Historically, the Toledo Rockets have a nice edge over the Western Michigan Broncos, leading the all-time series 41-29. In 2015, however, PJ Fleck and the Broncos entered the Glass Bowl and took down then-head coach, Matt Campbell and the Rockets who needed a win to advance to the Mid-American Conference Championship game. Last season's 35-30 road win for the Broncos ultimately snapped a streak of five consecutive wins for the Rockets over the Broncos. Now, all eyes in the MAC are already turning to the Nov. 25 meeting in Kalamazoo between the two respective programs as one that could once again help decide the West division.
While Western Michigan and Toledo may only meet on the field once per season, PJ Fleck and Jason Candle compete nearly every day on the recruiting trail. Candle, in his first season as the head coach in Northwest Ohio, inherited a much different situation than PJ Fleck did when he took over in Kalamazoo back in December of 2012. For the Rockets, they've been a solid to premiere program in the Mid-American Conference for the past several decades. Meanwhile, the Broncos of Western Michigan had never won a bowl game prior to beating Middle Tennessee State in the Bahamas Bowl in 2015.
Now, Western Michigan has gone from a bottom-feeder in not only the conference but the entire country, to a team with real expectations. After finishing at 8-5 overall last season, the media, for what it's worth, selected PJ Fleck and the Broncos to win the MAC Title in 2016. The reason? Recruiting. The Broncos have consistently had the top recruiting class (on paper) in the conference since Fleck's arrival through the mantra of 'Row The Boat' which refers to sacrifice and how the program is run as a whole.
The Rockets on the other hand have one of the best recruiters in all of non-Power Five football in Jason Candle. Candle, who took over following Matt Campbell's departure to Iowa State, is off to a tremendous start after a Boca Raton bowl win over Temple and now a 3-1 overall start in the 2016 campaign thus far. Just as the Broncos have done over the past season, Toledo has recruited and developed extremely well. Once Candle officially took over in the Glass City, Candle had a chance to show off his recruiting skills, which he has done. The coaching staff hit the ground running, gaining several three-star commitments to begin the recruiting season and have continued their success into the fall as National Signing Day nears.
As it stands right now, Western Michigan ranks No. 36 in the 2017 Recruiting Class team rankings by Scout while Toledo ranks No. 45. The Broncos currently have 23 commits while the Rockets have 20 in what will likely be a smaller signing class. While coaches and programs say stars and rankings don't matter, there's a certain pride and joy when your class finishes first in the conference. In the MAC, Candle and Fleck continue to battle for top recruits and ultimately, that No. 1 spot in the conference as well.
So, the Broncos who are a perfect 5-0 thus far in 2016 and the Rockets who challenged themselves by playing BYU on the road, now look ahead to their goal of playing at Ford Field in quest of a MAC Title. As stated, the Nov. 25 matchup at Western Michigan will at least play some sort of factor in who represents the MAC West in the championship. However, looking into season's ahead, the two teams seem as if they're headed to a rivalry of sorts. Define a rivalry, if you can, it isn't easy. First, there has to be something to play for and that something is the MAC crown. Secondly, two hard-nosed and passionate coaches, PJ Fleck and Jason Candle only add fire to the matchup between the two schools. Granted, there's talk on how long it will be before a bigger school comes calling to offer them a head coaching job but as long as the two are affiliated with their universities, this matchup will be a fun one.
On the recruiting trail, the two teams have typically battled for recruits with Toledo winning a majority of those wars. But now with the rejuvenated fan base and passion in Kalamazoo, the recruiting rivalry is gaining new life. These aren't Bill Cubit's Broncos anymore and everybody in the MAC realizes that. In fact, the Broncos were able to flip Pittsburgh linebacker Ron George from Toledo prior to National Signing Day in February. Months later, George was accused of armed robbery with another WMU teammate which led to Rocket Nation feeling as if they lucked out on the flip of commitment. Nonetheless, these are two different programs with two different ways of doing things. In Toledo, smaller recruiting classes (typically under 25 recruits) is the mantra while Western Michigan occasionally takes over 30 recruits, some of which (for whatever reason) do not end up on the roster. Not only that, but the Broncos are known for giving large amounts of playing time to their freshmen. Toledo on the other hand, is typically more patient with their freshmen playing time, using their upperclassmen more often than not.
As the recruits continue to pour through the door of Western Michigan and Toledo, the two programs are on the verge of becoming Mid-Major Powerhouses out of the Mid-American Conference. However, the Broncos are unaccustomed to this MAC success since they have not won a conference title since 1988, the Rockets since 2004 under Tom Amstutz.
The future of the Mid-American Conference is bright, especially in the MAC West as the Broncos and Rockets continue to duel both on the recruiting trail and on the field.