Published: February 02, 2023

Fearless forecast


Go ahead, check the receipts.

A year ago, this blind squirrel predicted the Toledo football team would go 7-5 in the regular season, and, lo and behold, a nut was found.

Now, we’re back to push our luck.

My you-read-it-here-first forecast for the 2023 season? The Rockets will be ... one of the very best Group of Five teams in the country.

We’ll see what that means, exactly.

But as teams across the land spent Wednesday imagining a bright future — just once, I’d love for a coach on national signing day to say, “We got worse today” — some schools can dream a little bigger than others.

Toledo is one of them.

When the Rockets won the Mid-American Conference championship in 2017 with a veteran roster headlined by record-setting senior quarterback Logan Woodside, it felt like a final chapter.

This time, their league title last season was more like a foreword.

I’m not saying Toledo will upset Illinois in its season opener, mow through a favorable schedule, repeat as MAC champs, and nestle into the national polls.

I’m also not saying any of that is off the table.

Why should it be?

Toledo brings back 16 starters and an outsized share of the MAC’s returning stars, including seven members of the all-league first or second teams: quarterback Dequan Finn, receiver Jerjuan Newton, right tackle Nick Rosi, linebacker Dallas Gant, cornerback Quinyon Mitchell, and safeties Maxen Hook and Nate Bauer.

No other conference program returns more than three such honorees. Reigning MAC East champ Ohio will have two, and one of them, quarterback Kurtis Rourke, is coming off a torn ACL.

What’s more, Toledo returns all-league-caliber center Tyler Long — a two-year starter who missed last season with a broken ankle — and came out a winner in the free-agent market.

UT doesn’t expect to lose a single starter to the transfer portal, and has lost just one contributor of note: wideout DeMeer Blankumsee (Memphis). Meanwhile, it’s brought in four potential instant-impact reinforcements from bigger programs, including offensive tackle Rod Orr (Florida State) and defensive end Travion Ford (Missouri), both former four-star prospects ranked among the top 25 nationally at their position in the 2021 class.

In a new football world more transient than a summer beach town — elsewhere in the MAC, 10 first or second-team players transferred — it’s hard to overstate what coach Jason Candle and his staff have achieved here.

With an assist from the Friends of Rocky NIL collective, they have built the rare Group of Five program capable of benefiting from the transfer portal.

“I would credit the culture of our team,” Candle said, “and the culture of our players and a locker room that really has rallied around each other.”

Of course, as with any team, the Rockets face no shortage of questions.

Among them: Can Finn recapture — and build on — the dual-threat magic he displayed when he was at full health last season? Can Toledo replace the production of the people eaters it loses on the defensive line? And what about the O-line? Can a unit that was held together with duct tape and baling wire last year stay healthy and productive?

Fair to wonder.

Still, for all the question marks, Toledo should have more answers.

Even its greatest weakness last season — the offensive line — could become one. The Rockets return four starters from a unit that came of age in their two December wins, welcome back Long, and welcome in two possible plug-and-play tackles: Orr and David Nwaogwugwu, a senior from Rutgers.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in that group going forward,” Candle said, “probably more so right now at this time this year than I did at this time last year.”

Add it all up, and I think back on the quiet buzz I heard in the Toledo football building last year.

Privately, there was a belief the program was building toward what could be a special season in 2023.

I’ll admit: I rolled my eyes, thinking, “Yeah, yeah, how about you show us something this season?”

Well, the Rockets did show us something last year.

With the program at a crossroads after the 7-5 regular season, they beat Ohio in the MAC championship game, then Liberty in the Boca Raton Bowl, earning Candle — who is now 54-32 with two league titles in seven seasons at UT — a freshly signed contract extension.

Now, they’re after something more.

And not a whole lot feels out of reach.

“We’ve got great leadership and I think we’ve developed our guys well,” Candle said. “There’s a belief system and a new energy after winning the championship and seeing it through. We have reasons to be optimistic. I don’t think all these guys would have came back to sit here and tell you that we expect to be average. We expect to be playing to a really high standard and competing in every game that we have on the schedule next year.”

Contact David Briggs at:, or

on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.