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Toledo’s retooling, but can contend in the MAC again anyway

The Rockets’ defense will likely hold them back again, but they’ve got a run game and a home slate that could dictate another big win total.

Ball State v Toledo
Bryant Koback
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

I write about hard jobs a lot in my annual MAC previews. Toledo is not one of them.

The Rockets tend to recruit better than their conference peers, and while many MAC schools struggle to come anywhere close to the FBS minimum of 15,000 in attendance per game, Toledo is regularly over 20,000.

Of the last 10 head coaches the program has hired, nine have produced at least one top-50 performance, per S&P+. Jason Candle, now entering his fourth season, has enjoyed an average ranking of 45.7. His 2016 team had maybe the best offense in school history, and his 2017 team won Toledo’s first conference title in 13 seasons.

That doesn’t mean the Rockets are invulnerable. Far from it. They did, after all, go 13 years between conference titles. And in 2018, they found themselves struggling through the same post-title attrition as most MAC champs.

Toledo headed into 2018 replacing star quarterback Logan Woodside (now a San Antonio Commander), running back Terry Swanson, three strong offensive linemen, and nearly its entire starting front six on defense. The receiving corps and secondary returned nearly intact, but for all the three-star recruits Toledo has signed through the years, the Rockets didn’t actually start all that many last fall.

They had hit a brief recruiting funk around the transition from Matt Campbell to Candle; their only class in the last decade to rank worse than second in the MAC was signed in 2015 and was coming of age in 2018. That seemed to bring them trouble, especially on a defense that started only three former three-stars and a bunch of two-stars and unrated recruits.

The offense hit a midseason dip as quarterback Mitchell Guadagni dealt with a couple of injuries and replacement Eli Peters started slowly. But after averaging a Def. S&P+ ranking of 47.3 over the previous three seasons, the Rockets plummeted to 102nd. They were sketchy against the pass (93rd in Passing S&P+) and miserable against the run (120th in Rushing S&P+). They rushed the passer pretty well, but they never got to.

Toledo allowed at least 6.5 yards per play in eight of 13 games and at least 34 points in seven. Anytime the offense didn’t have its A-game, the Rockets were in trouble — they allowed 38.3 points per game in six losses.

For only the second time in nine seasons, Toledo won fewer than eight games in a year. Granted, a 7-6 campaign would be cause for celebration in a good portion of this conference, but even for an anticipated reset year, the down moments were awfully down.

Toledo v Miami
Jason Candle
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

2019 brings its own set of issues. The Rockets return two quarterbacks with starting experience and a potential breakout in sophomore running back Bryant Koback. But the receiving corps has to replace last year’s top three, and a defense that wasn’t disruptive enough to begin with now must replace five of last year’s top six havoc producers (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles) and is dealing with a lack of size up front, even by MAC standards.

It’s hard to worry too much about the secondary, which seems to have a nice mix of veteran production and high-upside youth, but the front six could be heavy on sophomores, and between a potential quarterback controversy and new blood in the receiving corps, one could imagine more inconsistency.

Offense

Any time you’re juggling QBs, you’re asking for inconsistency, but it seemed like opponents had to key first on the run game — if they couldn’t stop Koback, nothing else mattered.

  • Koback in seven wins: 96 carries, 679 yards (7.1 per carry), 12 TDs
  • Koback in six losses: 57 carries, 238 yards (4.2), 2 TDs

It was easy to assume that it was Shakif Seymour’s turn as a feature back — the then-sophomore had averaged six yards per carry as Swanson’s backup in 2017 — but Koback, a former Kentucky signee, had overtaken him in the starting lineup by mid-year. And when he did well, Toledo won.

Toledo has long had a spread reputation on offense, but coordinator Brian Wright has proved that if you can’t stop the run, he’ll keep running. The Rockets ranked 12th in Rushing S&P+ and gained at least four yards on 57 percent of their carries (fourth in FBS), and they pulled that off with a freshman running back and a shuffled line — only two linemen started all 13 games. With up to four senior starters up front, and both Koback and Seymour scheduled to return (plus the latest potential star freshman, mid-three-star Micah Kelly), I’m guessing the Rockets will again have the best run game in the conference, or close to it.

What happens when they have to pass?

Guadagni began like a house afire. In his first three games, against varying defensive quality (Miami, Nevada, VMI), he produced a gaudy 205.5 passer rating with a 64 percent passer rating and nine TDs to one interception. But he suffered a head injury against Fresno State, returned, then was lost for the season with a broken collarbone. In between, he completed just 51 percent of his passes with a 117 passer rating.

Guadagni is an adventurer. He was far more likely to go deep than his replacement, Eli Peters, far more likely to take off and run (he averaged 8.6 yards over about 8.6 non-sack carries per game), and far more likely to take a sack. You could say he’s far more likely to get hurt, too.

Peters was better at intermediate passing and ended up on his back less often, but even including the sacks, Guadagni finished at 7.1 yards per pass attempt to Peters’ 6.4. I’m guessing that gives Guadagni the edge at the outset.

NCAA Football: Miami at Toledo
Mitchell Guadagni
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Be it Guadagni or Peters behind center, their receiving corps will take on a new look ... sort of. Last year’s top three — Diontae Johnson (an early draft declaration), Cody Thompson, and Jon’Vea Johnson — combined for 129 catches, 2,068 yards, and 27 touchdowns and all departed.

