USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
After losing its way for a decade, Marshall has rediscovered its stride. Fittingly, it's with a similar approach to the style that initially put the Thundering Herd on the map, first as the most dominant program in the Football Championship Subdivision, then as a party-crashing Football Bowl Subdivision newcomer.
The Herd get it done on offense, piloted by a next-level quarterback, a commitment to stretching the field and the sort of athleticism unmatched by any of the team's conference peers – a simple formula, one might suggest, if not for the fact that Marshall stands alone in Conference USA.
Last season's team scored 590 points and 42.14 points per game, good for fifth and seventh in the FBS, respectively. Both totals stood as Marshall's most in a season since 1996, when it cruised through one of the most impressive years in FCS history.
Chad Pennington led the charge during the program's first surge; Rakeem Cato does the same in 2014. Tommy Shuler is no Randy Moss, admittedly; he's just the Randy Moss of Conference USA. Last year's team allowed 22.93 points per game, the Herd's best mark since 2005, and outscored the competition by 269 points, the most since 1999.
There's another similarity to be found in Marshall's resurgence: This year's team plays inferior competition from August through November. As in the program's heyday, the Herd could theoretically not just win but dominate, knocking on the gate of big-time success through simple on-field supremacy.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Marshall is an offensively potent squad with the clear ability to simply outscore every opponent on this schedule in a banner season. This is quite easily the program's best team in a decade.
In a nutshell: For a moment, consider not the wins but the losses: Ohio by a field goal, Virginia Tech in overtime, Middle Tennessee State by a safety. With just a slight boost here and there – perhaps a gust of wind in one direction or another – the Herd enter the conference title game within a victory of a spot in the Bowl Championship Series; instead, Marshall had to learn how to handle a different sort of frustration – not just losing, because this program had done its fair share of losing during the previous decade, but losing amid expectations of victory. There's a difference. It's also part of the process: Rome wasn't built in a day, or whatever, and perhaps Marshall needed to taste some bitter adversity before taking the leap.
High point: An utter bombardment of East Carolina in the regular-season finale, clinching the East Division title and capping the Pirates' run in Conference USA in bitterly disappointing fashion.
Low point: Losing to Rice, surprisingly, in the Conference USA title game.
Tidbit: This year's schedule features as many opponents coming off a season with double-digit losses, four, as teams coming off a seven-win season. The also-rans: Miami (Ohio), Florida International, Southern Mississippi and UAB. On the flip side, the Herd take on Ohio, Middle Tennessee State, Rice and Western Kentucky. Combined, the FBS opponents on Marshall's schedule went 48-76 in 2013.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Doc Holliday performances on film
1. Val Kilmer
2. Kirk Douglas
3. Victor Mature
4. Jason Robards
5. Dennis Quaid
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: With all due respect to the skill players – and they've earned our respect – the Herd's growth offensively can be tied to the vastly improved play of this offensive front. What's been evident: Marshall hasn't just built a strong starting group – let's give some additional credit to second-year line coach Alex Mirabal – but created a second tier unmatched in Conference USA, forming a rock-solid foundation from tackle to tackle. The line is strongest in the middle, where senior Chris Jasperse stands not just as the best center in the conference but one of the nation's most overlooked interior linemen; he's the brains and brawn of the entire operation. Having Jasperse in the middle will pay enormous dividends for first-year starting guards Blake Brooks and Michael Selby, with Selby an extremely promising sophomore. Brooks takes over at left guard for Sebastian Johansson, who slides out to left tackle to replace Garrett Scott, an all-conference pick. He'll bookend the line with Clint Van Horn, another lineman set for all-league honors. The starting group is great; the depth may be even better.
