THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY
DETROIT — Matt Campbell had little to say when asked to address his team’s ranking in the Mid-American Conference preseason football poll.
Campbell, whose second team at the University of Toledo is picked to finish runner-up in the West division, was disinterested.
He said he pays no attention to the projection and spoke of a “process” his team must adhere to to win a league title. He stayed on course for a half-minute or so and moved on.
Next topic: The schedule. A nauseous mixture of punishing road trips, tricky home contests, and poor timing before a rivalry game could threaten to destroy a season high on internal and external expectations.
Campbell spoke at length, and with interest.
“Our kids know with our nonconference schedule every year we’re going to schedule really talented teams,” Campbell said Tuesday at the league’s media day. “If you don’t show up to one of those games you’re going to get embarrassed. If you don’t show up in our conference schedule you’re going to get beat.”
Toledo, in 92 years of football, has never faced an opponent from the powerful Southeastern Conference. This year it will visit two on consecutive weeks to start the season. In jousting with Florida and Missouri, the Rockets will be the only non-SEC team to play two SEC teams.
Four of the first five will be on the road, with the exception of a home tilt Sept. 14 against Eastern Washington. A gimme, right? Not exactly. The Eagles are a Football Championship Subdivision juggernaut that won a national title two years ago.
“Good team, and if we don’t bring our A game we can get embarrassed,” running back David Fluellen said.
Navigate that minefield and another awaits in the MAC. Contests against three 2012 bowl teams — Central Michigan, Ball State, and Bowling Green — are on the road.
Bowling Green, which brings back its most-hyped team in years, has the added bonus of sitting idle the week before the I-75 rivalry game. An Oct. 19 nonconference home game is against Navy, which won eight games a year ago.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to compete against great teams,” defensive end Christian Smith said.
First practice is for Aug. 1, and Campbell will unveil a team that is as deep and as talented as any he’s had in his five years with the program.
Quarterback Terrance Owens, who said he is up 13 pounds from last season to 208, returns as part of a cornucopia of offensive weapons that includes Fluellen, who ran for 1,498 yards in 2012.
The defense, which Campbell hopes will grow after a shaky first year under coordinator Tom Matukewicz, is more talented and deeper than many realize.
The lone cushy point comes in November with consecutive home games against Eastern Michigan, Buffalo, and West favorite Northern Illinois.
The Huskies, riding the momentum of the MAC’s first berth in a BCS bowl game, are a clear favorite in the West, earning 138 points and 16 first-place votes to Toledo’s 122 points and five first-place votes. Ball State and Central Michigan were picked third and fourth, followed by Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan. Ohio is picked to capture the East over Bowling Green.
Northern Illinois with 14 votes is the clear favorite to win the MAC championship game Dec. 6 at Ford Field. Toledo and Ohio garnered three votes each, and Bowling Green and Ball State received two. Central Michigan also was honored.
In many seasons Toledo would have the requisite pieces — a veteran quarterback, a formidable offensive line, and perhaps an adequate defense — to contend for a MAC title. No one is saying the Rockets can’t or that they won’t make that happen, but only if they can overcome a schedule riddled with explosives.
“I don’t know if it’s as much about the schedule that’s out there as it is about us and what we have to do to continue to get ourselves in situations to get back here and win a MAC championship,” Campbell said.