New Year's Day has come to pass, the NFL playoffs are starting and MAC basketball league play begins in short order, but the MAC football season is not done just yet.
The Toledo Rockets will take on the Arkansas State Red Wolves in Mobile, Ala., in Sunday's GoDaddy Bowl, which marks the end of bowl season and the final college football contest before the Jan. 12 National Championship.
For the Rockets (8-4, 7-1 MAC), the bid to the post-New Year's bowl is a mostly satisfying conclusion to an up-and-down season. The talented Rockets sustained injuries to key players in all phases, including starting quarterback Phillip Ely in the season's second game, but kept things together to earn a co-MAC West division title and an invite to their first bowl game since 2012's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. While a tight loss at Northern Illinois with a fourth-string quarterback blocked Toledo from playing for a MAC championship, head coach Matt Campbell's squad enjoyed a one-win improvement on last year's campaign and deserves to take pride in its return to the postseason.
As a program, the novelty of playing in Mobile will be somewhat lost on Arkansas State, as the Red Wolves (7-5, 5-3 Sun Belt) will be ending their season against MAC competition in the GoDaddy Bowl for the fourth straight year. Arkansas State enjoyed wins over Ball State in 2014 and Kent State in 2013 after falling to Northern Illinois in 2012. However, one key member of the Red Wolves will approach the game with new eyes.
Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson is in his first year with the program, taking over following a stint as offensive coordinator at North Carolina. By simply coaching Sunday Anderson will buck the trend of the Arkansas State coaches immediately preceding him, as Hugh Freeze left for Ole Miss before the 2012 bowl, Gus Malzahn departed for Auburn the next season and Bryan Harsin took the reins at Boise State weeks before the 2014 game, each before they could coach the Red Wolves in the GoDaddy Bowl.
In light of the constant turnover in Jonesboro, Ark., Red Wolves fans are surely pleased to find their team in the postseason once more. Anderson has found early success in his tenure, but in the Rockets, he will face another stiff test in a debut season that featured a few.
Arkansas State finished in a three-way tie for fourth in an improving Sun Belt, and the Red Wolves also faced three bowl teams during non-conference play. A-State fell to rebuilding powers Miami and Tennessee, but also came away with a 21-14 overtime win over Mountain West contender Utah State, the team that hammered Toledo in its last bowl game in 2012.
The Red Wolves blitzed opponents with a versatile rushing attack that racked up 229 yards per game, good for 22nd in the country. Lead running back Michael Gordon paced the squad with 1,095 rushing yards on 7.1 yards per carry, and dual-threat quarterback Fredi Knighten rushed 195 times to pick up 775 yards of his own. Arkansas State's strength could play into the hands of Toledo's 17th-ranked run defense, statistically the best unit A-State will face this season.
While Arkansas State relies on the run more frequently than the pass, Knighten may need to look to his arm to unlock the Rockets defense, a unit that allowed among the most yardage in the nation and will be without arguably its best player, senior safety Jordan Haden, Sunday. Knighten's work through the air was remarkably similar to that of Toledo's starting quarterback, Logan Woodside, as both threw 19 touchdowns against seven interceptions and completed 61 percent of their passes. While Knighten's air raid may not have been the focal point of Arkansas State's attack, he could give his team the advantage if he can exploit Toledo's vulnerable secondary.
When the Rockets have the ball, they are likely to stick with what got them this far: a heavy dose of running. Led by Kareem Hunt, whose 1,360 rushing yards in nine games were 24th in the country (despite playing four or five less games than many of those ahead of him), Toledo boasted the nation's 16th-best rushing attack. This could prove problematic for Arkansas State's 91st-ranked rush defense, as the Red Wolves have not faced a more statistically-accomplished run game than Toledo's.
So while the two teams are mostly unfamiliar with one another (Toledo leads the all-time series 2-0 with wins in 1990 and 1992), they each bring potent run games and effective quarterbacks to Mobile. With one squad looking for its first bowl win in four years and another hoping to make its coach a champion in his first season, expect a tight battle under the lights.