There are still plenty of potential veterans in the rotation. Slot man Danzel McKinley-Lewis is a dynamite return man and averaged 13.9 yards per catch in 2017 before missing most of last season, and Desmond Phillips is an extension-of-the-run-game type of slot receiver (high catch rate, low yards per catch). Plus, Seymour has 24 catches out of the backfield in two seasons, and the tight end position has experience, even if it used primarily in the run game.

Out wide, however, there will be youngsters. Junior Bryce Mitchell — an all-or-nothing threat if ever one existed (in two years, he’s averaged 15.9 yards per catch with a positively dreadful 27 percent catch rate) — might be the only upperclassman in the rotation. There are tons of former three-star prospects here, from 6’3 sophomore Nick Kovacs to 6’4 redshirt freshman Jalin Cooper to any of five incoming freshmen, but at the X and Z receiver positions, there is almost no experience whatsoever. If Toledo can’t punish opponents for loading the box to stop the run, that will be a problem.

Defense

Even with a green receiving corps, it’s hard to worry too much about a Toledo offense that has ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 60 in nine of the last 10 seasons. If the Rockets are to fall short of a division title this year, the defense is an infinitely more likely culprit.

The Toledo defense was not without its strengths in 2018. The Rockets were 31st in sack rate on passing downs, 30th on blitz downs, and ninth in defensive line havoc rate. After losing a dynamic trio of play-making 2017 linemen (led by 20-TFL Olasunkanmi Adeniyi), coordinator Brian George generated similar disruption up front — the trio of ends Tuzar Skipper and Jamal Hines and tackle Reggie Howard combined for 35.5 TFLs and 15.5 sacks.

Skipper and Howard are gone, however, and Toledo has a double-dip of turnover up front. Those two weren’t big, and Toledo’s front got pushed around quite a bit; for all their disruptive strength, the Rockets gave up at least four yards on 51 percent of opponent carries (111th) and ranked 113th in rushing marginal explosiveness. They prevented neither efficiency nor explosiveness on the ground.

And while Hines is a potential star in pass rush situations, he was listed at only 6’2, 216 pounds last year. Another potentially disruptive sophomore end — Terrance Taylor, who had 5.5 TFLs among his 11 tackles — was listed at 6’4, 214.

And now the defensive line is even smaller. It doesn’t have Richard Olekanma cleaning up messes at linebacker either.

There is a potentially thrilling corps of sophomores in Wright’s front six, from Hines and Taylor to meatier tackles Devonte’ Dunn and Derrius Mullins, to linebackers Daniel Bolden and Dyontae Johnson, to safeties Saeed Holt and Zachary Ford, to corners DeAmonte King, Desmond Bernard, and incoming Troy Simon. But until Toledo can figure out how to avoid getting pushed around, play-making talent will only matter so much.

Toledo v Ball State
DeDarallo Blue (21) and Tycen Anderson (15)
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

At least the secondary should be in pretty good shape. Between senior safeties Kahlil Robinson and DeDarallo Blue, juniors Tycen Anderson and Justin Clark, and a giant load of sophomores and exciting redshirt freshmen, George should be able to find a nice rotation. I’d be surprising if the passing game didn’t improve. But opponents didn’t need to pass last year, and they might not have to this year either.

Special Teams

The defense was Toledo’s worst in five years, but the special teams unit was its best in six. The Rockets were 26th in Special Teams S&P+ and ranked 60th or better in each category. Losing place-kicker Jameson Vest (60th in FG efficiency) might hurt, and losing return man Diontae Johnson (top-20 in both kick and punt return efficiency) definitely will. But Danzel McKinley-Lewis’ return from injury should alleviate the latter issue. Punter Bailey Flint (48th in punt efficiency) is solid, too.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Kentucky 37 -12.6 23%
14-Sep Murray State NR 31.0 96%
21-Sep at Colorado State 109 9.0 70%
28-Sep BYU 50 -4.4 40%
TBD Eastern Michigan 96 7.7 67%
TBD Kent State 111 15.0 81%
TBD Northern Illinois 76 1.8 54%
TBD Western Michigan 75 1.7 54%
TBD at Ball State 110 9.1 70%
TBD at Bowling Green 123 15.6 82%
TBD at Buffalo 97 3.2 57%
TBD at Central Michigan 122 14.8 80%
Projected S&P+ Rk 78
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 33 / 107
Projected wins 7.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.2 (48)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 71
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / 4.1
2018 TO Luck/Game -0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 54% (50%, 57%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 7.1 (-0.1)

In last year’s Toledo preview, I wrote, “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.” That’s how things played out — their 38-15 loss in DeKalb made the difference in the standings — but the Rockets were projected to win 8.4 games and came up 1.4 short. The defense was supposed to regress and did so more than expected, enough to offset the fact that Toledo actually improved in Off. S&P+ despite turnover and QB injury.

Between turnover in the receiving corps and an alarming lack of experienced girth on the defensive front, I’m not as high on 2019 Toledo as I expected to be in 2018. And neither is S&P+ — despite dominant recruiting, the Rockets are projected as the third-best team in the West division.

The schedule helps immensely, though. Of the top five projected non-Toledo teams in the conference, three visit the Glass Bowl (WMU, NIU, EMU), and two aren’t on the schedule at all (Ohio, Miami). The toughest projected MAC road opponent is Buffalo, and the Rockets are therefore projected as at least slight favorites in every conference game and in 10 games overall.

There are enough tossups to prevent a run at double-digit wins, but the schedule is favorable enough to offset weaknesses. I can’t declare Toledo as the MAC favorite, but the Rockets will have play-makers and a fighting chance.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.