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MAC Football Previews: Toledo Rockets

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The Rockets are favored to win the West, but not by much.

Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe, just maybe, this is the year that the Toledo Rockets find themselves going to the MAC Championship for the first time since 2004.

After years of being so close yet so far away from this destination (and being second to Northern Illinois), being a team full of talent in the MAC just isn't enough anymore and needs to exceed expectations to be taken seriously on a national level. Injuries may have been what ultimately plagued the Rockets last year when they finished 9-4 in the regular season and losing their only MAC game to NIU when they had to go down to wide receiver Dwight Macon (who was recruited as a quarterback) to take snaps behind center, but that doesn't put an asterisk on last season.

Returning some of the best talents in the conference on both sides of the ball, Toledo is projected to win the West division by both the MAC media and our blog's polls by the slimmest of margins. That's not a knock to UT, that's just an emphasis on how difficult it's going to be for anybody to win their division this year.

Schedule

Date Team Time (ET)
Sept. 3 (Fri.) vs. Stony Brook 7 pm
Sept. 12 @ Arkansas 4 pm
Sept. 19 vs. Iowa State 8 pm
Sept. 26 vs. Arkansas State TBA
Oct. 3 @ Ball State 3 pm
Oct. 10 vs. Kent State 3 pm
Oct. 17 vs. Eastern Michigan TBA
Oct. 24 @ UMass TBA

BYE
Nov. 3 (Tues.) vs. Northern Illinois 8 pm
Nov. 10 (Tues.) @ Central Michigan 8 pm
Nov. 17 (Tues.) @ Bowling Green TBA
Nov. 27 (Fri.) vs. Western Michigan TBA

The non-conference games are going to be really entertaining this year. We all know about Dan Enos throwing up the peace sign and running off to Arkansas to be the offensive coordinator for them, but it doesn't look like that's going to be a nationally-televised event. They'll get a second chance at beating Iowa State after falling to the Cyclones 37-30 last year, and that's a good opportunity to watch them at the Glass Bowl. Then the following week they'll play Arkansas State, who the Rockets took care of in the GoDaddy Bowl in early January.

November is going to be absolutely critical for, not only the Rockets' season, but will be huge for the entire conference. Maybe the most gracious part about it is that they have both NIU and Western Michigan coming to the Glass Bowl. A mostly-healthy roster for Toledo would be a confidence booster heading into those games, but the fact that this division is projected to be a three-headed race amongst the three and they'll both be home events should make things better. On the road, they'll face the Central Michigan Chippewas as they're going through their transition season and rivaled Bowling Green Falcons. The Battle of I-75 is obviously a huge game every year for the two schools as BGSU has the edge in series 39-36-1 all-time, but the Rockets have won the last five contests. Who knows: maybe that game will also serve as a preview as this year's MAC Championship?

Also from the West, they'll visit Ball State Cardinals to open up Toledo's intra-conference schedule and will play host to the Eastern Michigan Eagles in mid-October. The Kent State Golden Flashes will come to the Glass Bowl on October 10, and they'll also face the Massachusetts Minutemen on the road, who has a high-powered offense with Blake Frohnapfel and Tajae Sharpe both coming back this year.

Head coach

Matt Campbell is entering his fourth season as the head coach for Toledo. A combined 26-13 record with Campbell at the helm, the highest winning percentage of Toledo football coaches in history with at least three years of experience.

Campbell is a Massillion, Ohio native who played his college ball at Mount Union. As a defensive lineman, he was a D-III All-American, an Ohio Athletic Conference defensive lineman of the year, and a three-time national champion from 2000-02.

He's often said that he wants to be "relentless" in everything they do within the program, and has laminated themselves to be "Toledo tough." Injuries plagued the Rockets last year, but the biggest part of his team's success was getting everybody prepared to step in when adversity hits and be able to play well. It's not a matter of if adversity would come, because he knows that tough times are essentially inevitable and expected, but it's when adversity arrives: he knows to keep his roster both mentally and physically prepared to perform.

Five key players

RB- Kareem Hunt: This is pretty much a given, but Kareem "The Dream" is basically a heaven-sent player on the Rockets' roster. He missed three games last year and was still tenth in the nation in rushing as a sophomore (1,631 yards). But when he's not on the field, there's still Terry Swanson and Damion Jones-Moore for defenses to worry about.

