This week's opponent is a tricky one. Toledo has the potential to sneak up on the Tigers if they aren't careful, so I got some answers from Blake Samanas, a writer for Hustle Belt, so they at least won't be sneaking up on us.
1. So we all know about this being a homecoming of sorts for Gary Pinkel. He's a member of the Toledo Hall of Fame, so it's clear he's got some respect from the University. How do the fans of Toledo view him?
BS: I certainly can’t speak for the whole fan base, but I don’t think most begrudge him. When he left, MAC teams did not have the access to bowl games like they do now, something highlighted by a 10-1 season that ended without a postseason bid in his final year in Toledo. Plus, he gave the team 10 mostly successful seasons, quite a bit more than the one season given by the man he replaced – Nick Saban. It’s possible some do still hold a grudge, but there’s been every reason to move on. Toledo’s doing fine, Pinkel’s doing fine, and both sides seem to respect each other. Of course, that doesn’t mean the fans wouldn’t enjoy beating Toledo’s winningest coach of all time just a little bit.
2. Toledo is known to have a pretty strong pass rush. What players should we be worried about getting in the backfield for the Rockets?
BS: Just as you said, Toledo’s defensive strength is in its front seven. The key player to keep an eye on is senior linebacker Junior Sylvetre, who can be a disruptive force despite playing a position with a primary focus on run-stopping. He’s a freak athlete, potential future pro and the Rockets defensive player you’ll want to watch Saturday. Otherwise, the hallmark of the defensive front is its depth, with quite a few players competing to make a name for themselves.
3. Is the Rockets' offense going to be as potent this season as they were last season? Who are the playmakers to watch?
BS: Despite losing the starting quarterback and running back from last season, the Rockets offense might end up looking better this year. Last year’s quarterback, Terrance Owens, was an effective starter, but averaged 185 passing yards per game in a run-first offense. This year’s starter, junior Phillip Ely, in his first year eligible after transferring from Alabama, opened against New Hampshire last Saturday with 337 yards and four touchdowns, and looked good doing it. It’s beginning to look like if the Rockets open up the passing game a bit more, they now have the talent at quarterback to do it.
Now that last season’s productive running back David Fluellen is looking to stick with an NFL practice squad, sophomore Kareem Hunt has taken his place. He’s already collected six 100-yard games in his young college career so I don’t expect a drop-off there either. Long story short, with a more capable quarterback and a comparable running game, I think the Rockets offense will be noticeably better this year.
4. How do you think Toledo is going to fare in the MAC this season?
BS: Based on personnel and the first week of play, the Rockets look like one of the top two teams in the MAC alongside Northern Illinois. I would bet whoever wins the matchup of those two MAC West squads (which is at Northern Illinois this year) will be conference champion. Northern Illinois is breaking in a new quarterback as well, but they’ve had a good thing going for several years and can usually be expected to find a few diamonds in the recruiting rough. Usually Toledo’s rival Bowling Green would be in the mix, but they lost their quarterback for the year and got rolled by Western Kentucky Saturday. I expect it’s down to the Huskies and Rockets.
5. The Glass Bowl is a pretty well known college football stadium. What is gameday like there and what kind of atmosphere can Mizzou expect to be playing in?
BS: The Glass Bowl is situated on campus and usually commands a pretty good crowd and atmosphere. I expect a much-heightened buzz Saturday, since ranked power conference teams don’t often come to visit, and the Gary Pinkel angle won’t hurt either. Add that ESPN is carrying the game (also not common for Toledo, save for midweek #MACtion contests), and I think the Glass Bowl will be rocking.
6. What positional matchup are you most excited to see in this game?
BS: Since a lot of the intrigue around Toledo’s season hinges on Ely’s success, I’ll be interested to see what happens when he’s throwing the ball. Putting up numbers against FCS New Hampshire is one thing, but Mizzou should provide a tougher test. With Missouri’s reputation for developing pass-rushing talent, I’m compelled to see how he responds to pressure. If the Tigers’ pass rush can make Ely ineffective, Toledo will have to give back a lot of the gains it made last week toward becoming a balanced offense. However, Toledo's got a very good offensive line, returning four starters from a group that didn't allow a sack in last year's contest.
7. What is your final prediction for this game?
BS: I think it stays within a possession, and will very likely be closer than last year's 38-23 result. I’ve seen Mizzou favored by anywhere between 3.5 to 6.5 points, which sounds about right. I have to make it clear that Toledo is a very, very good football team, mid-major or otherwise, and could take it to quite a few power conference schools. However, I also think Missouri isn’t just any power conference team and it would take quite a showing to beat a squad as talented as the Tigers. I have Missouri winning 34-27.
Check out Blake Samanas and Hustle Belt for more info about Toledo and other MAC teams this season.