Toledo’s Tuesday night big MAC challenge: Northern Illinois

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When it comes to the Group of Five conversation this season, the American Athletic Conference has continued to take the lead with three teams currently ranked in the top 25 (Memphis, Houston, Temple) and another suffering just one loss (Navy). With the Mountain West Conference slipping this fall, the American has taken advantage and pushed to the front of the line. There is one potential obstacle beyond the control of the AAC though; Toledo.

The MAC frontrunners are off to a solid 7-0 start this season, which includes a victory on the road at Arkansas and a home win against Iowa State. For a while the win against the Razorbacks was the top Group of Five performance of the season, but Memphis has since taken that title with a win against Ole Miss. Still, Toledo has a chance to run the table this season and add a MAC championship that would see a 13-0 program be up for strong consideration for the New Years Six bowl reservation awarded to the top-ranked Group of Five conference champion. If that ends up being the case, Toledo head coach Matt Campbell will have some interesting job offers come his way this coaching carousel cycle (he has already been a trendy name for some coaching stories this season). There is still business to attend to for Toledo before we can dive head first into those debates and discussions about where the Rockets stand against other contenders like Memphis, Houston or perhaps still Temple and Navy. First up is Northern Illinois.

Toledo takes on Northern Illinois tonight in a Tuesday night MACtion special. This may not be a dominant NIU team, but it is still a scary one when it is rolling. The Huskies have scored at least 45 points in each of their last three games to rebound from a three-game losing streak that included a good scare for the defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes. No team should be aware of how dangerous NIU can be than Toledo though. The Huskies have been a bit of a nemesis for the Rockets lately, with NIU claiming victory in each of the past five meetings. The Huskies took last year’s game, 27-24. In 2011 these two combined for 123 points in a 63-60 shootout. If Toledo is going to make a run at the MAC, shaking off the ghosts of Northern Illinois is a huge step forward in that pursuit. That may not be easy.

NIU will bring the MAC’s top running game to Toledo, averaging 217.5 rushing yards per game and a conference-leading 24 rushing touchdowns, 14 by junior running back Joel Bouagnon. Toledo is no slouch running he football with Kareem Hunt warming up and Terry Swanson and Damion Jones-Moore leading the charge for the MAC’s second-leading rushing offense. Toledo has allowed just five rushing touchdowns all season, so they will be put to the test tonight. For Toledo, the key will be to force fumbles, which NIU has been prone to do this season despite the big running numbers. NIU has lost nine fumbles this year, more than any other MAC program.

A win by Toledo will keep them in the thick of the Group of Five discussion, but the more important goal for the Rockets right now is simply winning the MAC. Toledo has not played in the MAC Championship Game since 2004, so it has been a long time coming. Northern Illinois and Central Michigan have dominated the appearances from the MAC West since Toledo’s last appearance in the game. After NIU tonight, Toledo will get a crack at CMU on the road next Tuesday night before playing in what could be a MAC Championship Game Preview against Bowling Green on November 17.

Toledo has some land mines to tiptoe by. If they manage to do so, the Rockets will have a decent argument at the end of the year.

In case you missed it…

Toledo is the big headline in the MAC right now, deservingly so, but Toledo is currently tied for first place in the MAC West with Western Michigan. The Broncos have somewhat quietly played their way into a good spot in the division race. P.J. Fleck‘s program got off to a rough 1-3 start with losses against the top two programs in the Big Ten (Michigan State and Ohio State) and a road loss at Georgia Southern (a blowout 43-17 setback). Things did not look great for Western Michigan, but in conference play the Broncos appear to have flipped a switch.

After clipping Central Michigan 41-39 in their MAC opener, Western Michigan has won each of the next three games on its schedule by a minimum of 22 points. Two of those wins have come against Miami-Ohio and Eastern Michigan, who are a combined 2-16 this season, but Western Michigan should not have to apologize for that. Western Michigan’s challenging schedule in MAC play is about to commence. On Thursday, they host Ball State, but after that they host MAC East-leading Bowling Green on a Wednesday night next week (a short week), and then visit Northern Illinois the following Wednesday.

If you are looking ahead, Western Michigan wraps up the regular season on the road against Toledo on November 27.

Iowa linebacker announces transfer

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Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has been known to have a program that could play some solid defense more often than not, but the depth at linebacker just got a bit more shallow this Memorial Day weekend. Redshirt sophomore Anthony Garbutt has announced he is leaving the program.

“After prayer, consulting with my family and Coach Ferentz, I have made the decision to leave the University of Iowa,” Garbutt announced in a statement on Twitter. “I am thankful for my years as a Hawkeye and will continue to support the franchise.”