DE- Trent Voss: Moving from linebacker to defensive end, Voss was third on the team with 77 tackles and first in tackles for loss with 15 (79 yards lost). He's got a knack for getting to the quarterback, and Toledo was the worst in the MAC in passing defense, so his contributions as a "Leo" defensive end should help them see an improvement from last year.

WR- Alonzo Russell: After being a Third Team All-MAC performer for three straight years, Russell should have the best season of his career in 2015. He's tenth in career receptions at Toledo with 166 and has averaged 14.8 yards per catch in his three years. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, Russell has the size to be a target when you're trying to move the chains or heave one up in the corner of the end zone. If he has a 1,000-yard season, he'll break Eric Page's school record for receiving yards (3,446).

QB(s)- Phillip Ely, Logan Woodside, Michael Julian: It's easy to be high on Phillip Ely. Why wouldn't you be? He's an Alabama transfer that won the starting job at the beginning of last year and threw for 541 yards with four touchdowns in the first two games against New Hampshire and Missouri before a knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. Woodside played in 12 games with ten starts and didn't disappoint. An efficient passer, strong arm, but he let an ankle injury keep him out for basically all of the game against NIU. Julian, now a sophomore, started that game against NIU, went 2-for-7 through the air and then suffered a concussion to make him miss the rest of that game. The three are still battling for the starting position in Week 1, but they're all talented and reliable, and it's shown that if one of these three has to miss some playing time, somebody else will comfortably step in and take care of business.

SS: Rolan Milligan: Milligan spent one year with the UAB Blazers after recording 44 tackles and three picks in one season at Reedley College. He was the Blazers' second-leading tackler with 54, four of which were for a loss and two of those were sacks. He may or may not get the starting role as the strong safety to start the year, but the senior should still see the field in 2015 with the potential to have an impact for the defense.

The Rockets' strong suit

If there's one thing for certain about this team: it has playmakers. All of the quarterbacks can whip the ball around. Russell is the biggest threat as a receiver and depth with Corey Jones and Cody Thompson, along with 6-foot-5 tight end Alex Zmolik to haul in some passes.

Having a competent running game on a football team is basically like having a white, collared shirt in your closet or having butter in the fridge or a hammer in your tool box. The depth at running back here is unbelievable. Hunt is already the biggest star on this roster for what he's been able to do in his first two seasons, but behind him is still James-Moore and Swanson, who both combined for 1,212 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.

Defensively, that front four is the best thing they've got going. On the ends you have Voss and senior Allen Covington. Orion Jones is one of the best nose tackles in the MAC with six sacks last year and Treyvon Hester had 49 tackles and 10 quarterback hurries: both Second Team All-MAC performers.

Unknowns

Having no returning starters on the offensive line is worth scratching your head over. Ruben Carter transferred from Florida State and should be playing right away as a right guard. Then there's Storm Norton, a 6-foot-8, 310 pound junior that made three starts last year at left tackle. Other than that, it's just relying on a lot of inexperience to maybe get things working. Other projected starters are Paul Perschon (junior, left guard), Nate Jeppesen (sophomore, center) and Mike Ebert (junior, right tackle).

The linebacking corps is going to be a bit odd without Junior Sylvestre and Ray Bush who were the two leading tacklers from last year's team. There's going to be some competition for newcomers to maybe get some playing time as linebackers, but it looks like senior Chase Murdock will lock down the Mike responsibilities, Jaylen Coleman on the weak side and Zach Quinn on the strong side.

Samuel Vucelich has some big shoes to fill, which is a really terrible pun to give a new place kicker that has to replace Jeremiah Detmer. There's no collegiate track record of him whatsoever, but he sat out two years as a redshirt and bench player, so he's had plenty of time to get some practice reps in and learn from one of the conference's better kickers in recent years.

TL;DR: Season overview

Nobody's saying the offensive line can't hold their end of the deal, but that's the one area that could hurt this team the quickest. There's plenty of talent around to make Toledo one of the top 3 offenses in the MAC and more than enough depth to give a few players some time off if need-be. The defensive line is as good as it's going to get for any MAC team, and if they can make some playmakers out of the defensive backs and linebackers, then maybe they'll finally find themselves back in Detroit.