The last time the Toledo Rockets opened a season in August against an SEC opponent, No. 10 Florida came away victorious. This time, however, the Kentucky Wildcats take the place of the Gators in the first-ever meeting between Toledo and Kentucky.
Toledo's first three seasons (30 wins) under head coach Jason Candle were so successful that 7-6 in 2018 might seem like a gross underperformance. That's not entirely fair to Candle, who enters his fifth season at the helm of the Rockets, but last season did represent a departure from the standard that he had built in taking over for Matt Campbell.
The Rockets never really found much in the way of consistent momentum, alternating wins and losses over the first six games. Toledo did win consecutive games twice in the back half of the year, ending the year with a 35-32 Bahamas Bowl loss to FIU.
Further south, when Mark Stoops is mentioned in the same breath with Bear Bryant, the accomplishment must be a remarkable one — and it was. Only twice in the last century had Kentucky finished with a better win percentage than its .769 mark in 2018: 1977 — when Fran Curci led Big Blue to a 10-1 record — and in 1950, when Bryant posted an 11-1 mark with a Sugar Bowl win and a No. 7 final rank in the AP Poll.
That’s the company that Stoops joined last year when he took down three ranked opponents en route to a 10-3 record in 2018. This year, though, he’ll have to replace 14 starters, including National Defensive Player of the Year Josh Allen and all-time leading rusher Benny Snell, so Stoops will have his work cut out for him on both sides of the ball.
Toledo at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 12:00 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Kentucky -11.5
When Toledo Has the Ball
Without question, the ground game will be featured prominently for the Rockets this season. Toledo returns its leader in scrimmage yards from a year ago, running back Bryant Koback (940 total yards, 14 touchdowns). Kentucky fans may remember that name; that’s because Koback began his collegiate career as a Wildcat in 2017, a season in which he redshirted before transferring to Toledo. He’s joined in the running back room by Shakif Seymour, whose 565 yards rushing trailed only Koback’s 917. They form a dynamic pairing.
Quarterback Mitchell Guadagni is seen by many as the quarterback poised for the biggest leap in 2019, despite the dearth of returning pass-catching talent around him. Limited by a concussion and a broken collarbone, Guadagni still managed to post 13 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He’ll look often to veteran targets in tight end Reggie Gilliam and wide receiver Danzel McKinley-Lewis, who despite combining for just seven receptions and 75 yards in 2018 will be key mentors for the rest of the receiving corps.
Kentucky no longer has Allen, Mike Edwards or Jordan Jones to patrol the defense. Instead, look for Kash Daniel to make a name for himself among the defensive front seven. A season ago, Daniel posted 7.5 tackles for a loss, and he finished with 84 total tackles, just four behind Allen. After posting such a strong junior campaign and learning from Allen’s time in the spotlight, Daniel will be a problem for opposing offenses both this week and beyond.
When Kentucky Has the Ball
Without the familiar sight of Snell in the backfield, quarterback Terry Wilson will need to take a sizable step forward. Though efficient, Wilson threw for only 1,889 yards and 11 touchdowns, with eight interceptions mixed in. He’ll still have versatile receiver Lynn Bowden Jr., whose 67 receptions and 745 yards receiving last season were both more than double that of any other pass catcher. Of the other returning receivers, only Josh Ali (115) tallied more than 100 yards receiving all season.
In the running game, Stoops will likely turn to a committee of backs headed by Asim Rose, whose 442 yards rushing trailed Snell and Wilson but left him as the only other back to rush for at least 60 yards on the season.
Toledo has some playmakers in its defensive front seven who will look to cause trouble for Big Blue. Though not the most heralded of last year’s unit, Jamal Hines and Nate Childress return for the Rockets after combining for 82 tackles (10.5 tackles for a loss) and 3.5 sacks a season ago. Linebacker Jordan Fisher will be one to watch as well, having notched 59 tackles last year (tied for fourth on the team) as well as two pass breakups and three forced fumbles.
With a healthy Guadagni leading the way, there’s no question that this Toledo team can contend for a spot atop the MAC. However, until he gets back in rhythm after two serious injuries, I’ll take the proven talent that Stoops’ side brings to the table.
Prediction: Kentucky 28, Toledo 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.