Just over halfway into the 2014 campaign, the Toledo Rockets have to feel pretty good about where they stand.
Sure, they'd prefer to have a better non-conference record (they fell to 1-3 Saturday, with a loss to Iowa State to go alongside defeats against Missouri and Cincinnati), and could have done without losing top skill players Phillip Ely and Kareem Hunt to injury, but the Rockets have a perfect score where it really counts - a 3-0 conference record.
Thanks to three wins against MAC West foes, convincingly against Ball State and Central Michigan and otherwise against Western Michigan, Toledo sits alone atop the MAC West. As the Rockets take the bye week to settle in as the new favorites to win the division, let's have a look at what we have learned (and what we will learn) about them this season.
What We Already Knew
1. The offensive line powers the Rockets.
How does an offense lose its starting quarterback and running back for a combined 8 games and stay on track to compete for a division title? It starts in the trenches. The Rockets' offensive line has been absolutely mauling opponents this season, leading to the 20th-ranked run offense in the country, good for first in the MAC. Toledo is rushing for over six yards per carry on the season, and with four running backs seeing significant time due to injuries, the one constant has been the offensive line. The math does itself.
2. Toledo needs to improve (or hide) its secondary in order to beat good teams.
There's no nice way to put it - Toledo is getting hammered by the pass. Air raids from the likes of Gunner Kiel and Maty Mauk shredded the Rockets' secondary, and the numbers are just as ugly as the tape. Toledo is allowing 329.3 passing yards per game, good for 123rd in the country. While 123rd is good enough to stay ahead of rival Bowling Green, it's also third-from-last in the nation. Senior safety Jordan Haden has flashed some big play ability and the Rockets boast plenty of young talent at cornerback, but those numbers will need to get better if Toledo wants to hang with teams that have competent passing attacks.
What We Didn't Know
1. Logan Woodside is already a capable starting quarterback in the MAC.
As a true sophomore thrust into the quarterback position due to injury, Logan Woodside began his reign as Toledo's signal caller as a relative unknown. He had performed well in limited mop-up duty (as well as one game-managing start as a freshman against FCS Eastern Washington), but it was unclear whether he had the chops to keep Toledo alive in the conference title race after promising starter Phillip Ely went down for the season.
While Woodside hasn't blown away the conference since taking over, he's proven he belongs as a starter thus far. An excellent line and a deep running game have certainly helped him, but he ranks in the top half of MAC quarterbacks in pass efficiency, tossing eight touchdowns against just three interceptions since taking over. And Toledo's best win of the season, against Central Michigan, he threw for 339 yards and accounted for three touchdowns, showing he might be capable of carrying the offense if needed. It's a small sample size so far, but with three MAC West wins to his name, Woodside has done what he's needed to do.
2. The Rockets' run defense is almost enough to make up for its pass defense.
Led by a stout front seven that features the likes of Junior Sylvestre and Orion Jones, Toledo has yet to let an opponent's running game set the tone. The Rockets' run defense ranks 23rd in the nation, giving up a miserly 3.29 yards per carry. With such a potent rushing attack and a stout run defense, the Rockets are built perfectly to win time-of-possession battles and force their opponents to play from behind. If the secondary can force a few timely turnovers or simply limit big plays on the back end, Toledo can dominate games.
What We Still Don't Know
1. How will the Rockets handle being division favorites?
Toledo will be heavily favored in three of its five remaining contests, as it gets to take on Massachusetts, Kent State and Eastern Michigan and their combined two conference wins. While the midweek contest against rival Bowling Green could be a compelling matchup, the Nov. 11 battle at Northern Illinois appears to be the key game on the Rockets' schedule.
Thanks to the Huskies' 34-17 loss to Central Michigan Saturday, coupled with Toledo's 42-28 win over the Chippewas earlier in the year, a win over Northern Illinois would put the Rockets in the driver's seat for their first trip to the MAC title game in a decade.
With Northern Illinois winning at least a share of the last four MAC West titles, Matt Campbell's Rockets have spent a lot of time looking up at the top of the standings. Now that they've taken over as clubhouse leaders, can they finish the job and punch their ticket to Detroit?
2. When is Kareem Hunt coming back?
Sophomore running back Hunt had the look of an emerging superstar in his first four games of the campaign, rolling for seven touchdowns and 529 yards on the ground at a rate of 8.9 yards per carry. However, following his ankle injury against Ball State, he's missed three starts. While the bye week is certain to help, the Toledo coaching staff has given little indication as to how close he might be to returning.
A trio of rushers - Damion Jones-Moore, Terry Swanson and Marc Remy - have filled in admirably in Hunt's absence, combining for seven touchdowns and 6.3 yards per carry. Still, Hunt, who still has the highest rushing average in the country for any player with 50 or more carries, will supercharge the Toledo offense if and when he returns at full strength.
3. Can Matt Campbell have his best season yet?
Toledo's hiring of Campbell following Tim Beckman's departure in 2011 turned a few heads, as the then 32-year-old was the youngest coach in the FBS. Since, he's largely had strong results, producing a number of prized recruits, as well as a Military Bowl victory in his first game as head coach and a 14-5 record against MAC opponents in two full seasons and change.
Despite a pair of winning campaigns to go along with his bowl win, a loss in the 2012 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and a postseason snub after a 7-5 year in 2013 mean Campbell has yet to close out a full season with a bowl win. With the Rockets looking like a good bet for another winning record and a sizable slate of MAC bowl bids awaiting, he should have a shot at putting together the best complete season of his young career. Campbell, by all accounts, has been a success as a head coach thus far, but Rockets fans would surely like to see him take the leap and bring home a trophy with his recruits.