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Toledo finally ended its MAC title drought. Can the Rockets make it back-to-back despite change?

Head coach Jason Candle has some stars to replace but will be choosing from the deepest pool of talent and athleticism in the conference.

Eastern Michigan v Toledo Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images

You could forgive Toledo for finishing with a hangover. It happens sometimes when you finally get to cross a long-standing item off of the to-do list.

Since an 8-5 2010, the Rockets have won at least seven games each year and have won at least nine six times. But they continuously figured out ways to not win the MAC West.

  • In 2011, they fell in a 63-60 MACtion classic to NIU, losing the standings tie-breaker.
  • In 2012, they fell a touchdown short at NIU to hand the division to a team that would reach the Orange Bowl.
  • In 2013, they were riding a five-game winning streak — which featured victories over nine-win Navy and eventual 10-win conference champ Bowling Green — when NIU came to town but laid an egg and lost by 18. They lost at 5-7 Akron a week later for good measure.
  • In 2014, they again went 7-1 in MAC play. And again, the loss was a nail-biter to NIU, which also finished 7-1.
  • In 2015, they beat Arkansas and Iowa State and began 7-0. And even when they again slipped up to NIU, 32-27 at home, all the Rockets had to do was beat WMU at home to win the West. They lost, 35-30.
  • In 2016, they finally conquered the NIU demon, winning by seven in Chicago. But WMU beat Toledo by 20 to wrap up a 12-0 regular season.

That’s a ridiculous stretch of losing the one game you can’t afford to lose, and it meant the steadiest ship in a parity-heavy conference went 13 years between MAC title game appearances. Flashes in the pan like Akron, Buffalo, and Kent State had all made it.

In 2017, it finally all came together. Toledo beat NIU by 10 and WMU by 27. The Rockets’ only regular season losses were at Miami and Ohio, and when Ohio blew the MAC East with a late upset loss to Akron, Toledo got the pleasure of stomping the Zips to win its first conference title since 2004. Head coach Jason Candle had officially pulled off what Tim Beckman (who left for Illinois in 2012) and Matt Campbell (who left for Iowa State in 2016) could not.

And then the Rockets got destroyed by Appalachian State in the Dollar General Bowl. But whatever. The important hurdle had been cleared.

Still, with with the leadership on this team, such a poor final performance was particularly disappointing, because while the Rockets remain perhaps the most purely talented team in the league, the two-deep will change drastically. Among those who need to be replaced:

  • QB Logan Woodside, who threw for 3,882 yards in 2017 and more than 10,000 in his career.
  • RB Terry Swanson, who rushed for 1,363 yards last year.
  • Two all-conference offensive tackles (Elijah Nkansah and Brant Weiss).
  • Defensive end Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, who exploded for 20 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.
  • Linebackers Jack Linch and Ja’Wuan Woodley, the No. 2-3 tacklers on the team.
  • Corner Trevon Mathis, the team leader with 11 passes defensed.

To be sure, things could be worse. The receiving corps and secondary are loaded, and the key replacements will be chosen from a roster that is always among the MAC’s most talented — per the 247Sports Composite, the Rockets have finished either first or second in MAC recruiting in all but one year this decade.

From a recruiting perspective, they are the Alabama of the MAC. And nobody in this conference has nailed succession plans like Toledo has, be it at head coach, quarterback (Terrance Owens to Phillip Ely to Woodside), running back (Adonis Thomas to David Fluellen to Kareem Hunt to Swanson), etc. But every chance for turnover is a chance for drop-off, and with the MAC title monkey finally off of their back, Candle’s Rockets now must prove themselves all over again.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Miami
Jason Candle
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

2017 Toledo offensive radar

Swanson’s breakout 2017 continued one hell of a trend: Toledo has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in seven of eight seasons this decade. And the one time the Rockets did not (2015), they produced two 900-yard rushers (Hunt and Swanson).

Still, the run game was a bit more boom-or-bust than normal. Toledo struggled in short-yardage (121st in power success rate) and ranked just 88th in overall rushing success rate. Weak competition and big-play ability salvaged the overall numbers, but the ground game came up short in key moments — in three losses, Swanson carried 37 combined times for just 132 yards (3.6 per carry), and when Swanson missed the EMU game, Shakif Seymour managed only 3.2 yards per carry in a near-loss.

Thanks to Woodside, however, this wasn’t much of a concern. Toledo ranked sixth in passing success rate, 10th in passing downs success rate, and 19th in overall Passing S&P+. Toledo could start slowly (78th in Q1 S&P+) knowing that it would soon home in on opponent weaknesses (39th in Q2, second in Q3, 32nd in Q4).

The security blanket is gone now. Toledo must break in a new QB, and no one has been groomed extensively for succession. Backup Michael Julian is also gone, leaving junior Mitch Guadagni (76 career rushing yards, 1-for-6 career passing) and sophomore Caleb Martin as the favorites in the race. Both are green, and incoming high-three-star freshman Carter Bradley is even greener.

Whoever wins will have one hell of a receiving corps. Cody Thompson caught 64 balls for 1,269 yards in 2016, and when he got hurt five games into 2017, Diontae Johnson took over as go-to and finished with 77 catches for 1,344.

With Thompson’s return, you’ve now got two go-tos, plus senior Jon’Vea Johnson, who has 1,462 yards himself over the past two seasons. The line of succession in the receiving corps is deep as hell, as former three-star recruits like sophomore Bryce Mitchell, redshirt freshman Nick Kovacs, and perhaps true freshmen Jalynn Williams and Jalin Cooper all have to wait their turns.

Central Michigan v Toledo
Cody Thompson
Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images

Still, Woodside was asked to salvage quite a few second- or third-and-long situations with the inconsistent run game, and asking a first-time starter to do the same could backfire.

