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Rockets picked to win crown again; now they have to do it

07/27/2017, 1:01am EDT
By By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Briggs: Rockets in search of first MAC title since 2004


The return of quarterback Logan Woodside is one of many reasons the University of Toledo is the overwhelming favorite to win the Mid-American Conference. THE BLADE

CANTON — Death. Nerve-clanging potholes on the Anthony Wayne Trail. Toledo football picked to win the Mid-American Conference.

So, no, the long line of fans, reporters, and bookmakers thinking this could be the Rockets’ year is nothing new.

The difference this season is the wham-bam, take-it-to-the-bank certainty it will be.

A week before the Pro Football Hall of Fame hosts its annual induction ceremony, the MAC gathered inside its hallowed walls at the league’s annual media preview Wednesday to all but enshrine Toledo.

Going off the predictions, UT is the monster truck going over a line of junkyard Yugos. The Rockets were the league title pick of 21 of 24 media members and are the bet-the-house favorite in Las Vegas.

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Never mind Ohio State in the Big Ten. Or Alabama in the SEC. Toledo is the most lopsided conference front-runner in the nation. According to the sports book Bovada, UT is a -150 shoo-in, meaning that you would have to bet $150 on the Rockets to win $100. The next-closest challenger: Western Michigan at +800. (A $100 bet would win $800.)

Not even Bruce Gradkowski and the Rockets’ last MAC title team in 2004 were this overwhelmingly favored.

Really, what could go wrong?

OK, don’t answer that.

“If championships were won in the offseason,” Rockets second-year coach Jason Candle said, “we’d be in great shape.”

And how many times have we heard that?

But we’ll say it anyway: Toledo is in good shape.

Most teams freighted with such enormous expectations would have a bigger head than their mascot — think Ohio State and Brutus in 2015 — returning a majority of the roster from a championship team.

The Rockets are the outlier.

They indeed bring back a lot of talent, including record-setting quarterback Logan Woodside, a fleet of playmakers, and seven returning starters on defense.

But big heads? Uh, no.

The Rockets were picked to win the MAC West four of the last six seasons, and still they are searching for their first trip to the conference title game in Detroit in 13 years.

That doesn’t quite inspire entitlement. It spawns a team still sick over another very good year ending in late-season heartbreak.

A team tired of hearing it can’t win the big one.

A team resolved to put down its foot and scream, “If not now, when?”

A team ready to dance in the streets of Motown.

The Rockets may be the hunted on paper, but they are very much in pursuit.

“We’re chasing,” Candle said.“We’re not running. We’re chasing. We lost our last two games last year.”

If there is a group suited to handle the hype, it paradoxically might be the program that has traditionally struggled to do just that.

“It’s really difficult for 30, 40, 50-year-old men to not pay attention when people tell you you’re good, let alone 18 to 22-year-old people,” Candle said.

“So that’s ultimately a challenge and the responsibility of our staff to make sure we don’t disrespect what really good work days look like, and we do what we’re supposed to do each and every day.

“It would be really easy to focus on the what-ifs and the what could-be’s. We have to live in the now, more this year than any other time in my time in Toledo. There has to be that focus. 

“We have to sustain that commitment. We can’t be here one week and gone the next or you’ll be beat.”

I asked Candle if the biggest round yet of big expectations should come with a healthy dose of show-me skepticism. Been there, done that, you know.

“If that’s the feeling in town, and that’s the feeling by some supporters, that’s disappointing,” he said. 

“The run the last three years at Toledo has only been duplicated twice ever in the history of our program; the undefeated teams [from 1969-71] and from 1999 to 2001. There’s a very good product being put on the field for our university and our city to come out and support, and I hope the city of Toledo continues to stand up for these kids and that the Glass Bowl is packed every week.”

But ...

“If really good work and really tough days lead to a championship, we’ll be at the parade too,” he said.

He added: “The end goal is to win a championship. That’s why you come to Toledo. 

“We’re not going to hide from that. But we have a lot of really tough days ahead to get where we want to go.”

Time to go to work.

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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