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Bahamas Bowl Prediction and Preview: Middle Tennessee vs. Toledo

Bahamas Bowl Prediction and Preview: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders vs. Toledo Rockets

Blue Raiders, Rockets face off for the first time ever in the Bahamas to kick off the 2021-22 bowl season

The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders closed their 2021 regular season with a win to finish 6-6, and their reward is twofold: bowl eligibility and a trip to Nassau, where they'll square off for the first time with the Toledo Rockets in the Bahamas Bowl. This will be the second Bahamas Bowl appearance for both teams. Middle Tennessee played in the 2015 edition, falling 45-31 to Western Michigan, while the Rockets' appearance came in 2018, a 35-32 loss to Florida International. That also was Toledo's most recent postseason game.

Related: College Football Picks for Every Bowl Game in 2021-22

Back and forth has been the narrative for both of these teams throughout the 2021 campaign. The Blue Raiders took down FCS Monmouth 50-15 in the season opener but proceeded to lose four of their next five, allowing at least 35 points in all but one of the losses while averaging fewer than 23 points per game in that stretch. Middle Tennessee then won three of its next four followed by a loss to Old Dominion and a bowl eligibility-clinching 27-17 win at Florida Atlantic to finish the regular season at 6-6.

Toledo navigated through an even more topsy-turvy slate, neither winning nor losing more than two games in a row until the final month of the season. Like the Blue Raiders, the Rockets opened with a dominant performance against an FCS team in its 49-10 win over Norfolk State. Toledo then squandered a halftime lead and lost by just three points at then-No. 8 Notre Dame before losing by 16 to Colorado State, followed by wins over Ball State and UMass and losses to Northern Illinois and Central Michigan. The Rockets sandwiched a home win over Western Michigan and a home loss to Eastern Michigan around its Week 9 bye but won their final three regular-season games to finish 7-5 and ensure the program's 12th consecutive season finishing .500 or better.

Bahamas Bowl: Middle Tennessee (6-6) vs. Toledo (7-5)

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 17 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium (Nassau, Bahamas)
Spread: Toledo -10

When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball

The Blue Raiders have tallied at least 40 points in as many games — three — as they've been held to 14 or fewer. They've been right in the middle when they haven't been on either extreme, averaging just under 29 points per game in those remaining six. Regardless of their final score, the Blue Raiders' offense has been in the bottom-third nationally with 351.1 total yards per game. Middle Tennessee hasn't exactly done much vertically, however, with merely 10.4 yards per completion entering the Bahamas Bowl, the 11th-lowest mark in the FBS.

Nicholas Vattiato, who has taken over at quarterback after a season-ending leg injury to Chase Cunningham, has completed 63 of 89 passes for 553 yards and three touchdowns to just one interception in his last three games, a healthy step forward after a five-interception game against Western Kentucky in early November. The quarterbacks have done well to spread the ball around, as their six passing touchdowns in the month of November have found five different targets, with Yusuf Ali the only multi-score recipient in that span.

Their rushing attack hasn't been much better, as the Blue Raiders find tied for 106th in the FBS having rushed for just 120.8 yards per game this season. Mike DiLiello — who has split time at quarterback with Vattiato in recent weeks — leads the team with five touchdowns on just 45 carries, while Martell Pettaway has tallied a team-high 359 yards on the ground with three scores and Chaton Mobley (241 yards) and Frank Peasant (239 yards) have each found the end zone twice on the ground this season.

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Be it run or pass, Toledo has kept opposing offenses mostly at bay this season. Thanks in no small part to their first defensive trio of first-team All-MAC selections since 1997 — outside linebacker Jamal Hines and defensive backs Tycen Anderson and Samuel Womack — the Rockets have allowed just 192.3 passing yards and 343.1 total yards per game this season, both second-best in the MAC.

The Rockets have allowed just 21 points per game — the best in the conference entering the postseason — thanks to only Notre Dame (32) and Eastern Michigan (52) managing more than 30 points in a game against them. Speaking of leading the conference, Toledo also stands in a five-way tie atop the MAC with 37 sacks — paced by Hines' team-leading 10 — and trails only Central Michigan (89) for the MAC lead with 82 TFLs.

When Toledo Has the Ball

Toledo can definitely thank its defense quite a bit for their 7-5 record, as the offense has held the ball for just a shade over 28 minutes per game this season, the third-lowest rate in the MAC. When the Rockets have had possession, however, they've amassed 433.0 yards per game and a MAC-best 34.2 points per game, leading to a point differential of +13.2 points per game, pairing with the defense for the best differential in the conference and a top-20 mark nationally.

DeQuan Finn has ramped up his production during the Rockets' three-game winning streak, completing 44 of his 64 passes (69 percent) for 677 yards and eight touchdowns in the three most recent wins. Two of the primary calling cards for Finn, however, have been his ability to move around and limit turnovers, with just one interception thrown this season (against Eastern Michigan) in his 211 attempts. Carter Bradley — who has played in eight games but was replaced by Finn as the starter after struggling early on — threw the only other interception in Week 4 against Ball State, thus rendering the Rockets as the FBS leaders with just two interceptions thrown this season.

The passing game has been well balanced with the rushing attack, as Bryant Koback leads the MAC with 15 rushing touchdowns and 18 total touchdowns, while Finn is next in line with 418 yards and eight rushing TDs. Koback also enters second in the conference (11th in the FBS) with 1,274 yards rushing, more than half percent of which has come in just the last four weeks with 639 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground in that span.

Meanwhile, when Middle Tennessee has done well this season, it's been due in large part to its defense. Five of the Blue Raiders' six wins in 2021 have come when they've held opponents to 17 or fewer points, with their Oct. 2 victory over Marshall (34-28) the lone exception.

That defense, in turn, has been driven by the Blue Raiders' dynamic playmaking abilities on defense, which will undoubtedly be tested as Toledo leads the nation with just six turnovers in 2021. In addition to tying for the FBS lead with six regular-season defensive touchdowns — three via interceptions, three via fumbles — Middle Tennessee enters the postseason leading the nation with 15 fumbles recovered and tied for fifth in the FBS with 16 interceptions. Safety Reed Blankenship and defensive back Quincy Riley were named first-team All-Conference USA selections this week, with Blankenship becoming the program's all-time leader in tackles earlier this season in the win over Charlotte. Blankenship enters the postseason ranked second in the Conference with 8.8 tackles per game (narrowly trailing North Texas' KD Davis, 8.9) and tied for the conference lead with three fumbles recovered.

Final Analysis

A win for Middle Tennessee would be its first bowl win since 2017 and just its third in program history while helping the Blue Raiders avoid their third straight losing season. Toledo, meanwhile, can claim its first bowl victory since 2015 — when Jason Candle stepped in to replace Matt Campbell, who left before the bowl game to take the job at Iowa State — by coming out on top on Friday. Look for opportunistic defense to be a focal point, as both teams have dominated behind the line of scrimmage and in causing havoc for opposing offenses.

Prediction: Toledo 33, Middle Tennessee 23

— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.