Going into the season, there were rumblings that at least one MAC team out of Bowling Green, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, and Toledo could make noise as Group of Five contenders for the New Year’s Day bowl games.
The season has progressed in ways unexpected after five weeks of play. Out of the teams listed, only Toledo still has a chance at the game. Western Michigan has looked disappointing in a slow 2-2 start, Bowling Green suffered losses against Memphis and Tennessee that will most likely keep them out of contention, and Northern Illinois is in the midst of an unexpected three-game losing skid after falling to conference rival Central Michigan.
Toledo has been on the outside looking in in terms of the AP Top 25 for the last month now, and probably would have already been there if their game against FCS Stony Brook would have gone on as scheduled.
The now-24th ranked Rockets (4-0, 1-0 MAC) have downed then-ranked Arkansas and GoDaddy Bowl rival Arkansas State on the road, and held on to win against Iowa State at the Glass Bowl in their non-conference schedule, and dispatched the pesky Ball State Cardinals to open the conference season this Saturday.
They have mostly stayed in contention thanks to a strong defense and the ability to produce despite Kareem Hunt being a game-time decision virtually every game thus far since getting back from a suspension.
So how did they get here?
Toledo’s offense is nothing to write home about, but Phillip Ely has led the Rockets to a decent start in the young season. Currently, Toledo is 98th in the country in passing offense, gaining 847 yards and four touchdowns through the air, while giving four interceptions.
Those numbers will work just fine for the Rockets, who are predicated on a power run offense.
Hunt hasn’t been reliable as many people thought he would be this season, as he only has 24 carries for 129 yards this year after a breakout 2014. In his stead have been the duo of Damion Jones-Moore, who has rushed for 244 yards and four touchdowns, and Terry Swanson, who has rushed for 214 yards and two touchdowns. The offensive line has done a great job keeping players healthy this year, not allowing a single sack, while making lanes for the running backs.
The strength of this team lays in the defense, which has been nothing short of solid. In the preseason, experts figured Toledo would be a talented squad, but many questions remained with key departures at most every position. It’s pretty safe to say that those questions have been answered.
Toledo has been wildly efficient on defense this season, ranking 13th in the nation in defensive efficiency (79.8), while ranking 30th in total defense overall, giving up only 367 yards per game. An impressive run defense that ranks 5th in the nation is mostly to credit for such a great rating, as Toledo limits opponents to 80.5 yards per game and two touchdowns on the season.
The Rockets also have a swarming defensive line responsible for 12 sacks on the season for 87 yards lost overall, and 27 tackles for loss with 119 yards lost overall. Orion Jones has been an emerging leader and paces the defense as a whole, leading the way with 19 tackles, 6.5 TFL, and 4.5 sacks on the season.
Special teams has also been key for the Rockets, with true freshman Jameson Vest currently 8-10 in field goal tries with one block, with a long of 44 yards. Vest has been a more than capable replacement for all-MAC kicker Jerimiah Detmer. Nick Ellis has also helped as punter, averaging 39.5 yards per punt to give Toledo favorable field position in every game thus far.
The pieces are there to make a run, but Toledo absolutely must go undefeated in order to even sniff the College Football Playoff or the New Year’s Day Six. Toledo has the misfortune of playing in the MAC West, which is where the MAC Champion has come from the last five seasons (and also where the Northern Illinois Huskies have been MAC West Champions for the last five seasons).
Central Michigan has emerged as a legitimate candidate to win the division after waxing NIU in the conference opener, Western Michigan is much improved under the guidance of PJ Fleck, and NIU is always poised to make a run just when everyone is counting them out (just look at last year).
Last season nearly ended in a three-way tie for the division title as NIU, WMU, and Toledo had to fight tooth and nail to break apart. If the Rockets can continue their forward momentum and walk away with the MAC Championship trophy, the college football world could very well be looking at the best Group of Five school in a “big” bowl since the 2005 Boise State Broncos.