Toledo's Reggie Gilliam (14) is embraced by teammate Jordan Fisher after Gilliam scored during the third quarter of the Rockets 47-13 win over Elon University. BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH
I played the role of the fedora-wearing, cigar-smoking, central-casting reporter.
University of Toledo receiver Cody Thompson played the central-casting athlete.
Me: How big are these next two games in the bigger national picture?
Huge, no? After all, the Rockets host Tulsa on Saturday night, then travel to 17th-ranked Miami next week. Pull off two wins — one probable, one improbable — and Toledo will be more than the talk of the college football country. It will be the frontrunner to crash one of the New Year’s Six bowls — the prestige prize awarded to the top-rated team from outside the five power conferences.
What an opportunity!
Thompson: “I know it's the stereotypical football player answer, but we don't really talk about it that much. Our main goal is winning a MAC championship.”
I could almost hear Toledo coach Jason Candle — like the enthusiastic dad on Family Feud — saying, “Good answer! Good answer!”
Heck, Candle about said the same, as did athletic director Mike O’Brien.
“I know where you're going and I’d like to answer the question, but it’s so early,” O’Brien said. “I’m just happy we’re 2-0. I'm going to give you the coach answer.”
Fortunately, the in-house rules don’t apply to the rest of us.
So we’ll just say it for them: The Rockets have a huge opportunity.
The players have the right mindset. Winning a MAC title is no doubt the top priority. But same as Northern Illinois barging into the Orange Bowl in 2012 and Western Michigan rolling into the Cotton Bowl last year, the Rockets (2-0) should be dreaming of similar heights beyond.
Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Of course. The Rockets haven’t beaten the Golden Hurricane of Tulsa — a 10-win team last year with an offense that could swap scores with Toledo — let alone began worrying about the other Hurricanes. A Toledo team heralded among the top Group of Five conference teams might yet prove unworthy of their national billing.
Yet my mind can’t help but wander.
If ever there was a season in which the stars aligned just so for Toledo to make its biggest national noise in almost a half century — and become this year’s non-brand-name school to play in a brand-name bowl — this feels like the one.
Here are the three reasons why:
1. Perfect nonconference schedule: If Toledo played a Murderers’ Row of blue bloods, it would have no chance. If it played a Misdemeanors’ Row of blue ... cupcakes, it would get no respect.
Toledo struck just the right balance this season — an FCS team (Elon), an ordinary Group of Five team (Nevada), a good Group of Five team (Tulsa), and a good but not unbeatable Power Five team (Miami).
Now, will the Rockets beat Miami? Probably not. The Hurricanes recruit top-15 national classes almost every year, won nine games last season, and should be better this fall. But the prediction here is Toledo makes it a game, and like at Arkansas two years ago, anything can happen from there.
Toledo stunned the 18th-ranked Razorbacks 16-12, its signature victory of a perfect nonconference season that positioned the Rockets well for a top bowl. They missed their chance that year with two late league losses, but this year’s early schedule — replete with a validating marquee opponent but not overwhelming — offers the opportunity of another go at it.
2. Group of Five parity: Even if the Rockets ran the table in 2015, they likely would have been foiled by Houston, which finished eighth in the country. There appears no such juggernaut in the way this year. No. 22 South Florida is the only non-power team rated among the top 30 teams in the latest AP poll, and the Bulls have been anything but impressive, barely beating FCS Stony Brook at home last weekend. The path is clear.
3. A league in transition: I never would predict anyone to sweep through the MAC, let alone a Toledo program known to break hearts. But with the Rockets’ top rivals in transition, their first perfect league season since 1971 at least feels on the table. Remember, Toledo is the biggest conference favorite in the nation.
At the least, the down-the-road implications lace the moment with great meaning, and how much fun is that?
Feel free to dream, Toledo. For this Rockets team, the opportunity — and challenge — of a lifetime awaits.