In the lead-up to the upcoming college football season, Sports Unbiassed is taking a look at the top 20 teams with a chance to win the Access Bowl bid in 2015. You can find the full list of the Top 20, links to other team previews, and read more about the methodology behind the rankings here.
2014 Record: 9-4 (7-1 in MAC)
Head Coach: Matt Campbell (.667)
Returning Starters: 14/24 (5 OFF/8 DEF/1 SP)
5-Year Recruiting Ranking Composite: 80th
FIVE POSSIBLE STATEMENT GAMES
- Sept. 12 v. Arkansas (in Little Rock)
- Sept. 19 v. Iowa State
- Nov. 3 v. Northern Illinois
- Nov. 17 @ Bowling Green
- Nov. 27 v. Western Michigan
WHAT YOU REMEMBER/SHOULD REMEMBER ABOUT THE ROCKETS
Toledo is best remembered in its recent history for becoming the first MAC team in history to upset Michigan. The Rockets pulled off the feat in the first year of the Rich Rodriguez era in Ann Arbor, eking out a 13-10 victory over a Wolverines squad that finished the year 3-9:
Toledo has a much longer history of strong performances. The school was the proving ground for both Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel — the Alabama and Missouri head coaches that squared off last year in the SEC Championship Game — in their first chance to take the helm of a program. Even before those coaches, the Rockets went undefeated three straight seasons between 1969 and 1971 under Frank Lauterbur and John Murphy, winning 35 straight games, three straight MAC titles, and back-to-back-to-back Tangerine Bowls. In recent years, though, the team has taken a backseat to other conference opponents and has failed to capitalize on upset opportunities against Power Five competition. Could this be the season that streak turns around and we see another Michigan moment?
THE KEY REASON FOR HOPE FOR THE ROCKETS IN 2015
Matt Campbell enters his fourth season as head coach, having led Toledo to winning seasons in his first three full years in the job. (Campbell first took over as interim coach for the 2011 Military Bowl win over Air Force when Tim Beckman left to take the vacant Illinois post.) That sort of continuity — nine of the 13 MAC schools have turned over their coaching staffs since Campbell was hired full-time in 2012 — is a decided advantage in a steppingstone league where successful coaches are quickly nabbed up by bigger schools. That could still happen to Campbell, but that would mean that the Rockets had broke through to reach a new level of success.
The team also has the advantage of a schedule that features some of its biggest games of the season on home turf. Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, the two biggest challengers for the MAC West title, both have to come to the Glass Bowl. So too does Iowa State, an incredible chance to claim a victory over a Power Five opponent. Even the showdown against SEC West hopeful Arkansas takes place in Little Rock instead of Fayetteville. All four of their true road games are in conference play, and the toughest of that quartet is back-to-back Tuesday night road games at Central Michigan and Bowling Green.
WHAT COULD COST THE ROCKETS THE ACCESS BOWL SLOT
Toledo brings back a fair amount of talent, but the bulk of those players return to a defense that was the Rockets’ weak link in 2014. Conversely, only five starters return to an offense that was among the best in the country last year. Though quarterback Logan Woodside and tailback Kareem Hunt are among those returning offensive starters, Campbell and his staff have to replace all five starters from last year’s offensive line. If the new starters don’t come together quickly as a unit, it is unlikely that the Rockets will come close to matching their top-20 rushing offense and scoring offense of last year.
The other question comes down to how well their schedule strength stacks up against the other Access Bowl contenders. While Arkansas provides a tough test that will likely result in a loss, Iowa State is a Big 12 pushover that Toledo nearly beat on the road last season. A win over the Cyclones does little to move the meter despite the fact it is against a Power Five school. The Arkansas State game could prove to be an elimination game before the MAC schedule has even begun for Toledo. And just because they get to face both NIU and Western Michigan at home doesn’t mean that a win is guaranteed.
OFFERING A POTENTIAL OUTCOME FOR 2015
Toledo seems likely to reach the nine-win plateau again for the fourth time in the past five seasons; whether or not they can eclipse that level of play and contend for the MAC championship and Access Bowl slot is going to depend on whether they can break through that seeming ceiling and reach double digits in the win column for the first time since 2001.
The season opener against FCS Stony Brook, which is roughly equivalent to playing MAC minnows Eastern Michigan or Miami. Toledo will hope to use that contest to get its offensive line in order and build cohesion on both sides of the ball. They’ll need to maximize that opportunity, with the trip to Arkansas following nine days later. The Razorbacks have sights on conference contention themselves, and there is little reason to expect the Rockets to win in Little Rock; Toledo will merely hope to keep it closer than the 25-point loss to Missouri last year. Over the next fortnight Iowa State and Arkansas State will come to the Glass Bowl, a pair of deceptively tough contests that make 3-1 a best-case scenario entering October. Ball State, Kent State, Eastern Michigan, and UMass make for a relatively easy October, and if Toledo can get to November with a 7-1 record it would make the last month of the regular season extra significant.
Northern Illinois comes to Toledo on November 3. The back-to-back road games against Central Michigan and Bowling Green precede the home finale on the day after Thanksgiving against Western Michigan. Unfortunately for the Rockets, this might be a season too early to truly contend. The last month might yield as many as three losses, though two is more likely. Which two is up for discussion; we’ll say the duo against NIU and Western Michigan are the likeliest losses, with Bowling Green another possibility, as the Rockets fall short of claiming the team’s first trip to the MAC championship game since 2004. They will go bowling with a chance at 10 wins, but the effective ceiling will not vanish this season.
PREDICTED RECORD: 9-4 (6-2 in MAC)