This season hasn’t quite gone like everyone thought it would. Kareem Hunt and Alonzo Russell are struggling, the pass defense is a disappointing 79th, and the Rockets are ranked nineteenth in the country in the AP Poll.
Yes, feel free to double take.
Coming into the season, most media members around the MAC knew that Toledo was going to be good this season, and the polling reflected that fact; Toledo was chosen to be the winner of the MAC West despite the fact that Northern Illinois had won the division the last five years in a row. They didn’t realize that Toledo was going to be this good.
Yes, Kareem Hunt (69 rushes, 349 yards, three touchdowns) and Alonzo Russell (22 rec., 366 yards, three touchdowns) are struggling mightily after having breakout seasons last year, but there have been plenty of players to pick up the slack, including the surprising Terry Swanson (81 rushes, 590 yards, five touchdowns) and the dependable Damion Jones-Moore (75 rushes, 387 yards, five touchdowns) out of the backfield, and the dynamic Corey Jones (39 rec., 371 yards, four touchdowns) and Cody Thompson (22 rec., 490 yards, four touchdowns) at the receiver spots.
Phillip Ely has also been a more viable option at quarterback than Logan Woodside, going 136 for 246, 1,734 yards, 17 touchdowns, and seven interceptions over the duration of the season, with three of those interception coming in one bad game against Massachusetts (where he still threw for five touchdowns). The offensive line has also been clutch, and hadn’t allowed a single sack on the season on Phillip Ely going into their tilt with Massachusetts on Saturday afternoon.
Their game against Massachusetts was a microcosm of their season thus far. The Rockets started slow and looked as if they couldn’t get anything going after falling behind 28-10 to the Minutemen on the road. That would all change in the third quarter, where the Rockets have been notoriously stingy all season.
While giving up no points, the Rockets put up 21, taking the lead 31-18, and never looking back after that, earning the win by the final score of 51-35. Toledo had a similar game against Eastern Michigan the previous week, finding themselves behind 6-0 before blitzing the hapless Eagles 63-20. The Rockets’ ability to put up points in dangerous situations is perhaps only rivaled by their hated rival Bowling Green, which sports the best offense in the MAC, and the third most productive offense in the country (behind Texas Tech and Baylor).
Toledo has looked impressive thus far in both parts of the schedule, and could be 8-0 were it not for a suspended game vs. FCS Stony Brook , where the Rockets were looking poised to take a victory.
Toledo did rack up two major victories against Power Five foes Arkansas (16-12 in Little Rock), and against Iowa State at home in 2OT (30-23), while also collecting a win over Group of Five power Arkansas State (37-7) for the second time in as many seasons. Every win is going to matter for the Rockets moving forward; the cancelled game will give them a 12-game schedule if they make the MAC Championship game.
The Rockets have to compete with the likes of Memphis, Temple, and Houston from the American Athletic Conference, and Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West for the one automatic Group of Five bowl in the New Year’s Six. To even have a hope at the Playoff, mass chaos will have to occur at the top of the standings over the last five weeks, and even then, Toledo would absolutely have to go undefeated.
So, the question is, can Toledo do it? The Rockets will be televised nationally for weeknight #MACtion for the remainder of the season, and run into the ultimate gamut to prove their worth, as all four of their remaining opponents are .500 or above, with three of those opponents (Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, and Western Michigan) hailing from the MAC West division that the Rockets currently sit on top of. The fourth match? The Battle of I-75 against a Bowling Green team led by the FBS leader in passing yards in Matt Johnson.
Surely, the Falcons will look to play spoiler to the Rockets’ title and bowl hopes. Of course, if they manage to stay unbeaten, they still have to play the MAC Championship game, where they will probably play Bowling Green for the second time in three weeks, unless Ohio or Akron pick themselves up of the ground in the next four weeks.
The Rockets are soaring high this year, and thus far, have impressed. But the real test starts now, and if they can keep up this breakneck pace and have a few games fall their way above them in the table, it’s completely feasible that the Rockets will find themselves in front of a primetime audience come the holiday season.