By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: After Tim Beckman left the program to take over at Illinois, Matt Campbell's head coaching career began with a thrilling, 42-41 victory over Air Force in the 2011 Military Bowl. The Rockets were a legitimate MAC Championship contender despite having a rookie head coach in 2012 after they brought back many of the key components from the team that led the MAC in total offense, turnover margin and scoring offense the year before.
Campbell's first regular season as a head coach didn't yield the results he wanted though, as Toledo lost, 24-17, in its opener at Arizona. The Rockets went on a roll from there, winning their next nine games including decisions over Bowling Green (27-15), Cincinnati (29-23) and Buffalo (25-20). Their 9-1 record with three games remaining helped them claim the 25th spot in the BCS rankings, but the stay in the top 25 was short lived. Toledo lost its next two games versus Ball State (34-27) and at Northern Illinois (31-24). It concluded its regular season by defeating Akron, 35-23, but suffered a 41-15 setback to Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Campbell was the youngest head coach in the FBS in 2012. He won three Division III national titles while playing at Mount Union and began his post playing career there as an offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at the age 25. He was the offensive coordinator of Toledo's 2011 team that ranked eighth in the nation in scoring offense and 10th in total offense.
OFFENSE: The Rockets did not have the best offense in the MAC last season, but they weren't far off the mark, ranking third with 445.2 yards per game. They were one of the most balanced teams with a steady halfback and a pair of capable passers. Austin Dantin's graduation left Campbell with only one passer for the upcoming season.
"Yes, it's a little different. We have one quarterback, (senior) Terrance Owens, who took about 80 percent of the snaps last year," said Campbell. He's a veteran and it shows. He's more comfortable now as a leader on this team. We can put a lot more of the offense in his hands and let him run with it. He's a fifth-year senior now and has a right to claim the starting position."
Owens is always a threat to take off and scramble for yardage, but he struggled with injuries last season. His decision making was usually on point, but he had three games with multiple interceptions, including three in a key game at NIU.
He has plenty to work with as he looks to put up better numbers as a senior. Sophomore Alonzo Russell and senior Bernard Reedy are both reliable targets at wideout. Reedy tallied a team-high 88 receptions for 1,113 yards and six TDs, but Russell's big-play ability yielded five scores and 960 yards on just 56 grabs. Justin Olak and Dwight Macon give Toledo great depth at the position.
Toledo's offensive attack revolved around its star senior tailback David Fluellen. As a junior, he finished eighth in the FBS with 1,498 yards and 13 TDs on 259 carries. He accounted for almost 60 percent of the team's rushing yards despite missing the regular season finale and being limited in the bowl game. He should be one of the premier rushers in the conference as a senior with four of last season's starting offensive linemen back.
Toledo's offensive line could be the strongest in the MAC. All-MAC senior center Zac Kerlin leads group of four juniors up front for a group that weighs an average of 301 lbs.
DEFENSE: The Rockets had a bend but not break mentality in 2012. They gave up a lot of yards (473.2 ypg) to rank 11th in the MAC in total defense, but they placed fifth in scoring defense (28.4 ppg) due to their knack for forcing turnovers.
Toledo graduated Dan Molls, who finished second in the FBS in tackles. Sophomore Trent Voss may become the team's next stops leader as he developed into one of the top defenders on the squad towards the end of his rookie year. Redshirt freshman Jaylen Coleman will see the field in his first eligible year at middle linebacker.
The secondary is one of the strongest points on the defense with junior Cheatham Norrils (6-0, 195) and sophomore Juwan Haynes (6-0, 185) on the corners. Senior strong safety Ross Madison has played in 39 games in his career coming into 2013.
The defensive line has some of its playmakers back. Senior end Jayrone Elliot registered a team-high 6.0 sacks along with a third-best 7.0 TFL in 2012. Christian Smith started at defensive end for the first five games last season before an injury put him on the sidelines for the rest of the year. He was a first-team all-state selection in Oklahoma as a high school senior. Senior tackle Elijah Jones also made an impact in 2012 with 31 tackles, 7.5 for loss and two forced fumbles.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Rockets have all of the important pieces back on special teams. Junior kicker Jeremiah Detmer was an All-MAC selection after he made 17 consecutive field goal tries to close out the season. Senior Vince Penza averaged 40.5 yards per punt and placed 36 percent of them inside the opponents 20-yard line.
Reedy scored four special teams TDs last season and was put on the All-MAC team as both a kick and punt returner.
OUTLOOK: Toledo has a very tough road this season. Its first two games are both on the road against a pair of difficult BCS opponents in Florida and Missouri.
"The only thing we can control is us," said Campbell. "Our players will be excited to play schools like Florida and Missouri. In our conference, if you don't show up, you will get beat. When you play opponents like Florida and Missouri right off the bat, if you don't show up, not only will you get beat, you will get humiliated. That helps your focus. It's very exciting to play the best of the best. We'll find out a lot about where we are very early in the season."
The Rockets will have their Glass Bowl debut versus Eastern Washington before kicking off MAC action on the road at Central Michigan and Ball State. They host two in a row with Western Michigan and their final non-conference opponent, Navy, both visiting from outside of the Buckeye State. Toledo does not face Kent State this season, but it has some formidable conference foes with Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, Buffalo, Northern Illinois and Akron lined up to conclude the year.
Toledo has played in a bowl game in three consecutive years. It appears that it has all that's necessary to push that number to four, but the inexperience and inadequate defense will prevent it from capturing its first league title since 2004.