I'm pretty confident in Missouri's ability to get back to 6-6 or 7-5 in 2013, but instead of beating the teams below them and losing to the teams above them, the Tigers are potentially more likely to slip up early on and pull an upset later. That's just the way football works. If Mizzou is to suffer an early-season upset loss, Toledo could be a good candidate. The Rockets lost by seven points at Arizona last year and boast a level of athleticism not usually associated with MAC schools. Teams from the home of MACtion typically find quality with a combination of two-star recruits, an interesting system, and experience. The conference is kind of what the Missouri Valley is to basketball.
But in the past few years, Toledo has found a new recipe: Find three-star guys and hang with others athletically. Toledo has won 25 games in three seasons. Since losing by 39 to Arizona at the start of the 2010 season, Toledo has beaten Purdue (31-20 in 2010), nearly beaten Ohio State (27-22 in 2011), gotten screwed out of a win against Syracuse (33-30 in 2011), and nearly beaten Arizona (24-17). That's a nice track record.
Make no mistake: Missouri is a better team on average, and if our projections are right, the Tigers are quite a bit better. But the Tigers won't have to make too many mistakes to give the Rockets a chance.
The rest of the season saw a solid uptick in Toledo's overall level of play, but it was accompanied by drastic inconsistency. The Rockets looked great in disposing of Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, then tried really hard to lose to Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti. They powered past Cincinnati, then fell at home to Ball State. They rebounded with solid reasonably performances against Northern Illinois and Akron, then fell apart late in the Potato Bowl versus Utah State. In all, Toledo's No. 54 ranking was good for third in the MAC (behind No. 33 Northern Illinois and No. 48 Kent State), but the team rarely played like No. 54. As often as not, it was either top 40 or bottom 40.
Again, though, what else would you expect from a high-ceiling team bereft of experience?
Strong recruiting might not produce star power, but it does usually give you solid depth. After a slow offensive start, Toledo established some wonderful depth in 2012 and returns a wealth of diverse options. You've got big David Fluellen (well, big for this offense), a solid between-the-tackles runner with occasional explosiveness. You've got Bernard Reedy, a Tavon Austin-style weapon near the line of scrimmage, capable of catching a high percentage of short passes and stretching defenses horizontally. And you've got X-receiver Alonzo Russell, a former star recruit who showed serious big-play (and low-efficiency) potential; Russell averaged 17.3 yards per catch last year; he caught six passes for 152 yards against Bowling Green, three for 98 against Eastern Michigan, and nine for 139 against Akron. Add to this lineup some interesting backups at running back (along with the ever-present threat of screens and dump-offs to the backs), big junior Justin Olack, and some high-upside freshmen (running back Kareem Hunt and receivers Rodney Adams and Zachary Yousey were all three-star signees), and Campbell has a lot of interesting toys in the toy box.
The Rockets must replace five of their top eight players on the line, along with their top two linebackers (who combined for 9.5 tackles for loss, 11 passes defensed and 27 percent of Toledo's tackles). The departing talent was impressive, but it bears noting that the top two returnees on the line were each three-star recruits (and both Elijah Joens and Jayrone Elliott showed solid play-making ability in 2012), there are two three-star sophomores (Allen Covington and Robert Zimmerman) waiting in the wings, and two three-star freshmen enter the fray this summer.
Meanwhile, the linebacking corps might get a boost from three-star redshirt freshman Jaylen Coleman and three-star incoming freshman Austin Niswander, not to mention a full season from four-star senior Vladimir Emilien. Star rankings usually hint at upside; this front seven, which thrived in power situations but proved leaky at times, needs for that upside to become actual production.
Toledo's biggest advantage
Toledo's skill position depth is stellar. The Rockets have a solid quarterback in Terrance Owens, and his job is typically pretty easy. If Mizzou's interior line isn't up to snuff in the post-Sheldon Richardson era, Owens will have plenty of time and options, softening Mizzou up with David Fluellen (who probably won't have enough speed to get to the corner but could have success between the tackles), throwing quick passes to jitterbug Bernard Reedy (also a terrifying return man), dumping constantly to running backs in space, and occasionally going vertical with Alonzo Russell. Mizzou's line really needs to get a push and harass Owens; otherwise the offense could do some damage.
Missouri's biggest advantage
Anything on offense, basically. Again, Toledo has recruited well for the MAC level, but on defense that means a lot of three-star redshirt freshmen and sophomores. Toledo has quality pass rushers in end Jayrone Elliott and linebacker Trent Voss, but the Rockets' inexperience could cost them on defense. And that's a good thing because Toledo's going to score some points.
This is going to be a game. Missouri should be, on average, a better team. But an average Tiger performance could keep this game close well into the second half. With a shaky defense (especially early in the season), Toledo could be the most MACtion team in the MAC this year, and the points could add up accordingly. I'm confident that Mizzou will eventually pull ahead, but it might not happen until well into the second half. Give me something like Mizzou 38, Toledo 26.