Rematch presents Zips, Rockets with opportunity to snap conference championship drought
A conference championship drought of at least 12 years will end on Saturday when Akron and Toledo square off at Ford Field in Detroit for the Marathon MAC Football Championship Game. Toledo's last MAC title came in 2004, the first year the game was played in the Motor City. Akron’s only appearance in the conference championship — which it won —came just a year later, so both sides haven't been on this stage for more than a decade. This marks the first MAC Championship Game with both teams from the same state (Ohio) since Toledo beat Miami (Ohio) 35-27 in 2004.
Toledo (10-2, 7-1 MAC) claimed the West crown by a game over Central Michigan. Seven of the Rockets' wins have been by at least 13 points, with an average margin of victory of nearly 21 points overall. A 38-10 loss at Ohio in Week 11 was the only blemish on the Rockets’ otherwise-perfect conference slate. The Bobcats could not defeat Akron (7-5, 6-2) on the road a week later, however, losing 37-34 as the Zips capitalized on three Ohio turnovers. That game would prove to be the difference in the East division: Ohio finished its MAC schedule at 5-3, a single game behind Akron.
The head-to-head record is close over the history of this series, though it has been characterized by a tale of two runs. From 1923-47, Akron won six of eight matchups against Toledo. When the series picked back up in 1992, Akron came out on top for what would be the last time until 2008, as Toledo went on its own six-game winning streak from 1994-2006. Toledo has since won three of the five most recent matchups entering Saturday, including a 48-21 win at home in October.
MAC Championship: Akron vs. Toledo
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Ford Field (Detroit)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Toledo -21
Three Things to Watch
1. Akron’s ball-hawk defense
The relative strength of the Zips on the defensive side of the ball is their success against the pass, which bodes well against an electric quarterback like Toledo’s Logan Woodside. Akron has given up a fair amount of yards through the air — nearly 422 per game — but has still managed to limit opponents to 24.8 points per game. That mark is tied for fourth in the MAC and 50th in the FBS. The biggest reason for this? The Zips enter this game with 17 interceptions, second in the conference (Central Michigan) and tied for seventh nationally. Woodside hasn't made many mistakes, throwing just three interceptions compared to 24 touchown passes in 345 attempts, but one of those picks was against Akron in the first meeting (in which he also threw for 304 yards and five TDs). But 10 different Zips have intercepted at least one pass this season and they no doubt would love to add to their total on Saturday.
2. Toledo’s offense clicking on all cylinders
Entering its final two regular-season games, Toledo’s offense was averaging nearly 500 yards per game — certainly a lofty figure to achieve in one game, let alone for an entire season. In those last two games, the Rockets totaled 1092 yards, including 637 against Bowling Green two weeks ago. The offense now is up to 506 yards per game offensively, including 288 through the air by quarterback Logan Woodside. The senior signal-caller has quite the arsenal of weapons around him, which takes a lot of the pressure off and allows Woodside to distribute to any one of them at any given time. Freshman Shakif Seymour and senior Terry Swanson each have rushed for 12 touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Diontae Jefferson’s 11 receiving touchdowns and 95 receiving yards per game are both second-best in the MAC while placing him seventh and 13th, respectively, in the FBS.
3. Revenge factor
The only time that two teams from the same conference would meet more than once is in the case of their conference championship (or, now, the College Football Playoff). Rarely do teams get to see each other a second time in the same season, but when they do the rematch tends to be a little closer the second time around. These teams have seen what the other will bring to the table, both from the personnel and gameplan aspects. Granted, there will surely be some wrinkles thrown in that were not present in the regular season, but for the most part the familiarity between the two sides will aid in preparation for Saturday’s championship game. Toledo’s offense nearly doubled Akron’s in that October win — 626 yards to Akron’s 333 — so with this game at a neutral site and home-field advantage not as much of a factor, don’t expect the Zips to give in easily on Saturday.
While the regular-season matchup between Toledo and Akron might have appeared one-sided, it was a first-quarter eruption that put the Rockets ahead 21-0 13 minutes into the game and Toledo was off to the races. From that point on, however, the Rockets only outscored the Zips by six points over the final three quarters, so Akron to its credit kept pace with Toledo’s potent offense the rest of the way. Toledo has shown no signs of slowing down in the latter stages of the season, but Akron is playing some of its best football at just the right time. Sitting at 4-4 after losing to Toledo and needing to win two games to be bowl-eligible, Akron rattled off three wins in its final four games, including the division-clinching win over Ohio. It’s not unreasonable to expect similar firepower to these teams’ regular-season meeting, but don’t be surprised if Akron keeps it close on a neutral field.
Prediction: Toledo 45, Akron 31
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Associate Editor of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.