Over the past several seasons, the Toledo Rockets have featured very good teams that one way or another fell short of their goal, that is, a MAC Championship title. The 2013 campaign fit this pattern. The Rockets lost a late-season contest vs. Northern Illinois that would have clinched a trip to the MAC Championship Game for UT. Worse, a season-ending defeat at Akron knocked Toledo out of a possible bowl game.
Head Coach Matt Campbell feels setbacks like this have only served to add fuel to the Rockets’ fire.
“I think that disappointment forced us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we can get better,” said Campbell, who enters his third season as Toledo’s leader. “We are coming back in 2014 with a renewed sense of focus. Sometimes you need to feel pain to really grow. That growth process has been rapid for this team.”
The Rockets certainly have the talent to contend for a MAC title again. They return 19 starters, including 10 defensive regulars. The skill positions suffered significant losses, but experienced and capable players are waiting in the wings. Toledo returns six All-MAC players, including first-team All-MAC senior linebacker Junior Sylvestre, who leads a defense that returns five of its top six tacklers. The Rockets’ offense returns four starters from the front line, while Jeremiah Detmer, the MAC Special Teams Player of the Year in 2013, is arguably the most accurate placekicker in the country. The media is sold on Toledo, as the Rockets were picked to win the MAC’s West Division title.
UT has made its reputation on a wide-open, high-scoring offense, and that is not likely to change. True, four All-MAC players have moved on, but Campbell likes what he sees on the offensive side of the ball. In addition to the four returners on the offensive line, All-MAC wide receiver Alonzo Russell and budding star running back Kareem Hunt lead a host of talented and hungry newcomers.
The biggest question for the offense, of course, is at quarterback. Campbell has three candidates for the starting position: Junior Phillip Ely, a transfer from Alabama; sophomore Logan Woodside, who performed admirably in part-time duty in 2013; and redshirt freshman Michael Julian, whose 6-foot-5 frame seems to be built for the position. All three have played well in training camp. Campbell has been staying mum as to his preference, except to say he would be comfortable with any of them as his starting QB.
On the defensive side of the ball, Toledo has shown steady improvement over the past few seasons. Campbell is counting on new defensive coordinator Jon Heacock and his staff to help raise the defense up to a championship level.
The Rocket ‘D’ is especially strong up the middle, with all three linebackers returning, along with All-MAC defensive tackle Treyvon Hester. Five of Toledo’s top six tacklers from 2013 are back, including Sylvestre (118 tackles), junior linebacker Chase Murdock (109) and junior linebacker Trent Voss (60 in seven games). Hester made third-team All-MAC as a freshman, garnering 7.5 tackles for loss.
Toledo’s opponent in its home opener is New Hampshire, ranked No. 4 in the country in the preseason FCS poll. Week Two features what should be one of the biggest home games in school history, a date with Missouri and head coach Gary Pinkel on national TV. Pinkel coached at Toledo for 10 seasons from 1991-2000 and is in the school’s Varsity ‘T’ Hall of Fame. Last season, Missouri went 12-2, won the East Division title of the Southeastern Conference, defeated Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl and finished the year ranked No. 5 in the nation in both major polls. The Rockets also play road games at Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium on Sept. 12, and at Iowa State on Oct. 11.
Toledo’s MAC season opens with home games vs. Ball State on Sept. 20 and Central Michigan on Sept. 27. The other two league home opponents are UMass on Oct. 25 and arch-rival and defending MAC champion Bowling Green (10-4, 7-1) on Nov. 19. Toledo’s league road games are at Western Michigan on Oct. 4, Kent State on Nov. 4, Northern Illinois (12-2, 8-0) on Nov. 11 and Eastern Michigan in the season finale on Nov. 28.
“We face another challenging schedule, but we’re looking forward to it,” said Campbell. “I think it’s good for our fans that we can open up the season with four home games in the first five weeks of the season. But we play a schedule full of tough opponents, home and away, and we’re excited for the challenge.”