DETROIT — The University of Toledo believes it can end Northern Illinois’ run as bully of the Mid-American Conference West Division this season, and the Rockets have company.
UT was picked to win the MAC's West Division in the conference's preseason media poll Wednesday at MAC Media Day at Ford Field, earning 11 of 21 first-place votes and narrowly edging out Northern Illinois, which received eight.
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July championships are hollow, however, and Rockets coach Matt Campbell wasn't exactly flattered by the pick.
“I'll say this: it's the preseason, and those things mean nothing,” Campbell said. “What I do feel good about is that our football program has gotten to where [winning the division] is the expectation.”
In the last four seasons, Northern Illinois won the division four consecutive times, the MAC twice, and earned an Orange Bowl bid. Toledo hasn't beaten NIU during that stretch.
The Huskies and Rockets meet on Nov. 11 in DeKalb, Ill., a game that potentially could decide which team will go to Detroit for the MAC championship game.
With 15 starters returning from last season's team — though quarterback Jordan Lynch, a Heisman Trophy finalist, isn't one of them — the Huskies didn't understand why they weren't the pick to win the West.
“I felt kind of disrespected. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you,” Northern Illinois running back Cameron Stingily said. “Since I've been at NIU, we've been to the MAC Championship game every year. I plan on not changing that.”
The Rockets went 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the MAC last season. They lost their final two games and were not selected to play in a bowl game.
Running back David Fluellen and wide receiver Bernard Reedy — both of whom finished in the top 25 in the country in all-purpose yards — graduated, as did quarterback Terrance Owens.
The Rockets still don't know who will take their snaps this season. Three players, Alabama transfer Phillip Ely, Logan Woodside, and Michael Julian, saw first-team repetitions in spring practice, and Campbell said a decision will come based on performance.
Even with some uncertainty at offensive skill positions, 18 of Toledo's 22 offensive and defensive starters return this season. A relatively young team last season saw significant playing time, and Toledo players believe their experience will pay dividends.
“I feel like we're a really strong group because we all got playing time when we were younger,” said Toledo linebacker Junior Sylvestre, a first-team All-MAC selection last season.. “I feel like that's going to transfer into this year.”
NOTES: The competition between the three quarterback candidates will see its most important days during fall camp, which begins Aug. 4. Campbell said he doesn't see it as an issue that UT doesn't have a clear No. 1. “I'm pretty comfortable letting it play out,” Campbell said. “I've always said this: I want our quarterbacks — no matter what position it is — you gotta earn your position.” … The Rockets' offensive line has 97 starts between them. With a line that has played so much together, the unit's cohesion is invaluable, senior right guard Greg Mancz said. “I don't think you can even put it into words,” he said. “It makes everything easier, communication more effective. It helps a lot.”