This is the first in our 12-part series where we count down Notre Dame’s 2021 strength of schedule by how we view the degree of difficulty, from 12 to one. At No. 12 is first-time opponent Toledo on Sept. 11.
The Rockets open their 2021 season by hosting Norfolk State on Sept. 4 before heading to Notre Dame to play the Fighting Irish on Sept. 11.
Toledo center Bryce Harris, a first-team All-MAC pick in 2020, is returning for a seventh season in 2021. (UTRockets.com)
Head Coach: Jason Candle — 38-21 (.644): Entering 7th season
Toledo Recruiting Rankings: 2017-21
2019 (76th again)
2020 (not listed among top 99)
2020 Record: 4-2
Similar to the Big Ten and Pac-12, the Mid-American Conference originally intended to cancel the season because of the coronavirus, but the league later had an abbreviated season that began on Nov. 4 and continued through mid-December.
The Rockets’ two defeats were three-point setbacks to league champion Ball State (27-24) and Western Michigan (41-38).
Did You Know …
Over the past 30 years, Toledo has become somewhat the new “Cradle of Coaches” in the MAC, including a 9-2 season by Nick Saban in his one-year stint at Toledo in 1990.
He was followed by Gary Pinkel (1991-2000), who is on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot after posting the most wins in Toledo and Missouri football history.
Tim Beckman (2009-12) was named the head coach at Illinois, and Matt Campbell (2012-14) has become one of the most prized commodities in coaching after leading Iowa State to its first ever AP top-10 finish this past season.
2021 Capsule Summary
Maybe the most veteran-laden team in the conference, Toledo began spring drills this week and plan to conclude them April 2.
Six All-MAC players return, with center Bryce Harris — who opted to use his seventh season of eligibility — the lone player who made the first team. He headlines an offensive line that returns all five starters, not including tackle Mitchell Berg, who started in 2019 but missed 2020 because of an injury.
Fourteen-game starter Eli Peters has passed for 3,771 yards at 59.3 percent and 33 touchdowns, but suffered a season-ending injury in game four last season. There are also proven commodities at running back with Bryant Koback (2,606 yards rushing) and receiver in third-team All-MAC Isaiah Winstead.
Remarkably, every player from last year’s two-deep on defense is slated to return, notably four second-team All-MAC figures with end/linebacker Jamal Hines, tackle Desjuan Johnson and safeties Tycen Anderson and Nate Bauer.
Meanwhile, cornerback Samuel Womack has led the MAC in passes broken up in each of the past two seasons (15 in 20219, eight in 2020).
Why 12th Among 12 In Countdown
This is Notre Dame’s designated breather game that has become an annual part of the schedule — mostly from the MAC — beginning with Massachusetts in 2015 and including slipping in USF last year (a 52-0 decision in game two).
It is strategically placed because the Fighting Irish open the season on a Sunday night (Sept. 5) at Florida State and will have one day less time of preparation and recovery. The same occurred in 2016 when they opened on a Sunday night at Texas (a 50-47 loss in double-overtime) and then hosted on Saturday current Notre Dame associate head coach/special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s Nevada Wolfpack (a 39-10 victory).
Toledo does return a highly veteran unit that could make them a favorite in the MAC this season and help head coach Candle perhaps become a prospect for a higher coaching tier like his two predecessors were. The greatest win in program history came in a year when it finished 3-9 — a 13-10 triumph at Michigan in 2008 against a Wolverines edition that also was 3-9.
One can also point to 2018 when a College Football Playoff-bound Notre Dame team, coming off a 24-17 win over Michigan, had quite a scuffle with 34.5-point underdog Ball State the ensuing week before prevailing with a 24-16 win.
Still, the contest versus Toledo is a personnel mismatch where Notre Dame likely will be favored by four touchdowns, depending in part on how it debuts at Florida State.
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