Garbutt went on to announce he will make a decision after going through a recruiting process. No timeline for his decision was announced.

Garbutt still has three more years of eligibility remaining, although he has already burned one redshirt year after joining the Class of 2015 at Iowa. If he transfers to another FBS program, he will have to sit out the upcoming 2017 season and lose a year of eligibility in the process. He would be available to play immediately this fall if he transfers to a lower division football program.

Report: Navy’s football stadium will host NHL outdoor game between Caps and Leafs

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The NHL has enjoyed the success of their growing number of outdoor games. What started out as an attempt to steal the New Years Day spotlight from the college football bowl season has grown to include additional outdoor games around the country in February and March as part of the league’s Stadium Series. With an abundance of outdoor games, finding new venues to host the outdoor games offers new opportunities to showcase a wide range of stadiums. Navy is now set to get in on the NHL outdoor fun.

The Associated Press reports Navy’s Navy-Marine Corp Memorial Stadium will be used for one game in the NHL’s Stadium Series on March 3, 2018. The Washington Capitals will “host” the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 34,000-seat venue in Annapolis, Maryland. A formal announcement is expected to be made on Monday, Memorial Day. It’s also the same day the NHL kicks off the Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators and commissioner Gary Bettman gives his annual state of the league address.

The New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres were previously slated to play in the NHL Winter Classic in Citi Field, home of baseball’s New York Mets.

Heinz Field, the home of the Pitt Panthers, was used to host the 2011 Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, becoming the first college football stadium to host an outdoor NHL game. Of course, Heinz Field is also home to the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, so this college stadium host came with an asterisk. Heinz Field hosted a Stadium Series game this past February between the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.

Michigan’s Michigan Stadium hosted the Winter Classic in 2014 between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. TCF Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, hosted a game in the NHL’s Stadium Series in 2016 between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks.

There are still a good handful of stadiums worth considering for future NHL outdoor games, especially in the Big Ten. Penn State’s Beaver Stadium has long been suspected of being a potential target for an outdoor game, but any plans involving Beaver Stadium may have to wait until after the stadium’s facilities are upgraded as part of the school’s upcoming athletics department renovation. Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium could also be an attractive candidate for an outdoor game in the future as well.

A couple other venues for possible Stadium Series game sin the future should include the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Rose Bowl. The NHL has already played an outdoor game in Dodger Stadium, back in 2014, so the league is not afraid to play outside in LA (and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara hosted a game in 2015). If they return, playing in either historic stadium would seem to make sense, although it is possible the NHL would prefer to wait until the new home of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and Chargers is completed before making a trip to LA again.

Alabama DB Tony Brown has chance to prove he’s fastest NCAA athlete in nation

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Forget the 40-yard dash. Alabama defensive back Tony Brown is setting his focus on the 100-meter dash.

Brown, a track star in addition to being a fixture on the Alabama defense, qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in the 100-meter dash after finishing in the top 10 at the NCAA East Regional at Kentucky. Brown is a two-time All-American on the track.

Let this serve as another example of the caliber of athletes Nick Saban is bringing in to his program. Recruiting analysts have been noting for years the importance of recruiting athletes with skills in more than one sport, and Alabama has that with Brown. Brown was one of the nation’s top hurdlers in high school, and that success on the track has continued in Tuscaloosa.

Brown brings the pain on the football field too, of course. Just ask former Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams what kind of damage Brown can bring.

Helmet sticker to Gridiron Now.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey still not a fan of early signing period

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The SEC will gather in Destin, Florida this week for the annual spring meetings. This will be the first time the conference has come together since the adoption of an early signing period in college football, which is something that has not been well-received by some in the SEC. Among the dissenters in the early signing period conversation has been SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who says he is still no fan of the new recruiting calendar.

I still don’t think that’s best,” Sankey said in an interview with the Associated Press last week.

“I think the early signing date has an impact on high school football,” Sankey said. “I think moving the recruiting calendar has an impact on high school football. I think we all have to be concerned about football and its strength and health at every level. Whether it’s a minority voice or a singular voice, I think those are important issues to consider.”

The stance by some around the SEC against the idea of the early signing period is notably different compared to just a few years ago. At the spring meetings in 2014, the SEC football coaches voted unanimously in favor of an early signing period starting on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Former SEC commissioner Mike Slive, however, expressed his preference to keep the only signing day in February.

As far as the voice coming from the commissioner’s office in the SEC is concerned, the narrative has not changed following the changing of the guard.