (OH) in Detroit, Candle becomes the second MAC head coach with three conference championship victories. With wins over Akron in 2017 and Ohio in 2022, he is currently 2-0 in Detroit and is set to face his third different opponent led by a third different head coach.

New Year’s Six... so you’re saying there’s a chance? Boca Raton Bowl - Liberty v Toledo
Toledo defeated Liberty in the 2022 Boca Raton Bowl. In order to have a chance at the NY6, the Rockets must rely on another Liberty postseason loss.
Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled Tuesday night on ESPN, but much to the displeasure of Rockets faithful, the Toledo logo never appeared on the screen. No MAC team has garnered a ranking from the CFP committee since 2016 Western Michigan, but this year’s Toledo squad is the first team to even record 11 regular season wins since that heralded Broncos team.

Toledo lost a heartbreaker in Week 1 to Illinois, thanks to an unlikely fourth down conversion by the Fighting Illini which led to a last-second field goal, but the Rockets have been unscathed since. The Rockets’ strongest marks on their résumé include road conference victories over 10-2 Miami (OH) and 7-5 Bowling Green, and their signature win of the non-conference slate involved a comeback over a 7-5 San Jose State team which is in a three-way tie atop the Mountain West standings.

The committee often reiterates they value conference championships and Toledo can feasibly vault into the rankings by upending Miami on Saturday. That leads to the next point.

In the current College Football Playoff format, which launched in 2014 and dissolves after this season, the highest-ranked conference champion from the AAC, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt receives an automatic bid to a New Year’s Six bowl. Currently, Tulane (AAC) is the favorite for that bid with a No. 22 ranking. Liberty (CUSA) appears to be next in line at No. 24. What happens if Tulane and Liberty lose their respective conference championship matchups to SMU and New Mexico State?

Should Toledo take care of business, that coveted New Year’s Six spot is likely a two-team race between 12-1 Toledo and 11-2 SMU, which are both currently unranked. In this scenario, the Mustangs could be favored to clinch that spot if they register that high-quality win at Tulane. But would the committee evaluate SMU differently since starting quarterback Preston Stone is out for the remainder of the year with a broken fibula, even though that would be unfair to the Mustangs?

SMU’s situation is similar to the one Florida State is facing, bereft of starting quarterback Jordan Travis for the remainder of the season. When asked how Florida State is evaluated without Travis, committee chair Boo Corrigan responded, “You know, they’re a different team. It’s pretty obvious, with Jordan Travis not playing and Tate Rodemaker playing, they’re a different team, just as anyone would be if they lost their quarterback in that situation... We’re just evaluating it at this point where they are with the body of work throughout the season, while a topic of discussion, as it should be, as injuries should be at this point, and player availability, if you will, it’s a big part of the conversation.”

So if Toledo is fortunate enough for Tulane and Liberty to fall this weekend, there exists a scenario where the Rockets potentially compete with SMU for a New Year’s Six bid. If they emerge on top, they would be the first MAC team to claim it since 2016 Western Michigan, snapping the AAC’s six-year streak of securing a New Year’s Six bowl.