The Toledo Rockets have been one of the better programs in the MAC, and have been consistently competitive throughout their 53 years in the conference. In 2013, Toledo was in the running for the MAC West title all season, until a late swoon against NIU and Akron knocked them out of contention. It also cost them a bowl game, with Ohio getting the nod instead.
Offense has been their calling card for some time, and last season was no different, as the Rockets moved the ball almost at will. Running backs David Fluellen and Kareem Hunt led the way, combining for nearly 2000 yards and 16 TDs. The steady passing of Terrance Owens, linking up with receivers Bernard Reedy and Alonzo Russell, kept opponents guessing.
The defense, on the other hand, was inconsistent, looking great at times, and vanishing in other games. The offense kept them in the running, There were too many close games, which ultimately cost the Rockets. The defense certainly wasn't without talent, with the likes of defensive end/tackle Jayrone Elliott and linebacker Junior Sylvestre making a ton of plays.
This season, the Rockets lose many of their name players - Owens, Fluellen, Reedy, Elliott - but return almost everyone else of consequence. The key battle is at quarterback, where 2013 reserve Logan Woodside and Alabama-transfer Phillip Ely are fighting it out into summer camp. Hunt and Russell look to be studs, and should keep the offense ticking over. Elliott could turn out to be the biggest loss. This is a deep team, and should challenge for the West title again.
Vs New Hampshire, August 30th
Most FBS teams like to pick on their FCS cousins in non-conference play for a sure win and a chance to tune up the final few kinks in their system. Why the Rockets would take on New Hampshire, one of the top teams in the old Division 1A, certainly doesn't fit that mould.
The Wildcats will be led by junior quarterback Sean Goldrich, a dual-threat who accounted for over 2700 yards and 20 totals TDs last season. He should take another step forward this year. He'll have a decent runner in Nick Steriti to maintain some balance. RJ Harris will lead a talented bunch of receivers. The Rockets' defense has to step up here. They have way more talent than UNH, but they need to show it. The pass rush was outstanding last season, but the rest of the unit struggled when the blitz didn't get there. Tightening up at the back will be a key, as will keeping Goldrich from taking off when the coverage isn't looking. Sounds easy. The Wildcats running attack was more efficient than explosive, but the Rockets need to keep them in passing situations.
Now here's the good news - the New Hampshire defense isn't great. They improved steadily over the course of the season (until they ran into North Dakota State), but they were vulnerable, particularly against the run. Guess what? Toledo like to run the ball. A lot. Based on the latter half of last season, Hunt may be even better than Fluellen, and he'll have a fresh pair of legs at the start of the year. With a new quarterback on hand, he should see a lot of the ball. The Wildcat secondary was pretty good at shutting down the big play, while their excellent pass rush forced quarterbacks to get rid of the ball in a hurry. The defense forced a respectable 26 turnovers, with 15 interceptions, so the new quarterbacks will need to be smart with the football, but Toledo's offensive line should be the MVP of this game.
It'll be a tough, and UNH could probably beat a bunch of MAC teams, but Hunt will gut them like a fish as Toledo win by two scores.
Vs Missouri, 6th September
You could argue that Mizzou took advantage of a senior laden-team and a weak SEC East to make the conference championship game last season, but that would be unfair. An outstanding running game and relentless defense made them a force to be reckoned with until the got Auburn'd in the title game. The problem with senior-laden teams though, is they can suffer the following season, and the Tigers return just eight starters. They are not without weapons though, and feature an offensive line that brings back three from last year's unit. Quarterback looks to be set with Maty Mauk taking over for James Franklin, something he did last season when Franklin was injured. He's smart with the football, but needs to improve his completion percentage. The departure of Dorial Green-Beckham and a couple of other seniors won't help, but the Tigers aren't short at receiver. Running back will be their strength again, with Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy ready to take advantage of increased opportunities. They could both crack 1000 yards this season. This is where the Rockets need to tighten up, as forcing Missouri to pass could play into their hands better. Mauk is a playmaker, but his accuracy needs work.
