For all of the program’s relative success, you’d have to go back to 2004 to find the last time Toledo represented the West Division in the MAC championship game. It’s been Northern Illinois’ playground in the decade-plus since, with temporary rises from Central Michigan, Ball State and Western Michigan tossed in — but no Toledo.
All eyes will be on the Rockets and second-year head coach Jason Candle in 2017. The expectations are clear: Toledo anticipates winning the rowdy West Division and then taking the MAC as a whole, achievements that would place the team in the thick of the New Year’s bowl race.
They have a quarterback, Logan Woodside, with the numbers to rival any at his position in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Each positional unit — from quarterback through special teams — ranks easily in the top half of the conference, most among the top three.
There’s a chance for national exposure: On Sept. 23, one week after matching up against high-powered Tulsa, the Rockets will face Miami (Fla.) on the road. Better yet, Toledo will draw both Northern Illinois and Western Michigan at home.
All that’s in the way is a complete season. When the Rockets beat the Huskies, as they did a year ago, the Broncos put together a regular season to remember; when the Rockets beat everyone else, NIU has the last laugh.
Will 2017 be any different? It’s easy to say that the stars have aligned for Toledo, if slightly more difficult to predict an easy romp through conference play. But the path is clear: Toledo holds the inside track to the MAC title — and maybe a January bowl.
QB: Logan Woodside, Toledo
RB: Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan
RB: James Gilbert, Ball State
WR: Cody Thompson, Toledo
WR: Scott Miller, Bowling Green
TE: Tyler Conklin, Central Michigan
OL: Chukwuma Okorafor, Western Michigan
OL: Sam McCollum, Miami (Ohio)
OL: John Keenoy, Western Michigan
OL: Jake Pruehs, Ohio
OL: Max Scharping, Northern Illinois
DL: Joe Ostman, Central Michigan
DL: Gus Schwieterman, Bowling Green
DL: Jeremiah Harris, Eastern Michigan
DL: Anthony Winbush, Ball State
LB: Ja’Wuan Woodley, Toledo
LB: Quinton Poling, Ohio
LB: Robert Spillane, Western Michigan
CB: Darius Phillips, Western Michigan
CB: Shawun Lurry, Northern Illinois
S: Javon Hagan, Ohio
S: Jamari Bozeman, Bowling Green
K: Louis Zervos, Ohio
P: Joseph Davidson, Bowling Green
RET: Maurice Thomas, Miami (Ohio)
Quarterback: Toledo. Senior Logan Woodside is ready for his close-up after tossing 45 touchdowns a year ago.
Running back: Western Michigan. The combination of Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan is the best in the MAC.
Wide receivers and tight ends: Toledo. Joining Woodside in the Rockets’ powerful passing game is the league’s top receiver corps, one paced by a pair of all-conference talents in Cody Thompson and Jon’Vea Johnson.
Offensive line: Western Michigan. You can very credibly make the case for three Broncos on the preseason all-conference team; as it is, I have two.
Defensive line: Ohio. If maybe not up to last year’s standard, the defensive front is just one reason why the Bobcats are the favorite in the East Division.
Linebacker: Western Michigan. While Robert Spillane gets the nod on our preseason all-conference team, the list did squeeze out another impressive starter in senior Asantay Brown.
Secondary: Northern Illinois. Some of this optimism does depend on a full and healthy season from cornerback Shawun Lurry.
Special teams: Ohio. The Bobcats have two of the best at their respective positions in kicker Louie Zervos and punter Michael Farkas.
RANKING THE STARTING QUARTERBACKS
1. Logan Woodside, Toledo. Woodside stands heads and shoulders above the rest of the MAC’s quarterback crop.
2. Brogan Roback, Eastern Michigan. Roback will be at his best yet as a senior.
3. Gus Ragland, Miami (Ohio). Ragland avoids interceptions, tossing just one in 179 attempts last fall, and has a way with winning, going 6-1 as the starter, so he’s easily one of the MAC’s best.
4. Ryan Graham, Northern Illinois. Graham must stay healthy should NIU hope to regain its stride in the West Division.
5. Riley Neal, Ball State. Neal has the ability, particularly when counting his skills as a runner, to contend for all-conference honors during his final two seasons.
