It almost feels like cheating. I speak a lot about the socialist utopia that is the Mid-American Conference, with its limited talent base and silly ups and downs. (In the last three years, for instance, the MAC's Miami has gone 1-11, 10-4 and 4-8.) You hire a good coach, win, then fall back to the pack when he is hired elsewhere. You land a high-impact diamond-in-the-rough (Dan LeFevour, for example), win with him, then fall back to the pack when he graduates. In the oligarchy known as college football, where good teams are good because they have always been good, the MAC is your home for parity.
Toledo, however, has spent the last few years attempting to change that script a bit by recruiting laps around the rest of the conference. They have more three-star running backs than Eastern Michigan has three-star PLAYERS. They have two four-star receivers and a couple of four-star defenders as well. While 75 percent of the MAC ranks 100th or worse in two-year recruiting, Toledo ranks 78th, ahead of Boise State, Duke, Wake Forest and UConn. I called them "capitalist pigs" in last year's preview, and they proved me right by plowing through everyone in the conference not named Northern Illinois and damn near knocking off both Ohio State and Syracuse in non-conference play. (Syracuse needed what we will call a 'creative' call to take them down.) Despite a rugged non-conference slate, they won nine games for the first time since 2005, and they ranked a sturdy 28th in the final F/+ rankings.
If 2011 provided affirmation for the program Tim Beckman was building in Toledo, 2012 will be the ultimate test of whether the Rockets can withstand the typical parity effects of the MAC. Beckman was snatched up by Illinois in the offseason, and quite a few of Toledo's more interesting, explosive players are gone, replaced by unproven prospects and one-time star recruits. To keep the momentum going, both on offense and in the program as a whole, Toledo replaced Beckman with offensive guru Matt Campbell, known both for play-calling prowess and the fact that, at just 32, he is younger than I am (sigh). Campbell won two national titles as Mount Union's offensive coordinator at the ages of 25 and 26, almost dropped an Aaliyah lyric ("age is just a number") in his introductory press conference, and takes over a program that is both in transition and on an upward trajectory, having gone from three wins, to five, to eight, to nine in the last four seasons.
If Toledo wins big in 2012, if they are the one-in-a-million MAC team that rocks the boat and defies parity, the odds are good that they will be winning big for the foreseeable future. Otherwise, they will just dust themselves off and try again next year.
(And if you saw three Aaliyah references in those last two sentences, you are as sad and pathetic as the person writing this piece.)
We've said hundreds of times now that recruiting rankings are all about odds. If the coaching and development aren't there, then recruiting rankings don't really matter, especially once you sink beyond the four- or five-star level. But in a vacuum, where everybody develops at the same rate, then three-star recruits are quite a bit more likely to succeed than low two-star guys. If Beckman continues to bring in players of this caliber, then he will have figured out a way to derive a bit of a capitalist advantage in the most socialist of conferences. […]
Lord knows they'll have an opportunity to prove themselves. After a tune-up against New Hampshire, here are their next four games: at Ohio State (Big Ten Network), Boise State (ESPN), at Syracuse, at Temple. If they are standing at 3-2 after this, then they're well on their way to double-digit wins, but really, this stretch is about survival. They could be pretty decent and still start 1-4, and their season will be defined by how well they bounce back. They are potentially more talented than each of their last seven conference opponents, but numbers sometimes don't matter when negativity takes over. Survive, then thrive.
Indeed, "survive, then thrive" was the theme. The Rockets were whipped by Boise State but lost frustratingly tight games to Ohio State and Syracuse to finish 1-3 in non-conference play to open the year. But beginning with a 36-13 domination of Temple in Philadelphia, the Rockets took an enormous step forward in October. In their finial nine games, they went 8-1, averaging 47.1 points per game and only losing an epic, 63-60 mid-week MACtion thriller to Northern Illinois, a game that prompted Hustle Belt's Matt Sussman to write this fun post. (They followed up that game with a 66-63 win over Western Michigan a week later.) The defense took a step backwards following an injury to star pass rusher T.J. Fatinikun, but an incredible offense got the job done and led the Rockets to their best season in nearly a decade.
To put it simply, Toledo was the epitome of MACtion in 2011. They played in each of the two most ridiculous, high-scoring mid-week ESPN games last November, but their offense reflected the entire MACtion stereotype: balance, explosiveness and a very, very high pace. The Rockets were explosive on the ground, ruthlessly efficient through the air, and, despite the spread's reputation, nearly flawless in the red zone.
That they managed a high level of proficiency despite a full-season quarterback platoon makes their accomplishments even more unique. Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin each provided unique skill sets for which opponents had to prepare. Each had their moments throughout the season, as Beckman and Campbell had no problem riding the hot hand; Dantin completed 20 of 33 passes for 321 yards and five touchdowns against Northern Illinois, Owens 22 of 27 for 318 yards and three touchdowns versus Western Michigan. Owens completed 27 of 32 for 267 yards and four touchdowns versus Ball State, then completed another 19 of 24 for 210 and three touchdowns in the bowl win over Air Force, giving him the statistical edge for the season as a whole. But they are both interesting quarterbacks and can both move the ball both on the ground (they combined for 90 non-sack carries for 463 yards) and through the air.
Both Owens and Dantin return this fall, but the cast of characters around them has changed significantly. Gone are running backs Adonis Thomas and Morgan Williams, who combined for 1,733 rushing yards, 23 rushing touchdowns, a plus-37.2 Adj. POE (which means they were over six touchdowns better than the average running back with their given carries) and 517 receiving yards. Gone is All-Everything possession receiver Eric Page, who caught a staggering 125 passes (with an equally staggering 79-percent catch rate) and scored two special teams touchdowns (one kick return, one punt return). Gone are three starting linemen (including all-conference tackle Mike VanDerMeulen) who combined for 124 career starts.
