Can Rockets deliver in role as favorite?
With a wealth of talent on board and plenty of experience, Toledo was an overwhelming media choice to win it all – MAC-wise, anyway -- in 2017. The Rockets actually pulled 21 votes to win the conference title game, with three other teams splitting the remaining three votes.
Of course, the challenge for UT is to bring those vibes to fruition. Despite some . . .
2016 overall record: 9-4
2016 MAC record: 6-2 (2nd MAC West)
Camellia Bowl: Appalachian State 31, Toledo 28
2017 MAC Media prediction: 1st MAC West and MAC Championship Game winner.
Can Terry Swanson, after sharing time with Kareem Hunt in the 2016 backfield, continue to give UT a dynamic threat via the ground game.
The defense, meanwhile, hopes to continue its stingy ways against opponents. Toledo allowed just 176 yards rushing per game and 221 yards through the air. Similar numbers would certainly serve the Rockets well this time around.
● In 2016, the Rockets offense was simply a juggernaut as they averaged 518 yards and 38 points per game. As this season comes to start, offensive coordinator Brian Wright again has a powerful unit. It begins and ends with senior QB Logan Woodside.
● Arguably the best returning quarterback in the MAC, Woodside completed 69 percent of his passes a season ago (495-of-755) for 4,129 yards ( second consecutive season he has passed for over 4,000) and 45 touchdowns. That paced the Football Bowl Subdivision (ahead of players like Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Jake Browning of Washington and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, who was drafted by the NFL Kansas City Chiefs.
● The running game will not enjoy the graduated Kareem Hunt and his 1,495 yards from a season ago. Returning, however, is senior Terry Swanson. He rushed for 583 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. Look for sophomore Art Thompkins to also get his share of carries.
● The receivers are led this season by Cody Thompson (64 receptions for 1,269 yards and 11 TDs), as well as Swanson and junior Jon’Vea Johnson, who hauled in 40 passes for 773 yards and 10 scores.
● The offensive line protected Woodside well in 2016, allowing just 14 sacks. The 2017 unit is led by senior C Nate Jepperson and LT Elijah Nkansah. Look for newcomers Bryce Harris at RG, Yazeed Atariwa at LT, and Brent Weiss at RT to fill the holes
● The UT defense brings back seven starters from a unit that allowed 25.7 points and 397 total yards per game in 2016.
● Along the front line, senior Marquise Moore (36 total tackles) and junior Olasunkanmi Adeniyi (49 stops and four sacks) are the returning starters. Look for sophomore Nate Childress & senior Tuzar Skipper to round out the starters.
● The linebacking corps is anchored by senior DaJuan Woodley, who is the leading tacklers among the returning Rockets (79 tackles 3.5 sacks, 2 pass breakups).
Junior Tyler Taffe (70 tackles) and sophomore DeDarollo Blue (26 tackles an two pass breakups) are back for the second line of defense.
● The secondary has three starters returning in senior CB Trevor Mathis (44 tackles and an interception), junior CB Ka’Dar Holliman (eight pass breakups and 33 tackles) and SS Josh Teachey (28 tackles and a sack). Look for sophomore Ronnie Jones to crack the starting lineup at FS.
● Junior Jameson Vest should again get plenty of action as placekicker. He scored 100 points a season ago, leading the team and finishing fourth in the MAC. Vest converted 61-of-62 PATs, while going 13-of-19 on field goals.
● Punter Nick Ellis must be replaced. Look for Bailey Flint, a freshman from Australia, to get the first crack
As an overwhelming favorite to win it all in the MAC, the Rockets are wearing a big bullseye. There is still plenty of talent among opponents, so winning a title likely won’t come easy.
The Rockets have stumbled with some good teams in the past, so being a favorite may not be all that comforting for UT fans, who know better than to count chickens (and wins) before they hatch (or are in the book).
Some of the biggest challenges come over the final four games when Toledo hosts Northern Illinois, hits the road for games at MAC East favorite Ohio and rival Bowling Green, and finishes against defending MAC champ Western Michigan at home Nov. 24.