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It feels like I pick Toledo to win the MAC every year. In 2017, am I finally right?

If the Rockets’ year isn’t this one, will it ever come?

Fresno State v Toledo Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images

First, here’s one passage from my 2016 Toledo preview:

Toledo has made somewhere between five and 10 good hires in a row. The program is built, the culture is in place, and the order of succession is clear.

It feels easy to assume Jason Candle will do well, win for a few years, then head off for a power conference job. And his replacement (offensive coordinator Brian Wright, perhaps?) will win, too.

There's still room for growth, however. As strong as the Rockets have been since Tim Beckman took over — the Rockets have finished in the S&P+ top 70 for six straight years and have twice finished in the top 25 (21st in 2015) — they haven't won a MAC West title since 2004. They have graded out better than NIU on paper for four of the last five years, but they have stumbled in the Huskies' presence. They've lost six in a row to NIU (four times by one possession), and NIU won the division every year in that span.

This has held the program back, both in perceptions and morale. Toledo is again projected ahead of NIU. But without a November 9 win in DeKalb, it might again feel like the season came up one step short.

The good news: the Toledo Rockets finally got the NIU monkey off their backs, 31-24.

The bad news: Two weeks later, Toledo lost in Kalamazoo, and WMU won the MAC West because of it.

Since 2010, Toledo has ranked either first or second in the MAC in the S&P+ ratings six of seven years. They have zero MAC title appearances to show for it. That is remarkable feat of both good and bad consistency, considering the Rockets have had three different head coaches.

Candle’s first season in charge was a success by any definition, except the one that matters the most. Toledo improved dramatically on offense, producing a 4,100-yard passer, a nearly 1,500-yard rusher, a nearly 1,300-yard receiver, and a No. 16 Off. S&P+ ranking. This allowed the Rockets to overcome defensive regression and rank 34th in overall S&P+, one spot ahead of the WMU that finished 13-1 and went to the Cotton Bowl.

While P.J. Fleck’s Broncos figured out how to make key plays in tight wins over Northwestern and Ohio and begin with 13 straight wins, however, Toledo mastered the art of coming up short.

  • The Rockets outgained the Broncos by 11 yards and 2.3 yards per play but lost by 20 thanks to turnovers that led to a touchdown return and touchdown drives of nine and 20 yards.
  • They outgained Ohio by 48 yards and lost by five.
  • They outgained BYU by 106 yards and lost by two in Provo.
  • And in a bowl loss to Appalachian State, they were dominant on a per-play basis (6.9 yards per play to 5.1) but gave up a kick return touchdown and allowed App State to play keep-away (total snaps: ASU 82, UT 54) in a three-point loss.

We all need constants, and more than almost anything in college football, we’ve been able to count on Toledo playing high-quality football and losing the one game it can’t afford to lose. It’s probably maddening for Toledo fans, though, huh?

All I can say about the Rockets in 2017 is, if fortune doesn’t change now, I don’t know when it will.

WMU should still be good, but more like top-70 good, not top-40 good. NIU might be solid again if it can find a quarterback and keep him healthy. Miami (Ohio) showed promise. But in projections and known quantities, Toledo begins 2017 far ahead.

The Rockets return one of the most prolific college passer-to-catcher combos, a solid running back, five offensive linemen with starting experience, four of six defensive linemen, their top two linebackers, and their top two cornerbacks. And with Fleck out of the picture, Candle landed the top recruiting class in the conference.

All the pieces are in place for a conference title run, and S&P+ projects Toledo as a reasonably healthy favorite in 11 of 12 games this fall. This is the year. Unless it’s not.


2016 in review

2016 Toledo statistical profile.

That Toledo lost while averaging 8.8 (BYU), 7.5 (Ohio), 8.4 (WMU), and 6.9 (App State) yards per play tells us which side of the ball was a problem.

  • Toledo in 9 wins — Avg. percentile performance: 69% (offense 70%, defense 64%) | Yards per play: UT 6.9, Opp 5.4 (plus-1.5) | Plays per game: UT 75, Opp 66
  • Toledo in 4 losses — Avg. percentile performance: 61% (offense 91%, defense 34%) | Yards per play: UT 7.9, Opp 6.7 (plus-1.2) | Plays per game: Opp 73, UT 66

In losses, Toledo’s defense struggled to get off the field, allowing more snaps and a few more big plays.