The Tiger defense was similarly cleaned out, returning just four starters, and they're taking a hit on the depth chart, more than the new starting unit. Kony Ealy and Michael Sam were fantastic at end last season; Markus Golden and Shane Ray may be even better. All the top defensive tackles return, making running yards hard to come by, and the Tigers may need to stuff the run quickly, as the linebackers lack much experience. Kentrell Brothers is back, but he's moving from weakside to the middle. Safety Braylon Webb is the glue in the secondary, but the corners are young and may be vulnerable. Toledo will try and run the ball early, and if the line can play well, there could be yards available beyond the Tiger front four. The secondary has potential, but may not be quite where they want to be in just their second game.
The Rockets played well last season, and have the edge in experience. Mizzou's superior talent should win out, though it could be a lot closer than the Tigers would like.
@ Cincinnati, 12th September
A Friday night game means a short week, and the Rockets probably could use the extra day to recover from Missouri. Still, even though this is an away game, it's within the confines of Ohio. This could be a tough matchup though, with the Bearcats returning plenty of talent from a team that regularly competes for the AAC title. They'll be breaking in a new quarterback, but may be even stronger in 2014. Gunner Kiel, who's better known for his transient ways, finally settled in Cincy, and has had a year to learn the system. He's been great in spring camp and will have a solid bunch of receivers to throw to, led by Shaq Washington. If Toledo can manufacture a pass rush against a decent Bearcat line, they could force UC into running the ball, which is not their forte. they have a trio of reliable running backs, but no one who really scares opponents.
It's no question what the strength of the Cincinnati team is - it's defense. They are really fast, flowing to the ball and forcing turnovers. The Bearcats were outstanding against the run last season, allowing just three teams to average more 4 yards per carry against them. The defense generally isn't huge, preferring quickness and athleticism over strength, and this could play into Toledo's hands if the offensive line can handle the front seven. The pass defense is also good, preferring to allow teams to chip away with short passes than give up big plays, but if Woodside/Ely can move the chains without turning the ball over, they can control the clock. A controlled short-passing attack should help keep the Bearcats pass rush off the quarterbacks.
Cincinnati are really good, but this will be their first game of the season, whereas the Rockets will be on their third. This could be really close, and if it goes to field goals, put your money on Toledo.
@ Iowa State, 11th October
These two teams have played twice, with each winning a game, and both have been barnstormers. This season, despite the Cyclones coming off a 3-9 year, there's no reason to expect anything different. Why should there be offensive fireworks for a team that had none last year? Well, Mark Mangino, the former Kansas coach, is running the offense. Mangino had his problems, but he knew how to get the best of his teams. He has some talent to work with, too. First order of business is sorting out the starting quarterback, but Grant Rohach has the edge for now. Whoever wins has a fine pair of receivers in Quenton Bundrage and tight end EJ Bibbs, while there are some nice young options on the roster. There are a good group of running backs led by speedy Aaron Wimberly, and an experienced offensive line. Still, the Cyclones were terrible on third down last season, so the objective for Toledo's defense is simple. Iowa State should be able to put points on the board, but the Rockets will take their share of scalps.
Iowa State's defense was vulnerable against the run last season, and there is little evidence to suggest that's going to change any in 2014. Cory Morrisey is the only returning starter on the defensive line, although he's pretty good, but experience and depth are thin. Luke Knott returns from injury to bring some pep to the linebacker corps, and Jevohn Miller is back too. Knott was having a fine season prior to his injury, and could put up some serious numbers over a full year. The secondary should be good with both corners back - Nigel Tribune is on the verge of becoming a lockdown corner - but they need to replace both safeties. It may not matter how good the pass defense is, as Toledo may not feel the urge to pass much if the running attack is clicking.
It will be close, and high-scoring, but the win belongs to the Rockets.