These departures suggest inevitable offensive regression this fall, but Toledo certainly seems to have some high-upside replacements in the mix. Running back David Fluellen, a one-time three-star recruit who rushed for 507 yards and four touchdowns last fall, will be joined in the backfield rotation by any of a number of interesting options: three-star sophomores Jamaal Jackson and Cassius McDowell, junior Darius Reeves, and converted Wildcat quarterback David Pasquale. At receiver, Bernard Reedy, who had four catches for 126 yards and three touchdowns versus Air Force and averaged an explosive 11.2 adjusted yards per target for the season, returns as the new go-to guy. He will be joined by former three-star quarterback Dwight Macon (seven catches, 114 yards in the spring game), two former four-star recruits -- junior James Green (nine catches, 118 yards in 2011) and senior Illinois transfer Cordale Scott (five catches for 78 yards) -- and a pair of high three-star freshman, Corey Jones and Armani Miller. If star ratings matter, this unit of skill position players could come close to matching last year's production.
Of course, rebuilding of the line will matter quite a bit. New offensive line coach Tom Manning will have to patch together a decent unit despite returning only two players with starting experience -- second-team all-conference center Zac Kerin and sophomore guard Greg Mancz. The line ranked 29th in Adj. Line Yards and, thanks in part to Owens' elusiveness (two sacks in 232 pass attempts), ninth in Adj. Sack Rate last year.
With Campbell in charge, we know that Toledo's intentions are not going to change. They are going to gameplan well, strike early, and attempt to wear your defense out with ridiculous pace. Whether they are as successful at it with such a new set of weapons remains to be seen.
Believe it or not, Toledo's defense was actually not half bad in 2011. There were some serious issues with fourth-quarter fades, and the defense was every bit as bad in the red zone as the offense was good, but for the season as a whole, Toledo defenders played exactly the role they were supposed to play. With an offense as consistently strong (and fast-paced) as Toledo's, the defense's main role was to take chances and aim for big plays and quick possessions. If they could force a turnover or make a big play, it was like a service break in tennis -- a 7-7 game could quickly turn into a 21-7 lead, just like a broken serve could lead to a 3-0 cushion in a given set.
For the season, Toledo defended 68 passes (seven players had at least three, two had at least 12), made 78 tackles for loss (13 players had at least three), and forced 19 fumbles, fifth-most in the country. They were destined to allow plenty of yards and points, simply because of the pace established by their offense, but Toledo wouldn't have come within eight points and a missed PAT call of a 12-1 record without a reasonably competent defense backing up the offense.
The bad news is, quite a few of 2011's playmakers are gone. A line that ranked 21st in Adj. Line Yards must replace its three most productive players, though the return of all-conference end T.J. Fatinikun should help. Fatinikun missed the final six games of the 2011 season, and his absence showed.
Toledo Defense With Fatinikun: 26.7 Adj. PPG allowed
Toledo Defense Without Fatinikun: 30.3 Adj. PPG allowed
Active tackles Johnie Roberts and Johnathan Lamb will be missed, though former three-star signee Elijah Jones was interesting in a backup role, and three-star freshman Treyvon Hester will join the mix this fall. Fatinikun, Elliott and Christian Smith should provide quality at end. The linebacker position loses two interesting playmakers -- Charles Rancifer and Terrell Anderson -- as well, but seniors Robert Bell and Dan Molls (combined: 109.0 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries despite Molls playing only seven games) will be joined by Michigan transfer (and former four-star signee) Vladimir Emilien, who was the first-team strongside linebacker at the end of the spring. Three-star sophomore James Gordon, senior Byron Best, and incoming three-star freshman Jaylen Coleman round out what could be an interesting rotation.
Considering the conference in which they play, the biggest question mark of the defense could come at the back. Cornerbacks Desmond Marrow and Taikwon Paige (combined: five interceptions, 22 passes broken up, 4.5 tackles for loss) are each gone, as is free safety Diauntae Morrow. The Rockets will benefit from the return of safety Mark Singer, who missed last season to injury, and they have recruited well here -- starting strong safety Jermaine Robinson was once a four-star recruit, while junior safety Ross Madison, sophomore corner Kishon Wilcher and incoming junior college transfer Cameron Cole were all three-star players. Again, star ratings only mean so much, but they do hint at solid upside.
Despite all the losses, one has to imagine Toledo is dreaming big. With the MAC West undergoing quite a bit of transition, the Rockets will certainly have a shot at a division crown, but they will have to face interesting division rivals Western Michigan, Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan all on the road. In all, I will conservatively set the bar at seven wins, however; when you return just eight starters (nine including 2010 starter Singer) and lose studs like Eric Page and Adonis Thomas, it is difficult to imagine moving on without at least a bit of a step backwards. If they can get to seven wins and continue momentum for 2013 (it bears mentioning that Owens and Reedy, among others, are still only juniors), that will be a success, division crown or no.
Toledo is nothing if not intriguing. As I mentioned at the top, if the Rockets win eight or nine games this year despite the rash of turnover, the sky will have officially become the limit for a program that has recruited better than its rivals for a while now. The Campbell hire is both exciting (he's young and very, very proven already) and terrifying (he is also still just a 32-year old head coach), but he has as much upside as anyone they could have hired, and upside has been the name of the game for the Rockets recently.
While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together: