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Is this the year for Toledo? Rockets ready to take another shot at Northern Illinois in MAC

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DETROIT — The Toledo Rockets have had five consecutive winning seasons and went to a bowl four times in that span.

There's really only one breakthrough that's eluded them.

For all of Toledo's success recently, the Rockets haven't won the Mid-American Conference since 2004. Instead, division rival Northern Illinois always seems a step ahead. The Huskies have played in five consecutive MAC championship games, winning three.

This may be Toledo's best chance to move past Northern Illinois. Kareem Hunt returns for the Rockets after rushing for 1,631 yards last season, and Toledo's defense lost only three starters.

Even the schedule is cooperating. Toledo, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan are expected to be the top teams in the West Division, and the Rockets get to play both those other teams at home.

"We know we have a chance to be very good this season but we also have a lot of work ahead of us," Toledo coach Matt Campbell said.

The Rockets were slight favorites to win the title in the league's preseason poll, but don't expect Northern Illinois to fade without a fight. The Huskies had to replace star quarterback Jordan Lynch last year, and they rolled through the conference slate with only one loss before routing Bowling Green 51-17 in the title game.

Bowling Green won the East for a second consecutive season, and coach Dino Babers is eager to unleash his fast-paced offensive system on the league again. The Falcons ran 113 offensive plays in a September win over Indiana — and that's the blueprint for what Babers is trying to accomplish.

"I told the quarterbacks, I said, 'It's a racing car, and I want to hear the tires sing. When we go into a curve, they're supposed to sing — tires are supposed to make noise,'" Babers said. "That's not the time to get off the gas, that's the time to accelerate through the curve so we can come out and get going."

Quarterback Matt Johnson is back for Bowling Green after being limited to one game last season because of a broken hip.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Oct. 19, 2013, file photo, Toledo head coach Matt Campbell talks during an NCAA college football game against Navy in Toledo, Ohio. For all its success in recent seasons, Toledo still hasn't been able to get past Northern Illinois in the MAC's West Division. Is this the year the Rockets break through? (AP Photo/David Richard, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 19, 2013, file photo, Toledo head coach Matt Campbell talks during an NCAA college football game against Navy in Toledo, Ohio. For all its success in recent seasons, Toledo still hasn't been able to get past Northern Illinois in the MAC's West Division. Is this the year the Rockets break through? (AP Photo/David Richard, File)

Here are a few other things to watch in the MAC this year:

STABILITY?: The MAC often has a lot of coaching turnover, with its top teams becoming targets for big-name programs looking to hire. But this year only two teams have new faces at the helm — Buffalo with Lance Leipold and Central Michigan with John Bonamego.

Ohio coach Frank Solich is sixth on the MAC's career list with 72 wins, and he can move all the way up to third if he has a big season in 2015. Gary Pinkel (73), Doyt Perry (77) and Bob Pruett (79) are within reach.

ON THE RISE: Massachusetts has been in the Football Bowl Subdivision for only three years, but after going 1-11 in 2012 and again in 2013, the Minutemen won three games last year — all in conference. UMass also led Colorado and Vanderbilt in the second half before losing both games by three points. Is there another step forward for QB Blake Frohnapfel and the Minutemen in 2015?

RUNNING WILD: Hunt led the MAC in rushing last year, but Western Michigan's Jarvion Franklin wasn't far behind with 1,551 yards on 306 carries as a freshman. Buffalo's Anthone Taylor also returns after running for 1,403 yards in 2014.

CHANCES TO SHINE: Western Michigan will have an immediate chance to show it's a MAC title contender when it hosts Big Ten power Michigan State in the season opener. That same week, Central Michigan hosts Oklahoma State.

RECORD STREAK: Northern Illinois has made seven consecutive bowl appearances, a MAC record. The Huskies haven't won their bowl since the 2011 season, however. The league went 2-3 in bowls last season, with Bowling Green and Toledo earning the victories.

Predicted order of finish:

EAST — 1. Bowling Green, 2. Massachusetts, 3. Ohio, 4. Akron, 5. Kent State, 6. Buffalo, 7. Miami (OH).

WEST — 1. Toledo, 2. Northern Illinois, 3. Western Michigan, 4. Central Michigan, 5. Ball State, 6. Eastern Michigan.


Title game winner: Toledo

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