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Two programs in very different positions will clash in South Florida on Tuesday night as Toledo and Liberty will go head to head in the ninth edition of the Boca Raton Bowl.
Toledo enters the game coming off a much-coveted MAC championship, the program’s 12th all-time but just the second conference title since 2005. Both of those conference crowns have come with Jason Candle at the helm. This year, the Rockets were the most well-rounded team in the MAC, ranking first in scoring offense (32.1 points per game), first in total defense (331.9 yards per game allowed), third in total offense (405.8 yards per game) and checking ninth nationally among FBS teams in defensive passing efficiency (110.05). Toledo defeated Ohio 17-7 in the MAC Championship Game in Detroit, riding the strength of the defense that produced four first-team All-MAC players.
Liberty had a successful season under coach Hugh Freeze, going 8-1 through the first week of November with the only defeat coming to Wake Forest (then ranked No. 18 in the country) by one point. That impressive start peaked with wins against BYU and at Arkansas, but the Flames lost their footing coming down the stretch with three losses in a row, two of them by a combined four points to UConn and Virginia Tech. After the season, Freeze was hired away to be the head coach at Auburn, and Liberty tapped Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell to be his successor in Lynchburg.
While there is plenty of excitement for the Jamey Chadwell era following his tenure at Coastal Carolina, which includes back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2020 and 2021, the man in charge for the Boca Raton Bowl will be co-defensive coordinator Josh Aldridge, who was named the interim coach for the bowl season.
Date: Tuesday, Dec. 20 | Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: FAU Stadium — Boca Raton, Florida
TV: ESPN | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Jason Candle looking to recapture bowl magic: Toledo named Candle the program’s coach on Dec. 2, 2015 after the departure of Matt Campbell to Iowa State. Candle, who had previously served seven seasons as an assistant for the Rockets, proceeded to lead to Toledo to a 32-17 win against No. 24 Temple in the Boca Raton Bowl. That win, his first as a college coach, still remains his lone bowl victory. Aong with Toledo fans everywhere, Candle hopes that a return to Boca will bring good fortunes for the Rockets.
Though Candle has a 53-32 record overall and has never finished a season with a losing record, the program is on a four-game losing streak in the postseason. Those losses — the 2016 Camelia Bowl, the 2017 Dollar General Bowl, the 2018 Bahamas Bowl and the 2021 Bahamas Bowl — have all come in games where Toledo was the betting favorite and thus added even more frustration to the trend. Perhaps the MAC championship, and some of the circumstances surrounding Toledo’s opponent, could add to the good memories of that first career win in Candle’s return to Boca Raton.
Liberty looking to make some FCS-to-FBS history: The Flames made the jump from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2018 and hit the ground running once the program was bowl eligible. Liberty earned bowl bids in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and it boasts a 3-0 all-time record in bowl games thanks to those Hugh Freeze-led wins. The Flames started with a pair of one-score wins in the Cure Bowl against Georgia Southern (2019) and Coastal Carolina (2020), then last season throttled MAC foe Eastern Michigan by a 56-20 margin in the LendingTree Bowl. If Liberty can defeat Toledo, it will join Appalachian State as the only programs to win a bowl game during each of their first four seasons of bowl eligibility.
Elite defensive linemen on both sides: Both offenses might find it difficult to get into a rhythm with both teams boasting elite players along the defensive line. Liberty senior defensive end Durrell Johnson ranks No. 1 nationally with 22.5 tackles for loss, and his 2022 campaign was so impressive it earned him second-team Walter Camp All-America honors. Toledo has its own game-wrecker in the trenches on the defense, but it’s from the interior where senior defensive tackle Desjuan Johnson led the MAC and ranks No. 12 nationally with 16.5 tackles for loss.
Toledo has not been a strong team to back against the spread as a favorite under Jason Candle in general, and especially not in the bowl season. But the combination of how Liberty finished the year with three straight losses — the last of them in blowout fashion to New Mexico State — and Toledo’s strong finish in the bowl game have me thinking the Rockets are due. Prediction: Toledo -4.5
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