MAC media day: Candle, Toledo try to avoid complacency

5-6 minutes 7/20/2023
DETROIT — One of college football’s biggest inevitabilities came to fruition on Thursday at the Fox Theatre: Toledo is the favorite to win the Mid-American Conference championship.
Who’d a thunk it? The defending champs only return 16 starters, including a two-year starter at quarterback and seven all-conference selections.
“Jason [Candle] does an unbelievable job, sustaining the program and taking it a step further. They have really good talent. They deserve to be the top dog,” Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain said at MAC media day.
“I think their challenge is, ‘Hey guys, we’re a new team.’ They have to go out and prove it, just like all of us. The biggest part is not to become complacent. I know the way he runs his program, so I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
Candle is on the Nick Saban spectrum when it comes to praise, which is to say he’d rather have anchovies on his pizza. Candle isn’t interested in discussing all the compliments lofted in his team’s direction, and he certainly doesn’t want players absorbing all of the accolades.
But it’s going to be hard to keep the noise out, as every preseason magazine picked the Rockets. Phil Steele — perhaps the most well-known (and accurate) college football prognosticator — has UT No. 22 in his top 25. There’s already chatter about Toledo, which has a history of Power Five upsets, traipsing into Champaign, Ill., and coming away with an upset victory over the Illini.
“That’s the enemy that can kill any program at any place at any level at any time,” Candle said. “We know that animal, and we’ve been fighting it since January.”
The number of starters, veterans, and players of consequence who were part of a championship team matter. The Rockets lost punishers along the defensive line, but the defense is led by one of the top secondaries in the country, anchored by All-American cornerback Quinyon Mitchell and All-MAC honorees Maxen Hook and Nate Bauer.
It’s taxing to find deficiencies on either side of the ball, and it’s equally difficult to search and discover any sense of entitlement from the Rockets. Mitchell went as far as to say that he doesn’t believe Toledo deserves to be the MAC favorite. Instead, he said, everything must be earned, adding that the expectation isn’t necessarily to repeat as MAC champions. It’s to be better than they were in 2022.
“We’re still going to have the same approach,” Mitchell said. “We have to do our jobs and execute. It doesn’t change the narrative for us. Our goals are the same. Our coaches preach not to get complacent every day. We know what we’re chasing. Last year is in the past. It’s a new year, but it’s the same standard. If we want to repeat what we did last year, we have to go out and work.”
What’s different this year is the bullseye Toledo will wear each Saturday (or Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Friday). The Rockets were already a measuring stick for most MAC programs. After winning the title in 2022, they are on a WANTED poster inside each locker room.
“There’s an obvious target on our back but, like we always say, keep the main thing, the main thing,” Toledo quarterback Dequan Finn said. “Focus on ourselves and always being 1 percent better [each day]. As long as we do that, everything will flourish.
“Our focus and attention to detail is more intense. Everyone is more engaged. Everyone is putting in extra work. Everybody is busting their tail in the weight room. Everyone is doing what they need to do to become a better version of themselves so, collectively, we can become great as one.”
Toledo’s 22 offensive and defensive starters could all be upperclassmen. At least 10 of them will be seniors and a lot of the juniors are in their fourth or fifth seasons, a valuable leadership geyser for the Rockets.
Wide receiver Jerjuan Newton and linebacker Dallas Gant have been singled out as leaders. Mitchell, arguably the best player on the team, is a lead-by-example type of player. He’s naturally introverted and reserved but, with experience, he’s made his feelings more apparent and speaks up when needed.
“The leadership is there,” Mitchell said. “We have more guys in the building. We’re in the right spot right now working hard.”
The maturity has stood out to Finn, who sees a brotherhood that knows when to take care of business and when it’s acceptable to goof around. The team-wide tunnel vision has contributed to stacking good days together throughout the summer months.
All that’s left is fending off the challengers.
“You work really hard to get to this position and you understand the expectations and the position you’ve put yourself in,” Candle said. “The standard doesn’t change for us. It’s about what needs to be done in our locker room from a day-to-day basis. I don’t think the approach is much different. I know what the reality of it is and the expectation level.”

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