The receiver corps should benefit hugely from the influx of talent on the recruiting trail: Marshall will add as many as five impressive freshmen into the mix during fall camp, adding speed, athleticism and stretch-the-field ability to a group short on depth a season ago. What the Herd did have, however, was a dominant go-to target: Tommy Shuler (106 receptions for 1,165 yards) will again be the league's top receiver, especially if teamed with a more potent downfield passing game. Shuler will operate out of the slot, causing havoc, and be joined in the starting lineup by senior Craig Wilkins (32 for 408) and junior Davonte Allen. To me, Allen's blend of size and strength puts him in line for a potential breakout season. What makes this group improved, in my mind, is the addition of true freshman Emanuel Beal and redshirt freshmen Rodney Allen and Angelo Jean-Louis – if not another two or three freshmen, seeing how fall camp develops. Each of the three rookies has already earned a spot in the two-deep.
The big issue: Gator Hoskins is gone, robbing Marshall of the nation's most productive red-zone threat at the position. That Shuler's around in the slot ensures the intermediate game won't disappear, and the Herd's increased depth at receiver should allow for some sort of team-wide attack to replace Hoskins' lost production. But the offense still needs a bigger weapon, with Eric Frohnapfel, Deon-Tay McManus and Joe Woodrum the leading contributors at the position. Even without Hoskins, this is the best receiver corps in the conference.
Rakeem Cato enters his final season with striking distance of each major passing record in school history – impressive, given Marshall's quarterback pedigree – and some major national hardware. All that's missing is, well, nothing. If we want to nitpick, let's discuss the completion percentage: Cato was a little off last year in the shorter passing game, leading to a pretty substantial decline in the category. But what would help lead to a return to his sophomore form is a commitment to stretching the field, a strong possibility given Cato's improved arm strength – his top offseason priority – and the speedier options among the receiver corps. If everything clicks, look for Cato to throw for 4,500 yards, 40-plus touchdowns and complete close to 65% of his attempts. That's entirely doable, if not probable, and such numbers, if teamed with an undefeated regular season, would make the senior a realistic contender for national awards. There's not much to add: Cato is one of the top quarterbacks in college football.
Defense: Take off your hat, sit down and consider this: Marshall's defense might also be the best in Conference USA – and it probably is, if wildly overshadowed by the Herd's prolific offensive attack. There are really no weak spots, to be honest, even if some areas of varying concern; generally speaking, the Herd should view this defense with extreme confidence. Take the line, for instance, which has the talent needed to survive the loss of three valuable contributors. There were starters waiting in reserve: Gary Thompson (30 tackles, 3.0 sacks) is going to do very well as Alex Bazzie's replacement on the outside; Jarquez Samuel and Steve Dillon are a nice interchangeable pair on the nose, replacing Brandon Sparrow; and Rico Williams, a former Miami (Fla.) transfer, could make an enormous impact as the top reserve lineman along the interior.
This group joins the two entrenched starters: Ra'Shawde Myers (51 tackles, 4.5 sacks), Thompson's running mate on the outside, and sixth-year senior James Rouse (39 tackles, 14.0 for loss), Conference USA's top lineman and perhaps the league's most disruptive, attention-grabbing defense. What you see is an interior that rolls five deep, counting Malcolm Strong, and the potential for some edge-rushing pressure from the combination of Thompson and Myers. My one concern might be the lack of proven depth in reserve at end, outside of senior Arnold Blackmon; it'd be great if the Herd could locate some smaller, quick-twitch backups to bring extra pressure on clear passing downs.
Marshall will spend a good portion of time with two linebackers and a fifth defensive back, which plays to the team's overall speed along the back seven. But moving D.J. Hunter (50 tackles) from safety to the strong side presents two different alignment options: one, your traditional nickel package, with an extra cornerback in the slot; or two, a bigger package, with Hunter occupying a hybrid linebacker-safety role. Both seem in play as the Herd prepare for the opener. At the two traditional linebacker spots – middle and weak side – Marshall has at least three and as many as five very viable options, led by senior Jermaine Holmes (84 tackles) and juniors Evan McKelvey (97 tackles, 5.0 for loss) and Neville Hewitt (85 tackles). Holmes is locked into the middle, where his size comes in handy, but McKelvey and Hewitt are interchangeable pieces all across the second level. This group is outstanding.
