COLUMBUS, Ohio — With the Mid-American Conference’s marquee quarterback, Toledo might be ready to capture some the magic that earned Western Michigan a piece of the national spotlight last season.
Hunting their first MAC championship since 2004, the Rockets have plenty of returning talent. Fifteen starters are back from last year’s 9-4 team, including 4,000-yard passer Logan Woodside and his top receiver, Cody Thompson. Woodside’s 45 touchdown passes last season was tops in the nation.
Woodside’s road has not been particularly smooth. He played in the shadow of Alabama transfer Phillip Ely and even redshirted his junior season in 2015.
“He’s set himself up to be a fifth year senior and have some real success,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said. “It’s been a tough road for him in his career, a guy we’ve had to tell twice he wasn’t going to be the quarterback, that he’s been beaten out for the job. A lot of guys would have bagged it and left and went other places, so it speaks to his resiliency and his resolve.”
The team expects a championship.
“When I came here in 2013, I had a vision to become the best quarterback in the country,” Woodside said. “I also had a vision to lead my team to a MAC championship. (Former Toledo QB) Bruce Gradkowski always gives me a hard time, (saying) you’re not the best quarterback at Toledo until you win a MAC championship. We’re going to work extremely hard. If we don’t win a MAC championship, it will be devastation to us.”
Western Michigan will have something to say about that, despite being without coach P.J. Fleck, now at Minnesota, and last season’s starting quarterback and leading wide receiver. The Broncos will have to row the boat even faster to match the 13-1 record and the final No. 15 ranking in the AP Top 25.
East: Steady Ohio and Miami, which had a terrific second half last year when quarterback Gus Ragland returned after a knee injury, should again challenge for the divisional title. The Redhawks finished last season by winning six of the last seven games, and they return 17 starters. Ohio won the East last year but was edged by Western Michigan in the MAC Championship Game. The Bobcats’ defense should again be near the top of the conference.
West: Toledo and Western Michigan should lead the way, and the nationally televised season finale between the teams on the day after Thanksgiving should be fun to watch. Northern Illinois, which played in six consecutive MAC Championship Games before last season, should be better than its 5-7 finish. Eastern Michigan enjoyed its first bowl trip since 1987 and also is on the way up.
Logan Woodside, QB, Toledo. Senior quarterback threw for 4,129 yards last and his 45 touchdowns were most in Division I. Named to the preseason watch list for Maxwell Award, given to nation’s best college football player.
Jarvion Franklin, RB, Western Michigan. Rushed for 1,353 yards and 12 touchdowns last year while sharing the spotlight in the backfield with Jamauri Bogan.
Quentin Poling, LB, Ohio. Versatile first-team All-MAC selection is the Bobcats’ leading returning tackler.
James Gilbert, RB, Ball State. Junior rushed for 1,332 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Named to Maxwell Award watch list.
Heath Harding, DB, Miami. First team All-MAC performer has been named to watch list for the Bednarik Award, given to the nation’s best defensive player.
Ulysees Gilbert III, LB, Akron. Junior was first-team All-MAC last year with a team-leading 122 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks and two forced fumbles.
Tim Lester, Western Michigan. All eyes will be on the Broncos and the MAC’s only new coach. The 40-year-old Lester has been working his way up the coaching ranks since his playing days ended in the late 1990s and is in his first Division I head coaching job. Most recently he was quarterbacks coach at Purdue and Syracuse.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Paul Haynes, Kent State. The former Ohio State assistant may be fighting for his coaching life this season. He’s just 12-35 in the last four years, and his window of opportunity could be closing. While defense has been a strong point for the Golden Flashes, the offense has consistently been among the worst in the conference.
East: The winner of the Miami-Ohio game on Halloween likely wins the division. Behind a stalwart defense, the Bobcats rise to the occasion.
West: Powered by an explosive offense, Toledo blows by Western Michigan and Northern Illinois to take over the division — and likely the conference championship.
Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy