There was no doubting how much Toledo thinks of its team after coach Jason Candle received a six-year contract extension in December that will be worth $1.1 million this season and escalate in value through 2023.
Candle a year ago led the Rockets to their first Mid-American Conference championship since 2004 and to their 11th bowl in 16 seasons.
Western Michigan has been picked to win the MAC West, but Toledo returns 14 starters and did get five votes to win another championship.
“You can’t get caught up in the great seniors we had on last year’s team,” Candle said. “They’re gone. They’re not coming back, and we’re well aware of that.”
There will be great change at quarterback with Logan Woodside out of eligibility. He threw for 4,129 yards and 45 touchdowns and completed 69.1 percent of his passes. The contenders for the spot are Mitchell Guadagni, last season’s backup, and redshirt freshman Eli Peters.
The Rockets are loaded at receiver with Diontae Johnson (72 receptions, 1,257 yards, 13 touchdowns), Cody Thompson and Jon’Vea Johnson. Thompson is a fifth-year medical-redshirt senior who caught 64 passes for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016.
In the East, Ohio is the clear-cut favorite in the division. Next come Buffalo, Miami University, Akron, Bowling Green and Kent State.
Miami, which stumbled to a 5-7 record last season after getting a share of the division title in ’16, will rely on a bevy of fifth-year seniors that were part of coach Chuck Martin’s first recruiting class.
The RedHawks might go only as far as one of those fifth-year players, quarterback Gus Ragland, can take them. He threw for 2,032 yards and 19 touchdowns last season despite being limited to nine games because of injuries. Offensive tackle Sam McCollum of Dublin Coffman is a third-year starter.
The other important veterans are running backs Kenny Young (781 yards) and Alonzo Smith (660), receiver James Gardner (927 yards, 11 touchdowns) and linebacker Brad Koenig (103 tackles).
Akron, the surprise winner of the division last season, returns three offensive linemen, three defensive backs and receiver Kwadarrius Smith (727 yards, seven touchdowns).
The Zips could have a mercurial quarterback in sophomore Kato Nelson. He threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-34 victory over Ohio in week 10 and for 989 yards in parts of other games.
Kent State has a tackling machine in linebacker Jim Jones (98 tackles, eight sacks), but the star of the show will be first-year coach Sean Lewis. At 31, the former Syracuse co-offensive coordinator will be the youngest head coach in FBS.
Lewis is calling this “The Fast Flash Era,” promising a wide-open offense and to recruit players who can run.
Bowling Green, which was 2-10 last season, could have a star in sophomore quarterback Jarret Doege. He threw for 11 touchdowns the final four games and for 1,381 yards in the final five after becoming the starter.
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