Rare is the game that can make or break, the stakes placing the future of a coach and a program so squarely in the balance.
But for Jason Candle and his Toledo football team, Saturday afternoon in Detroit might be just such a crossroads.
Welcome to life on the razor’s edge.
If Toledo beats Ohio in the Mid-American Conference championship game, the sweet destination will forgive the uneven journey. Candle will have led the Rockets to two MAC titles in his seven seasons and, almost certainly, a contract extension will follow.
If Toledo loses — and assures a fourth straight non-pandemic season with at least six losses — well ...
With Candle in the second-to-last year of his deal and no serious athletic department willing to employ a lame-duck coach, one of three scenarios looms: He’ll get fired with a $700,000 buyout; get a school-friendly extension; or get another job.
I asked Toledo athletic director Bryan Blair what role Saturday’s game will play in his decision.
“I don’t think you base any evaluation on any one game,” he said. “Jason and I have had a lot of conversations about what the future should look like, could look like, things that move this program forward. We’ll continue to have those conversations and figure out where we go from here.”
Break it down, and there are no easy answers.
To make the case for Candle, it’s helpful to take the view from 30,000 feet.
With the exception of Ryan Day — who the Ohio State message boards have sentenced to the stocks despite his 45-5 record — perhaps no coach in college football is perceived so differently locally and nationally.
Where most fans see Candle as the overpaid leader of a program that isn’t good enough, most outsiders — including the opinion makers who include him on their short lists for bigger openings — see him as a sharp offensive mind and a winner.
He’s the Applebee’s in Times Square: popular with tourists, not so much with the natives.
The disconnect isn’t entirely unfounded, either.
Candle’s teams represent Toledo with class and win more often than not, even in down times. Consider: UT will finish without a losing record for the 13th straight year — a stretch of consistency only five FBS programs are guaranteed to match this season: Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma State, Boise State, and San Diego State. (Oklahoma and Wisconsin can join the club, if they win their bowl games to finish 7-6.)
Say what you will, but, at the least, Candle hasn’t driven the Toledo program off the road, and, in a cyclical sport in which transient rosters and staffs and the siren call of complacency all conspire against sustained success, that streak is no small feat.
Also, where Candle has driven Toledo is to Detroit, a road never traveled by Tim Beckman and Matt Campbell before him.
Candle isn’t 52-32 by accident. He’s a good coach with a solid program.
But, at some point, that’s no longer enough.
Toledo doesn’t invest in football as it does — including paying Candle a league-high $1.2 million per year — just to keep the wagon on the road.
Why is Saturday’s game so important?
Because, since the MAC title in 2017, the Rockets — for all of their top-ranked recruiting classes and NFL draft picks — have made a habit of doing a little less than expected, never a little more.
A victory would represent a little more, a loss more of the same.
If it’s the latter, you might still argue Toledo is so, so close. You might note the mountain of injuries this season — especially to star quarterback Dequan Finn — and remind us that, if you changed a single play in the final minute of half the games, the Rockets could be 11-1 (or 5-7). You might even point to their improved discipline as proof the program is capable of reflection and growth. (UT was the most penalized team in the nation last season. This year, it was the fourth-least penalized team in the MAC.)
All of that is valid.
But you can explain away any season.
In the end, a coach and his program are as their record states.
Here are but a few broader numbers and trends of concern:
■ Toledo has more losses in its past 36 MAC games (15) than it had in the 66 league games (14) that preceded them.
■ Candle is 9-13 against teams that finished with a winning conference record, with Toledo’s win over Eastern Michigan this season marking its first such victory in three years. Since that previous win in November, 2019 — when UT beat Kent State, 35-33 — the Rockets are 3-12 in one-score games.
■ Toledo is tied with Western Michigan for the sixth-best record in MAC play since 2019. Both programs are 17-13, and one of them is now looking for a new coach.
Indeed, on that last note, it may or may not prove instructive that Western Michigan just fired coach Tim Lester after six seasons, evoking shades of the last time a popular alum with a winning career record got nudged aside in the MAC. (That was at Toledo, when Al Bohl stunningly dismissed Dan Simrell after the Rockets went 6-5 overall and 6-2 in the league in 1989. He then hired Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel.)
While the parallels between Lester and Candle aren’t exact — Lester is 37-32 overall and never won the MAC West — here’s what new Western Michigan athletic director Dan Bartholomae said in his news conference Monday: “We all need to strive for a culture where we only settle for the best; where mediocrity is not acceptable.”
He added to the Detroit News: “I didn’t have a ton of confidence in the plan moving forward.”
Will Blair have confidence in Candle’s plan?
Will an AD who similarly has talked about raising the standard believe that he and Candle can work together to push Toledo over the top?
I don’t know the answer, and I’m not sure Blair does, either.
The only certainty is that a win Saturday will make his decision a hell of a lot easier.
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.