Briggs: As stars align, Toledo football should aspire to no less than New Year's Six bowl bid

The Fox Theatre in Detroit has hosted many acts remembered by history over the years, from Elvis to Sinatra to the Temptations.
Will the 2023 Toledo football team be the next?
Maybe it’s just my imagination, running away with me, but I’m just saying.
As we descend on the famed theater Thursday for Mid-American Conference media day, the veteran Rockets defending their league title ought to be just the start of their goals.
What’s possible for Toledo this season?
A better question: What isn’t?
Seven years after Western Michigan became the first MAC team in the playoff era to play in a New Year’s Six bowl game, UT should aspire to no less than being the second.
That might seem like a moonshot.
History suggests UT will have a hard enough time winning a second straight conference title — the Rockets last pulled that off during their three-peat from 1969-71 — let alone mobilizing upward to the really cool kids’ table.
There are 61 teams in the Group of Five conferences. Only the highest-ranked one will get the coveted auto bid to a big-time bowl.
So, sure, such a breakthrough is unlikely.
But unrealistic? Heck no.
Here’s why:
■ The schedule: In 2016, Western Michigan opened with a validating win in the home of a good-but-not-unbeatable Big Ten team from Illinois (Northwestern), then ran the table.
UT has the same opportunity, beginning with its opener at Illinois.
If the Rockets can spring the upset as a 10-point ’dog, it’s all smooth sailing from there.
OK, not really.
Any fan of the MAC — a league with more parity than a bingo cage — knows a what-the-$@&! loss is always just around the corner.
Think back to 2015, the last time Toledo had a golden opportunity to nab the Group of Five bowl bid. The Rockets took a perfect record and top-20 ranking into November, only to lose consecutive home games against Northern Illinois and Western Michigan.
Still ... the schedule is favorable.
While no one can convince me it wasn’t put together by a gaggle of overserved geese pecking away at typewriters in the MAC office — I mean, Toledo has TWO home games after September — the Rockets’ league slate sets up well just the same.
They host their top two challengers out of the West (Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan), avoid the anticipated favorite in the East (Ohio), and should like their chances every week.
On paper, UT has the fifth-easiest schedule in the country, per guru Phil Steele. (Its 12 opponents were a combined 66-82 last season.)
■ The ecosystem: Imagine if the lions and cheetahs packed up and moved out of the Serengeti.
That’s kind of what’s happening with the Group of Five leagues.
With mid-major apex predators like Cincinnati, Houston, and Central Florida off to the Big 12, the outlook is suddenly better for the buffaloes — and the Buffalos and Toledos.
There are still a lot of very good G5 teams, including Tulane — which returns 14 starters from its Cotton Bowl team last season — Southern Methodist, the University of Texas at San Antonio, Memphis, and Boise State.
But none are unconquerable.
For top G5 programs, the path to the big time is now clearer than ever.
■ The team: Oh, right, this small detail.
Toledo has a team uniquely suited to pounce.
I’m not quite as high on the Rockets as some, including Steele, who has them 22nd in his preseason poll, highest among Group of Five schools.
But they should be really good.
In the MAC, you bet on the teams that have coaching stability, a star veteran quarterback, and a lot of experience — teams exactly like this edition of Toledo.
UT returns a league-high 16 starters, including seven members of the all-conference first or second teams: quarterback Dequan Finn, receiver Jerjuan Newton, right tackle Nick Rosi, linebacker Dallas Gant, cornerback Quinyon Mitchell, and safeties Maxen Hook and Nate Bauer.
No other conference program brings back more than three such honorees. The other top-half teams in the MAC — Ohio, Miami, Eastern Michigan, Buffalo, and Northern Illinois, as ranked by yours truly — have nine between them.
Further, UT returns center Tyler Long — a two-year starter of all-league ilk who missed last season with a broken ankle — and came out ahead on the free-agent market, most importantly adding David Nwaogwugwu, a plug-and-play senior right tackle from Rutgers.
Will it all add up to New Year’s Six?
Maybe not.
Like any G5 contender, the Rockets have their share of questions, and they’ll need a lot of things to break their way. That includes making sure players avoid reading this rat poison, as former Toledo coach Nick Saban would call a column laying on the praise.
But, hey, it never hurts to dream.
Every so often, the stars align just so, and the Rockets are among a handful of teams who can justly set their sights a little higher this season.
Published July 19, 2023, 8:25PM

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