In Seymour, though, there’s potential for yet another star. The sophomore from Cleveland had an up-and-down debut season: he rushed 11 times for 102 yards against Elon in his first game, averaged 3.2 yards per carry over the next four games, exploded for 8.7 per carry for the next five games, then slumped back to 4.6 for the last four. His season stats, however — plus-4.9 percent marginal efficiency, plus-0.03 marginal explosiveness, 6.1 yards per carry — were the best on the team.

At 5’11, 218 pounds, Seymour brings some nice bowling ball qualities, which could set up a complement in 5’8, 180-pound junior Art Thompkins. Thompkins is explosive, having averaged 6.5 yards per carry over his first two seasons.

Of course, even if Seymour becomes a star, there are questions up front. Losing Nkansah, Weiss, and two-year starting center Nate Jeppesen means there’s a lot of beef to replace from a line that was already shakier than expected. Florida State transfer Bock Ruble could help at left tackle, and the experience level remains high — five other juniors and seniors have combined for 39 career starts. But the line’s still got something to prove after a less impressive season than normal.

There are former three-star recruits everywhere you look, and because of it, what constitutes a replacement-level starter is different here than in most of the conference. Still, there’s a nightmare scenario in which the run game doesn’t become efficient and a new QB isn’t ready to make big passes on third-and-7 just yet. This offense has ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 55 for each of the past seven seasons, so I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt, but one has to acknowledge the drop-off potential.

MAC Championship - Akron v Toledo
Shakif Seymour
Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Defense

2017 Toledo defensive radar

While Toledo’s offense has been consistently stellar, Toledo’s defense has been all over the map: 103rd in Def. S&P+ in 2014, 25th in 2015, 70th in 2016, 57th in 2016.

The 2017 UT defense struggled pretty dramatically against a decent run game (107th in Rushing S&P+) but completely dictated the terms against opposing passing games. The Rockets ranked 19th in passing success rate and 11th in passing downs success rate and now return all but one of last year’s top 10 defensive backs (Mathis).

Wow, there’s a lot of talent in the back. And the classes are strangely balanced between seniors (safety Josh Teachey and corner Ka’dar Hollman), juniors (safeties Kahlil Robinson, Jordan Williams, and DeDarallo Blue), and sophomores (corner Justin Clark, safety Tycen Anderson). Third-year defensive coordinator Brian George played a lot of guys last year, and almost all of them produced.

Newbies and unproven options like sophomore corners Victor Williams, Keelen Roberts, and Samuel Womack, redshirt freshman DeAmonte King, JUCO transfer Jordan Hendy, and freshman Nate Bauer almost all have recruiting profiles that suggest major upside, as well. The secondary isn’t taking a step backwards anytime soon.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Western Michigan
Ka’dar Hollman
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll see pretty quickly how well George’s attempts at depth in the front six pay off, as the Rockets lose their top three tacklers on the line and top two at linebacker. Still, the two backup LBs (Richard Olekanma and Tyler Taafe) played enough snaps to combine for 63 tackles and five tackles for loss, and 10 returning linemen made at least 3.5 tackles last year.

The known stars are gone up front, and Adeniyi was all sorts of impressive last year. But once again, there are both upperclassmen and newbies waiting in the wings. Senior nose tackle Reggie Howard is a potential star, and while a trio of junior ends (Lucas Maynard, Chris Norwood, and Andrew Boczar) combined for just 14 tackles in 2017, four of them were TFLs. Candle brought in a pair of JUCO ends just in case, and there are seven former three-star true or redshirt freshmen in the mix. There are five such linebackers, too, plus mid-three-star JUCO transfer Evander Craft.

Athleticism? Check. Potential? Of course. Known quantities? Not so much.

Northern Illinois v Toledo
Tyler Taafe (17)
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Special Teams

Toledo had one of the most nondescript special teams unit in the country. The Rockets not only ranked 64th in Special Teams S&P+, they also ranked between 53rd and 86th in every individual special teams category.

Kicker Jameson Vest’s got a pretty solid leg (he was 5-for-7 on field goals over 40 yards, though he missed three under-40s and two PATs), and Diontae Johnson’s two return scores suggest massive upside if he can generate a little more consistency. This is closer to being a good unit than a bad one, in other words.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep VMI NR 49.8 100%
15-Sep Miami 13 -11.0 26%
22-Sep Nevada 101 14.2 79%
29-Sep at Fresno State 44 -3.4 42%
6-Oct Bowling Green 97 12.8 77%
13-Oct at Eastern Michigan 96 7.6 67%
20-Oct Buffalo 93 11.9 75%
25-Oct at Western Michigan 87 5.2 62%
31-Oct Ball State 117 18.4 86%
7-Nov at Northern Illinois 69 1.5 53%
15-Nov at Kent State 127 16.8 83%
23-Nov Central Michigan 116 18.3 85%
Projected S&P+ Rk 49
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 37 / 67
Projected wins 8.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.4 (35)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 73 / 81
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / -3.1
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 62% (63%, 62%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 10.3 (0.7)

It would be crazy not to give Toledo the benefit of the doubt, wouldn’t it? The Rockets have been the MAC’s most consistently good team, and despite departed stars, this roster is loaded with a mixture of upperclassmen and high-upside youngsters. Even losing Woodside, the Rockets are projected 49th in S&P+.

Meanwhile, only three teams on the schedule are projected higher than 87th: No. 13 Miami (which visits Toledo on Sept. 14), No. 44 Fresno State, and No. 69 NIU.

A loss at NIU could mean the division title goes back to DeKalb, but this is going to be an athletic team again this year, probably the MAC’s safest bet.

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