The University of Toledo football program has a good thing going.
Over the past six years, the Rockets’ 38 wins in the Mid-American Conference are second only to Northern Illinois. They reliably beat rival Bowling Green, breeze in to November with a perfect league record, and win bowl games.
Toledo just about has it all.
Except the one prize it covets most.
The one it must claim to punch through its mounting psychological barricade. The one it must put up and win to fundamentally change the thinking of a program and fan base conditioned to late-season heartbreak.
A MAC championship.
Remember the way a cloud over Cleveland seemed to lift when the Cavaliers captured the city’s first championship in 52 years earlier this summer. On a very different level, Toledo needs a breakthrough of its own — the kind of season that can flip a brace-for-the-worst angst into expectations for the best.
“We’ve been so close, right by the door every time,” senior running back Kareem Hunt said. “It sucks coming up short. We need to figure it out and get through it.”
New Rockets coach Jason Candle will look to achieve this season what his predecessors — Tim Beckman and Matt Campbell — could not: end the MAC’s most confounding drought.
Since Toledo won the MAC in 2004 — an exclamation point on its fifth trip to the league title game in eight years — eight different schools have played in Detroit for a conference championship. The Rockets are not one of them.
That never gets any easier to believe, and it only amplifies the question we ask every year around this time: Is this a program where very good is good enough? Or can it be great?
There is no time like the present to adjust the narrative.
Those are big expectations, especially this season. The Rockets are replacing eight starters from last year’s stonewalling defense and play their two biggest threats in the MAC West — Northern Illinois and Western Michigan — away from home.
But there are always reasons — a play here, an injury there — why Toledo doesn’t win the league. There are many more why it can.
Consider first its place in the MAC ecosystem. The even-a-blind-squirrel-finds-a-title analogy may apply to Akron, which has won a total of 29 league games since 2004 but still managed to mix in a conference championship. But not the Rockets.
Toledo, a near-annual contender with 27 winning seasons since 1981, may be the best job in the league. Check off all the boxes. Location. Unsurpassed facilities. Financial commitment. UT spent $8.17 million on football last year, according to federal records, on par with its top league peers.
Then there is this year’s team, which Candle — a Rockets assistant the past seven seasons — helped build as the program’s best salesman. If the defense may recede, the offense could be electric. The unit returns seven starters, including Hunt and four starters from a line that allowed four sacks all season. Not to mention Hunt’s all-conference backup, Terry Swanson, or quarterback Logan Woodside, who started in 2014.
The Rockets are as good as anybody in the conference. Just as they were last year. And the year before.
When will they prove it?
It’s time this year they tear up their annual midnight blueprint. We’ve seen the same movie for six years running, playing on loop like the Christmas Story marathon.
The Rockets are 25-1 in conference play in September and October. Then the calendar turns and the vise of pressure tightens. They have played Northern Illinois in a de facto MAC West championship game six times and lost six times. Just as Toledo has burrowed into the heads of Bowling Green — winners of two of the last three league titles but losers of six straight to its rival — the Rockets are under the Huskies’ thumb.
It doesn’t matter the circumstances. It doesn’t matter that Toledo recruits higher-rated classes. Or that, according to advanced metrics, Toledo has fielded the better team on paper four of the past five years. Or that the media picked Toledo to win the MAC West all but two of those seasons. Or that, last November at the Glass Bowl, the Huskies lost their quarterback and top receiver in the first half of a game Toledo controlled almost all night.
The result is always, achingly, the same. And, really, there is no longer any explanation, other than a mental wall that rises along with the stakes. We perhaps saw it again in last year’s season finale, when a loss by Northern Illinois earlier in the week gave Toledo a second chance to win the MAC West. Instead, the same Rockets team that played with an underdog edge in wins over No. 18 Arkansas and No. 24 Temple lost at home to Western Michigan as an eight-point favorite.
Call me crazy, but I can’t help but return to the psychology of Cleveland sports. Or Ohio State vs. Michigan in the 1990s. Or Candle’s favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, for most of the 20th century.
The names and players and coaches changed, but the building anxiety of their fans seeped into locker room just the same. No matter how good those teams were or how close they came to slaying their white whale, you always expected the other cleat to drop.
Until it didn’t.
Maybe everything will change for Toledo, too. Maybe it will take a football game in a baseball stadium — Toledo vs. Northern Illinois on Nov. 9 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago — to upend the MAC world as we know it.
“We’ve all got a big chip on our shoulder,” senior defensive end John Stepec said. “This is the year we really want to go all the way now, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to get there.”
It is time for Toledo to be great.