Of course, there was another factor.

  • Toledo in 9 wins — Turnover margin: plus-2 | plus-0.5 points per game
  • Toledo in 4 losses — Turnover margin: minus-6 | Turnovers luck: minus-6.4 points per game

In four losses, Toledo lost about 26 points to bad bounces. They lost those four games by a combined 30 points; three of the losses were by a combined 10.

Play 2016 all over again, and Toledo maybe goes 12-1. I’m sure that’s reassuring.


Offense

Toledo offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Brian Wright’s first Toledo offense was a damn-near masterpiece. The run grew more consistent, and the passing erupted.

Run game first:

  • Rushing S&P+: 57th in 2015, 47th in 2016
  • Adj. Line Yards: 91st in 2015, 28th in 2016
  • Power success rate: 95th in 2015, third in 2016
  • Stuff rate: 42nd in 2015, 10th in 2016

Line coach Mike Hallett earned his salary. The former Heidelberg and Thomas More head coach helped boosted the Rockets’ line stats, but he got at least a little bit of help from experience.

Tackle Storm Norton and guard Mike Ebert played at an all-conference level as seniors, and guard Paul Perschon was a senior as well. Still, there was some juggling up front; only Norton and Perschon started all 13 games, and five started between six and 10 games. In-season continuity is a huge issue for a line, and Toledo improved despite lacking it.

That allows for hope. Four of those six-to-10ers are back, and three are seniors. And while star rusher Kareem Hunt is gone, the returning backs are exciting. Terry Swanson has rushed for 2,238 yards and 17 touchdowns in three years and has caught 35 passes as well. He’s perhaps ready for a starring role.

Sophomore Art Thompkins was tantalizing; he rushed 20 times for 164 yards in mop-up duty against Maine and Fresno State, and with Toledo’s reputation for developing ball-carriers, one assumes he’ll thrive in a larger role.

The run was more efficient and less all-or-nothing in 2016, but it was a complement to an incredible passing game.

  • Passing S&P+: 56th in 2015, seventh in 2016
  • Passing success rate: 50th in 2015, sixth in 2016
  • Completion rate: 56.2 percent in 2015, 68.8 percent in 2016
  • Yards per completion: 13.1 in 2015, 14.4 in 2016

In his first full season, Logan Woodside producing a passer rating of 183.3 (second in FBS to only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield). He threw at least three touchdown passes in 12 of 13 games and threw more than one interception in just two (the losses to BYU and WMU).

NCAA Football: Toledo at Brigham Young
Logan Woodside
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Woodside spread the ball around beautifully; about 26 percent of his passes went to Z-receivers, 24 percent to slot receivers, 17 percent to tight ends, 17 percent to X-receivers, and 16 percent to running backs. He loses his slot man (Corey Jones) and his tight end (Michael Roberts), plus Hunt, but this incredible variety, plus the return of star Z-man Cody Thompson (1,269 yards, 13.1 per target), suggests Toledo should handle those losses.

Thompson had at least 99 yards in seven games last year, and while his pace slowed down over the second half of the season, X-man Jon’Vea Johnson’s picked up. Over a late four-game span, he caught 20 passes for 373 yards. Swanson caught 10 of 14 balls, and backup slot man Danzel McKinley-Lewis caught seven of eight. Sophomore Diontae Johnson returns after missing 2016, and there are plenty of three-star youngsters in the wings, most namely redshirt Neru N’Shaka.

Turnover on the line and in the receiving corps means last year’s levels will not be guaranteed. But the shuffling on the line and Woodside’s ball distribution minimize this concern. This should again be the best offense in the MAC, and I’m not sure it will be close.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Toledo
Terry Swanson
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Toledo defensive radar

Toledo’s defense had plenty of strengths in 2016; the Rockets were efficient on standard downs and strong at creating third-and-longs. They were disruptive up front, and they didn’t allow a ton of big passes.

They were incredibly all-or-nothing in run defense, however, and if they weren’t creating second-and-long, they were getting gashed on first down. Plus, though they didn’t give up many explosive passes, the ones they allowed were poorly timed: in their first two losses (BYU, Ohio), they allowed 22.3 yards per completion.

Toledo’s defense was easily the most volatile in the MAC, allowing the lowest success rate and the biggest big plays.

Toledo defensive efficiency & explosiveness

There was another source of volatility: depth, or lack thereof. There wasn’t much of a rotation in the front six, and Toledo’s per-quarter rankings were ... telling: 45th in the first quarter, 17th in the second, 83rd in the third, 118th in the fourth.

And in the games in which Toledo’s offense was either particularly explosive or turnover-prone (or both), the defense had to face extra snaps and didn’t handle that well.

Will that change? It’s hard to guarantee it. Only six linemen and four linebackers made more than even six tackles, and three of those combined 10 players are gone. That’s not bad, but if defensive coordinator Brian George — the engineer of an awesome 2015 Kent State defense that ranked 19th in Def. S&P+ — is going to open up the rotation a bit, it might have to involve some youngsters.

Toledo v BYU
Olasunkanmi Adeniyi
Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

The starting lineup in the front six could be full of seniors (tackles Marquise Moore and Daniel Davis, linebacker Ja’Wuan Woodley) and juniors (end Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, linebacker Tyler Taafe, maybe JUCO tackle Reggie Howard), but the second string won’t boast much experience. Of course, with the way Toledo has recruited, that could mean upside. Candle signed not only Howard, but also six three-star linemen. It was evidently an area of emphasis.

It’s not hard to see why. Though Toledo ranked 21st in rushing success rate, the Rockets’ breakdowns were immense. They allowed 89 rushes of 10-plus yards (114th in FBS) and 30 of 20-plus (116th). A solid set of safeties prevented these rushes from going 30 or 40 yards, but the top two safeties are gone. The glitches near the line must stop.

Safety could be a concern, but the rotation was a little larger in the back, and nickel backs Josh Teachey and DeDarallo Blue could be ready for big roles. And the Rockets are loaded at cornerback — not only do starters Trevon Mathis and Ka’dar Hollman return, backups (and former star recruits) Aaron Covington and Marcus Whitfield do, too.

Pass defense should again be solid, but Toledo’s fate in specific games could depend on how many glitches the Rockets are dealing with in the ground game.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Appalachian State vs Toledo
Ja'Wuan Woodley
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Toledo’s special teams were less awful in 2016 than they were the previous year, but they still weren’t a strength. And the better aspects of special teams (punting, punt returns) were driven by seniors. Art Thompkins might end up being a pretty good return man, but “might” is the best we can muster at the moment. And Toledo really needs a few more touchbacks on kickoffs. In all, it’s hard to imagine this unit topping last year’s No. 95 Special Teams S&P+ rankings by too much.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Elon NR 45.3 100%
9-Sep at Nevada 117 13.7 79%
16-Sep Tulsa 77 8.3 69%
23-Sep at Miami 18 -12.7 23%
7-Oct Eastern Michigan 96 14.5 80%
14-Nov at Central Michigan 97 9.6 71%
21-Nov Akron 122 21.4 89%
26-Oct at Ball State 90 7.9 68%
2-Nov Northern Illinois 86 12.2 76%
8-Sep at Ohio 103 11.2 74%
15-Sep at Bowling Green 95 9.2 70%
24-Sep Western Michigan 74 7.9 68%
Projected S&P+ Rk 59
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 20 / 101
Projected wins 8.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 7.3 (34)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 81 / 81
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / 0.2
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 58% (68%, 49%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 10.5 (-1.5)

As discussed on the MAC portion of this week’s Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody (beginning around ~14 minutes), it feels like I pick Toledo to top the MAC just about every year.

Man, if it’s not going to happen this year ...

Toledo does have some concerns. Neither line is particularly deep, and the defense lost just enough to make you wonder if last year’s depth problems will be any less problematic.

But from a projections standpoint, the Rockets are far and away the safest bet in the MAC.

The Rockets’ projected S&P+ rating is 5.4 points ahead of WMU’s and at least 9.7 points ahead of anybody else’s. Aside from the trip to Miami on September 23, they are given at least a 68 percent chance of winning each of their other 11 games. That doesn’t mean they’ll win them all, but they are projected to win 6.0 games in conference play and 8.7 overall; WMU is the only other MAC team over 4.9 conference or 6.9 overall, and the Broncos are dealing with a coaching change that might dampen those projections.

Toledo begins as the runaway favorite. But per S&P+, the Rockets finished as the best team in the conference in 2011, 2013, and 2016, too. That didn’t result in winning the conference. Luck and untimely mistakes always seem to conspire against them.


Team preview stats

All preview data to date.