Northern Illinois is the overwhelming favorite to win the Mid-American Conference's West Division in the MAC Media Association's preseason poll. Akron is the runaway pick to win the East Division title.
But Toledo is the No. 2 choice to win the MAC championship game.
Of course, all of those things can't happen. It just doesn't add up.
What it illustrates, though, is that the Rockets, despite major losses at key positions, still figure to be among the top three teams in the conference when all is said and done during this 2006 season.
And, for the first time ever, the MAC has agreements in place to send teams to three postseason bowl games.
Now there's some math that makes sense.
The Rockets will have their eyes on that prize as the '06 season lifts off Thursday night with a non-conference game at Iowa State.
UT has played in four bowl games during Tom Amstutz's five years as head coach. Most recently, the Rockets appeared in the Motor City Bowl in 2004 and the GMAC Bowl in '05. Now you can add the new International Bowl in Toronto to the list.
For UT to make it to any of those games means the team will have filled some big holes.
Bruce Gradkowski is no longer the quarterback. Trinity Dawson is no longer running the ball. Jason Robbins is no longer kicking it. Anthony Jordan and David Thomas are no longer terrorizing opponents from their inside linebacker slots. Safety Keon Jackson and cornerback Antonio Malone have departed one side of the defensive backfield.
A new season with new opportunities is the way Amstutz looks at things.
"Our kids are humble and hungry," the Rockets' coach said. "All during camp, I've felt like I'm getting all this team has to give, and that's a great feeling for a coach. I like our players. I like the way they handle their business and prepare. I like their focus.
"Sure, there are a lot of unknowns. The first game is on the road against a strong Big 12 team. There are a lot of concerns. But it's all very exciting and I have a good feeling about this team."
•The offensive line is talented and experienced. John Greco could be one of the two best
offensive tackles ever at UT and he lines up with veterans David Perkins at left guard, Hassan Adebesin at center and 6-8, 330-pound senior Greg Luna at right tackle. Jesse Anderson, a 300-pound senior, will be a first-time starter at right guard, but has seen plenty of playing time in the past.
"It's very important that these guys protect and punch the holes, considering we have to run the ball and we have to give a new quarterback time to operate," Amstutz said.
•Steve Odom is poised to re-write the school's career pass receiving records and has some speedy partners in (currently injured) Nick Moore, D.J. Nichols, Andrew Hawkins, David Washington and Trumaine Smith.
•There is not a deeper group of quality tight ends in the MAC than Chris Hopkins, a returning all-league pick, John Allen and Josh Powell.
•The defensive line is deeper than ever, Amstutz says. The competition has been so fierce that two expected starters, Patrick Clark and Seth Thitoff, who has been injured, are currently in backup roles behind juniors Sean Williamson at tackle and Bernard Faithful at end. Returning starter J.P. Bekasiak anchors the front line at nose tackle in the 3-4 alignment.
•Four of the back eight on defense - outside linebackers Mike Alston and Michael Chamberlain as well as free safety Tyrrell Herbert and cornerback Nigel Morris - should be candidates for All-MAC honors.
•Clint Cochran, smart, strong-armed, and accurate, gets the nod at quarterback. Jalen Parmele and Richard Davis are 1-2 at running back with red-shirt freshman DaJuane Collins pushing both of them. Except for the latter, all have played and produced in the past, but being the starter is a different deal.
•The inside linebacking corps is very young. Sophomore Keith Forestal and redshirt freshman Eric Heller are the starters with true freshman Archie Donald and redshirt freshman Beau Brudzinski ready to step in. Only Forestal has played in a college game and Amstutz thinks he could be a dandy.
•Safety Lester Richmond and cornerback Bo Martin are first-time starters and will be backed up by guys who have never played in a college game.
Special teams are a mixed bag in the known-unknown department. Alex Steigerwald, a true freshman, will handle field goals and extra points. Mike Krispinsky has some experience kicking off. The real veteran of the group, punter Brett Kern, is the guy UT least likes to call upon.
Complicating the maturation of young talent is the fact UT opens with two games on the road. A key MAC test against Western Michigan is on tap for Week 2. The Rockets then host Kansas of the Big 12 and Division I-AA McNeese State before closing the non-league portion of the schedule at Pittsburgh of the Big East.
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