Chances are you're not too familiar with the Toledo football program. These two teams haven't crossed paths since a two-game home-and-home series in '06 and '07. The Rockets sit at 4-2 on the year and 3-0 in the MAC. The two losses came at the hands of Missouri and Cincinnati.
We just so happened to cross paths with Blake Samanas of Hustle Belt, a blog for MAC fans. We asked questions. Blake answered...because that's how these things usually work.
WRNL: How big was the loss of Alabama transfer, Phillip Ely? Logan Woodside would appear to be solid enough statistically, but there was a reason Ely won the starting quarterback job.
Hustle Belt: With such a small sample size from Ely (just games against FCS New Hampshire and SEC Missouri), it's hard to say whether Woodside is a major downgrade. Ely looked, as one would expect, excellent against New Hampshire but shaky against Mizzou, so the jury was still very much out when he went down for the season. For his part, Woodside has put up three wins, as well as a loss where the Rockets scored 34 points at Cincinnati, so there's not really reason to doubt him as a starting quarterback.
That said, Toledo's offense, as I noted when Ely got hurt, is built around strong line play and the running game. If anything, Toledo has suffered more from the loss of running back Kareem Hunt (questionable for Saturday as of now) over the past game and a half than it has from Ely's absence. The real factor is the offensive line, which is Power 5 quality and likely the best in the MAC. If that unit caught the injury bug, then the Rockets would really be in trouble.
WRNL: When you talk about Toledo, you obviously have to start on the offensive side of the ball. Despite the loss of Ely, the Rockets have been putting up huge numbers. How would you grade out the offense to date?
Hustle Belt: I'd say it's around a B+. When your goal is a MAC title, you really only have to grade along the curve of other MAC teams - and with an average of over 34 points a game, Toledo is in play for being the most impressive offense in the conference thus far. If not for a sloppy, rainy 20-19 overtime win against Western Michigan, this offense would grade out in the A range, but my guess is that game was an outlier and the Rockets will be back to fireworks in due time. The question is whether the defense will be able to give the offense a chance to win games against the likes of Northern Illinois and Bowling Green.
WRNL: The MAC has always been a proving ground for coaches that move onto bigger jobs and Toledo certainly isn't immune as Tim Beckman left for Illinois after the 2011 season. Is there a constant fear among fans of MAC schools that their coach is always a 10-win season away from leaving town?
Hustle Belt: You could call it a constant fear, but I think it's more of an acceptance than anything. There are few fans in the MAC with illusions that these aren't stepping stone jobs, and the winningest head coach in Toledo history, Missouri's Gary Pinkel, is still a celebrated figure even after he took the Tigers' job. I think most fans enjoy the success as it comes and just hope that there's a decent assistant coach ready to take over (like Matt Campbell did when Beckman left) and maintain a winning course. And if some real shooting star like Nick Saban comes by to coach your team for one season on the way up (1990, in Toledo's case), then you take it as an amusing program footnote and move on.
And as far as Campbell is concerned? He runs a steady program and recruits well at a young age, so there's little to no question that he'll get his shot at a bigger school at some point. I do, however, think he's smart enough to wait until a decent program calls instead of volunteering to be the next sacrificial lamb at a sad state of affairs like Purdue or Illinois.
WRNL: Can you talk about the current college football landscape in regards to the Power 5 vs. non-Power 5 designation?
Hustle Belt: From Toledo's standpoint, I don't think the recent changes to postseason hierarchy have meant a whole lot. By and large the Rockets have had a measure of success as a small conference school over the years, but there isn't really an instance where Toledo could have climbed a loophole into a BCS bowl like Northern Illinois recently did (and hey, how well did that even work out for them anyway?). It would take a lot of things to fall just right for the Rockets to even have a crack at being the top Group of Five school to earn a trip to a fancy-pants New Year's bowl, so I think, as before, Toledo's largely just playing for a conference title first and a bowl bid second.
Things are at least better than, say, Pinkel's last year in 2000, when the 10-1 Rockets didn't get a bowl bid. While the postseason might only lead to non-glamour destinations like Boise and Mobile, it beats sitting at home.
WRNL: What are your honest thoughts on the Iowa State football program? I would have to imagine Toledo looks at this game as very winnable.
Hustle Belt: Admittedly, I have few thoughts about the Iowa State football program. For years, it seems the Cyclones have operated on the periphery of the power conferences, occasionally making a splash with a big upset but not really threatening the top or bottom of the standings. In a conference that features perennial clown show Kansas (minus that weird Orange Bowl), I suppose there are worse places to be than the fringes.
I do enjoy Iowa State's propensity for having quarterbacks with wise-sounding names. I'm unsure whether I'd prefer to name my offspring Seneca or Sage, but if I ever have twin boys, I'd consider going with both.
As for whether Toledo views the game as winnable? I think if the fans just look at the 1-4 record they might oversimplify it, but generally any contest against a Power 5 school, especially one on the road, gets approached with some measure of respect. While the trip to Iowa State looks easier than the contests against Missouri and Cincinnati (both 20+ point losses) did, it doesn't look strictly easy.
WRNL: I think I speak for everyone when I say that I'm a huge fan of mid-week #MACtion, but while it's great for the viewers nationally, I have to imagine this creates some challenges for the fans attending games.
Hustle Belt: I think #MACtion helps keep the excitement up. I know when I was in school, the two biggest draws for a lot of casual fans were night games and televised games. Before the midweek MACtion caught on, the chances of getting on national TV as a MAC team were pretty slim, so I think the excitement is definitely there, even if it has to be on a Tuesday or Wednesday. I can't speak for every Toledo student in the stands, but when I was a student, I loved midweek night games. Who signs up for morning classes anyway? In college, mornings are for sleeping and playing FIFA.
WRNL: So who ya got and why?
Hustle Belt: If I were a betting man, I would run far away from this game. There isn't really a reasonable way to compare how good these teams are in comparison to one another. I saw the early line was at ISU (-3), which sounds all right to me. My best guess is that these squads are pretty evenly matched, but Iowa State does have the advantage of being at home, at least.
My gut says the key in this one is an awful cliché - I think Iowa State is going to want it more. While any win against a power conference school is a feather in the Rockets' cap, the real measure of a successful season relies almost entirely on conference play, so this game carries only superficial importance to a team with legitimate MAC title hopes.
On the other hand, the Cyclones seem like a team that could really use a win, just to ease up some of the pressure from a season that's been such a struggle. And with a schedule that's not really getting any easier, I think Iowa State will be fired up to finally get a win for the home fans. I'll take the Cyclones by 4.
We want to thank Blake for his insight and answering and our questions and if you'd like to see us play nice as well, you can find our Q&A exchange with Hustle Belt here.