6. Thomas Woodson, Akron. When he gets rolling — and stays upright — Woodson is a crucial and potentially irreplaceable piece of the puzzle for Terry Bowden and the Zips.
7. Quinton Maxwell, Ohio. Maxwell should be the starter for Frank Solich, but the staff did bring in junior-college transfer Nathan Rourke for a reason.
8. Nick Holley, Kent State. He’s not much of a passer — as you might expect from a player who began his career at running back — but Holley’s athleticism gives Kent State a puncher’s chance.
9. James Morgan, Bowling Green. Morgan will definitely improve in his second season in Mike Jinks’ system, but don’t sleep on true freshman Jarrett Doege.
10. Tyree Jackson, Buffalo. Jackson, a sophomore, oozes potential as the program’s current and long-term answer under center.
11. Shane Morris, Central Michigan. I’d give Morris the nod for the opener, but I doubt it will be long before the Chippewas turned to redshirt freshman Tony Poljan.
12. Jon Wassink, Western Michigan. Best of luck to Wassink, a sophomore, as he attempts to replace perhaps the best quarterback in school history.
Northern Illinois RB Tommy Mister. There should be touches for the Indiana transfer in the Huskies’ crowded backfield.
Miami (Ohio) OT Jarrett LaRubbio. If he can grab a spot on the strong side, LaRubbio would join one of the more intriguing — in a good way — offensive fronts in the MAC.
Akron DL Jamal Davis. He’ll have every opportunity to slide into a starting role at end after transferring in from Pittsburgh.
Bowling Green WR Datrin Guyton. Look for Guyton to join Scott Miller in giving the Falcons two tough-to-handle receivers.
Buffalo OL Jacquis Webb. The Rutgers transfer is big enough to maul defenders in the running game, but he’ll need to show he has the footwork needed to handle one of the Bulls’ tackle spots.
GAMES OF THE YEAR
Western Michigan at Southern California, Sept. 2. Let’s see how one of the MAC’s top teams fares against Sam Darnold and friends.
Central Michigan at Kansas, Sept. 9. If CMU is better than I expect — take comfort in the fact I’m always wrong — it’s not hard to picture the Chippewas going 3-0 against Power Five competition: Kansas, at Syracuse a week later and at Boston College on Sept. 30.
Tulsa at Toledo, Sept. 16. The first team to 40 wins. Or 50?
Toledo at Miami (Fla.), Sept. 23. This matchup provides Toledo with its biggest platform to impress national voters.
Miami (Ohio) at Notre Dame, Sept. 30. A nice reunion for Brian Kelly and former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin.
Ohio at Bowling Green, Oct. 14. Fun fact: I was in attendance the last time the Bobcats visited the Falcons.
Northern Illinois at Toledo, Nov. 2. After getting past NIU last year, maybe the tide has turned in this once-lopsided rivalry.
Toledo at Ohio, Nov. 8. Don’t be surprised if these two teams meet again less than a month later.
Western Michigan at Toledo, Nov. 24. The Broncos have the talent to take this divisional race down to the final weekend of the regular season.
BEST CHANCE AT THE PLAYOFF
It’s all about Toledo. There are at least six and as many as eight bowl teams in the MAC: Toledo, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan for sure; Ohio, Bowling Green and Miami (Ohio) just behind; and maybe Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Akron, should things come together.
But this conference race begins and ends with Toledo — to the point where it would be a substantial surprise should the Rockets fail to meet their expectations and win the league.
We already touched on a few positives. The head coach, Jason Candle, has shown an adept hand during his one full season in charge. Quarterback Logan Woodside, now a senior, will deserve more attention than undoubtedly he’ll receive.
The receiver corps is the league’s best. Cody Thompson in particular has developed a smooth rapport with his quarterback, giving this passing game a reliable target with the ability to stretch defenses downfield. The offensive line loses three starters, two with all-conference recognition, but after an unsteady 2016 season might even improve behind an altered cast.
The defense does not have the MAC’s best line, nor the best linebackers, nor even the stingiest secondary. But there are no weaknesses across the board; this defense may lay an egg during the regular season — these things do happen — but should be viewed as another strength, not a weakness.
So, the question: Can Toledo follow in Western Michigan’s footsteps and reach a New Year’s Six bowl? The potential is there. Now the Rockets must meet those expectations.