Northern Illinois created the Mid-American Conference blueprint for national recognition.
In 2014, the University of Toledo has the opportunity to follow it.
Explicitly stated or not, everybody in the MAC wants what the Huskies created for themselves in the past four seasons. Northern Illinois was able to recruit talented players and turn them into college successes. It saw the right teams at the right times — like Purdue, Kansas, and Iowa in down years — and it consistently cleaned up against the bottom of the league. The Huskies mostly won their big games and made themselves the best team in the MAC West, at Toledo’s expense.
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Now the Huskies have lost their three best players from last year’s team, while the Rockets return 18 of 22 offensive and defensive starters.
The Rockets’ schedule is challenging, but UT coach Matt Campbell repeatedly said this summer that this is the deepest roster he has seen at Toledo.
“What makes you excited about this team is that our team really has gotten better every day,” Campbell said. “They’ve understood the process from January through this point right now, and that’s got to continue, which is the hard part.”
New Hampshire, one of the top teams in the Football Championship Subdivision, visits the Glass Bowl on Saturday, and No. 24 Missouri comes calling on Sept. 6. Toledo has trips to Cincinnati and Iowa State, and likely a season-deciding trip to DeKalb, Ill., to play the Huskies, whom Toledo has lost four consecutive years.
Campbell said he thinks his team “can play with anybody on our schedule,” and the media agreed with him, picking the Rockets to win the MAC West in the preseason poll.
Toledo’s offensive line will be the strength of the team and could be the best single position group in the league. The quintet has 97 starts among them as the line could feature five seniors. They allowed running backs 6.4 yards per carry a season ago, which will make life significantly easier for the quarterback, whomever he may be.
Alabama transfer Phillip Ely, sophomore Logan Woodside, and redshirt freshman Michael Julian have split time as the No. 1 quarterback during fall camp. Campbell has not yet named his starter, at least not publicly, and has said that the three could continue to split time in the opening games.
The Rockets went 7-5 last season and were not offered a bowl bid. Again, Toledo’s division title hopes popped in November, and again, they watched Northern Illinois go to Detroit for the MAC Championship Game.
“Looking back on our losses to Northern Illinois, we beat ourselves,” offensive lineman Jeff Myers said. “We’ve been in the position to win all of those games, and it comes down to all of the little things. Turnovers [and] penalties are things that have killed us late in those games, and that's something they’ve been good at in all their seasons they've been successful.”
New defensive coordinator Jon Heacock is trying to build the championship defense Toledo has not had in the past few years. It has been decent at times, but never consistent.
“And consistency is the hallmark of a championship team,” Heacock said.
For the Rockets, 2014 will be a season of opportunity.
With the opener less than a week away, optimism at UT is higher than it has been in while.
“As a team, we have a lot of guys coming back with experience, who have played together and had success here,” Myers said. “I think it gives us the confidence in everybody playing that we can accomplish it all this year.”
3 games to watch
■ vs. No. 24 Missouri, Sept. 6: The Rockets’ highest-profile game of the season is the biggest in the Glass Bowl in at least four years. If Toledo has aspirations of making national noise, a win here would be an excellent place to start.
■ at Northern Illinois, Nov. 11: This game essentially has decided the MAC West during the past four seasons. Again this season, the winner likely will earn the trip to Detroit.
■ vs. Bowling Green, Nov. 19: The biggest mural in Toledo’s new Larimer Athletic Complex? A two-story picture of a Toledo huddle lifting The Battle of I-75 Trophy in celebration. There’s a reason.
3 causes for concern
■ THE QUARTERBACK: Toledo might have three players it likes, but the list of championship teams who have split quarterback time is very, very short. The wrong decision — or a dragged out one — could change Toledo’s season for the worse.
■ PASS DEFENSE: The Rockets will need their defensive backfield to play much better in 2014, especially in the absence of No. 1 cornerback Cheatham Norrils, who still isn’t close to returning after a viral infection. A difference-maker has to emerge from this group.
■ HOME BODIES: Toledo has four home games before September concludes. How will the Rockets handle so much time on the road for the rest of the year?
Best case scenario
Toledo’s dreams come true: It wins 11 games, beats Northern Illinois, trumps Bowling Green for a fifth straight time, wins the West and the MAC, and ends the season ranked in the top 25.
Another late-season collapse. The quarterback situation turns into an ordeal, the defense remains spotty, and NIU torments Toledo again. A year with high hopes ends at 7-5 again.
What others are saying
- “Toledo's just renting space – second place – in the West Division. This is difficult for the program to handle, but the Rockets control their own destiny: Beat NIU. Second place is fine. First is better.” - Paul Myerberg, USA Today
- “I felt kind of disrespected. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you. … Since I've been at NIU, we've been to the MAC Championship game every year. I plan on not changing that.” - Northern Illinois running back Cameron Stingily on Toledo being picked to win the MAC West
- “If he's not coaching in a Big 5 conference before he's 40, it'll be surprising.” - Associated Press college football reporter Ralph Russo on Matt Campbell, who is 34 this season