We are less than 24 hours from kickoff of the MAC's most compelling rivalry. The 80th edition of the Battle of I-75 carries a lot of weight, from division title implications to possibly determining a New Year's Six bowl team. The Toledo Rockets are in essentially a must-win situation to have any hope of playing in the MAC Championship in two weeks. The Bowling Green Falcons have already clinched their third straight trip to Detroit, but they've lost five in a row and 14 of the last 20 to Toledo.
More importantly, the Rockets (8-1) and Falcons (8-2) could still represent the Group of Five conferences in either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. The eventual MAC champion will be one of the five conference champs considered for that bowl spot. Most expect it to go to the champion of the American Athletic Conference, but an upset here or there could make this game's result much more important.
Matt Daley (@statmanmatt) is here to represent BGSU, while Justin Kruse (@coilswell) is standing in for Toledo in our debate. Let's see what they have to say..
Matt: The 80th edition of the Battle of I-75 is a must-win for both teams. Toledo has to win if they want to get to Detroit, while BGSU has to win to reclaim its manhood. And both teams are still fighting for a possible spot in the Peach or Fiesta Bowls. What makes you think that Toledo can make it (gulp) six wins in a row?
Justin: First off, I am not sure if a MAC team is getting to a New Year's Six Bowl this season - with Houston still undefeated and Navy in the mix, both those teams would look to have the inside track over Toledo or BGSU. However, it is interesting to think about where BGSU would line up in some of these rankings and projections if they would have beaten Memphis way back when?
Now, back to the question at hand. I have been a big fan of this BG team, of QB Matt Johnson and the offensive system Coach Babers has brought to that wind swept wasteland in Wood County. However, I believe Toledo is the most talented team in the conference, their out of conference victories prove that and I believe if they can contain Johnson to any degree they can win the Peace Pipe Trophy again (sadly that trophy has bean replaced by a trophy that looks like a road side sign).
So Matt, Vegas has installed the Falcons as a 7 point favorite, they have won 7 straight games largely against the pathetically pathetic MAC East; how good is this Falcon team and can they handle the pressure of being the favorite at home in rivalry game where they have been abused of late?
Matt: I wouldn't exactly call it "abused". Toledo's won the last two by a combined 10 points, and BGSU really should have won the last time these two met at the Doyt. Of course, they didn't, so we won't focus on that.
Yes, the Falcons beat up on a bunch of weakling MAC East teams, but you have to admit that they proved a lot by winning convincingly last week in Kalamazoo. They scored on their opening drive, responded well both times that WMU made runs, and allowed only 7 points in the second half to a team that had been humming on offense.
I really don't think pressure will be a factor here for BGSU. Johnson has been through many battles and is obviously the leader of that offense, and the defense is growing more confident every week. And they don't have to worry about anything else now, since they already have the division wrapped up.
More than anything else, BGSU showed last week once again that the only team that can stop that offense is themselves. They're going to put up points on everybody, so that begs the question. Can Toledo keep up? And what about Philip Ely? Toledo's running game is solid, but Ely has been inconsistent recently. Is that going to be a problem?
Justin: There is no doubt the Falcon win at WMU was impressive. In regards to Ely, he really has been all over the map for Toledo this season, much like the Rockets themselves. Ely and the Rockets have really struggled to string multiple good quarters together as evident the last two weeks. Toledo got off to a good start against NIU and a great start against CMU, but went stagnant on the offensive side of the ball in the second half of both games and barely hung on defensively against CMU. Against Matt Johnson and the Falcon Fast offense, a bad quarter could be extremely costly.
I believe that Kareem Hunt is poised for a big game after battling injuries early in the season. Hunt has seen his workload increase recently; garnering over 20 carries the last three games, and Toledo will likely need to lean on Hunt for upwards of 25 carries to help control the pace of the game and keep Johnson on the sidelines.
What about special teams? If this game is close like many believe, both kickers have had their struggles. For Toledo, Jameson Vest has converted just 6 of his last 11 field goal attempts, including two close misses last week at CMU.
Meanwhile, Tyler Tate is just 8-for-15 on the season and has missed 3 extra points. If the game is close at the end, do you think either coach feels strongly about sending his kicker out in traditionally windy conditions at the Doyt?
Matt: Tate had been better of late after correcting a mechanical issue, but he's connected with the uprights a few times too often this month. If I had to guess, I don't think either coach would want this game to come down to a last-minute field goal, but if it did, they would take their chances -- even if the confidence wasn't really high. The return game could be interesting, though. Toledo's kick and punt return teams are near the top of the MAC, while BGSU's are at the bottom. However, the coverage teams are flipped -- BGSU's seem to be better than UT's, particularly at punter, where Joe Davidson has been excellent.
On the coaching front, you have the older, more experienced Dino Babers and the cool, young and brash Matt Campbell. How do you see the coaching battle going -- and are either of these guys on the sideline for next year's game?
Justin: A wise old Rocket fan told me last week that, minus a couple of lean years with Tom Amstutz, Toledo football has been very consistent for the last 25 seasons. That has not included a significant number of championships, but a lot more wins than losses for sure. I bring that up because, if Campbell is offered an opportunity he sees is a good fit for himself and his family, I believe Toledo football will be fine moving forward. I think it is 50/50 if he returns to Toledo, and the next month plus could have a large effect on that percentage.
As for Babers, there has been a lot of noise surrounding the Maryland opening, and he is running a system that has proven it can turn programs into contenders at other high profile schools. I believe there is about a 75% chance this is the last game Babers coaches at the Doyt (Matt: PLEASE NOOOO!). There are just too many openings already, and Babers creates a brand of football that is exciting for fans and he will jump at the chance to flee BG.
My last question for you: is there a player for fans to keep an eye out for that could make an impact, besides Kareem Hunt or Matt Johnson?
For the Rockets, I think fans should keep an eye on senior wide receiver Alonzo Russell. Russell is on pace to have his least productive season as a Rocket, but at 6-4 and over 200 pounds, he has the physical skills to make an impact. In a rivalry game with a ton on the line, look for the senior to step up and find the end zone and make a strong statement in what has been a somewhat disappointing season.
As for a prediction, 37-35 Toledo. If either team can string a couple stops together, that will be enough to hold on. I also believe the kicking game will be something that is discussed after the game as a big factor (either positively or negatively) on the outcome.
Matt: I think the key players for BGSU tomorrow night are Terrance Bush and Taylor Royster. They're both in the top 15 of the MAC for sacks and have combined for ten. The Falcons sacked Zach Terrell several times last week and were very disruptive overall, and you could see how that affected WMU's offense as the game wore on. If the Falcons can pressure Ely like that tomorrow, it will present a lot of problems for the Rockets.
My prediction? I say "the Streak" ends, as BGSU wins 41-34. I'm hoping for a very competitive game, and I think we'll get it. Maybe as a consolation, Toledo will get to go to the Bahamas for their bowl game? That would be nice.
Alright, we've had our say. What about you -- who is going to win this titanic battle? Vote in the poll and comment below with your thoughts and final score predictions.