There's talent in the secondary but decisions to be made: Marshall needs to settle on a starting pair at safety and locate a clear-cut third cornerback. In the latter, doing so would either allow sophomore Corey Tindal to focus on a starting role on the field side or remain the Herd's nickel back; he could do both, of course, but the staff does need one of the group of Keith Baxter, Michael Johnson and D'Andre Wilson to step forward this month. In my mind, freeing Tindal to contribute at nickel back, where he showed promise last fall, would be a nice idea. At the very least, Marshall can feel secure in the starting pair of Tindal and Darryl Roberts on the outside – and perhaps lean toward athleticism in the slot, if not slide Hunter away from linebacker. There's also competition underway at both safety spots, where Marshall seems willing to roll with a three-member rotation of Taj Letman (50 tackles), Tiquan Lang and sophomore A.J. Leggett (45 tackles, 4 interceptions). One word of advice, if I may: Leggett needs to start.
Special teams: Kicker Justin Haig has his hands full defending his starting job against the steady play of redshirt freshman Nick Smith. While Haig's experience is a bonus, Smith could grab the starting job by the end of fall camp. Everything else is settled: Tyler Williams is back at punter, Amoreto Curraj on kickoffs – he does a very nice job – and Shuler and junior wide receiver Deandre Reeves in the return game.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Running back: First-year backfield coach Chris Barclay won't have Essray Taliaferro, the engine behind the program's most prolific running game since transitioning to the FBS in 1997. Nor will he have Kevin Grooms, a projected co-starter heading out of spring drills. But it's not all bad: Taliaferro's going to be hard to replace and Grooms stands as a painful loss, but Barclay inherits an experienced and deep stable of running backs – and now must decide on a rotation.
Don't be surprised if Marshall leans even closer to a by-committee style, given the number of options at the Herd's disposal and the way this crop of former reserves fared in a smaller sample size last fall. It'll be led by a pair of juniors, Steward Butler (765 yards) – his 8.79 yards per carry led Conference USA and ranked third nationally – and Remi Watson (120 yards), with Watson a valuable change-of-pace option due to his 200-pound frame. Butler's per-carry average raises eyebrows, of course, though he won't match that excellence in a beefed-up role; he'd still be supremely dangerous if teamed with Watson and junior Devon Johnson, another bruising, between-the-tackle runner. The Herd also like a pair of redshirt freshmen, Brandon Byrd and Tony Pittman, and will need both to produce in reserve. Here's the best part: Marshall loses a 1,000-yard rusher and a major contributor yet still has – if by a slightly smaller margin than in the spring – the best backfield in Conference USA.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Rice: For revenge, some style points and an undefeated regular season. As you may have heard, this is a video-game schedule – you know, the one you create during the preseason to make sure your program runs the table.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Marshall's going to tear this schedule to pieces, dropping 40-plus points on more teams than not and likely rolling through unscathed, a scenario that would leave Marshall as one of the few – if not the only – undefeated teams in the FBS heading into the postseason. Some of this has to do with the Herd's personnel: Marshall has Conference USA's best offense and its best defense, with superb athleticism along the starting lineup and, by leaps and bounds, the finest depth of Doc Holliday's tenure. Add this talent to the smoothest schedule imaginable and you have the expectations of not just a conference title – one year overdue – but the program's best team of its FBS existence.
It's certainly the latter. The offense is dynamic: Cato's a national-award contender, Shuler the best receiver in Conference USA, the backfield still loaded with talent and the line the program's best in years. The defense is also impressive, if working through some kinks in the secondary. The issues, if not of the overwhelming variety, include Marshall's unproven second tier at receiver, changing cast in the backfield and lack of a trustworthy third option at cornerback. I think Marshall overcomes these concerns with room to spare.
The issues are twofold: one, Marshall won't be taken seriously, due to this schedule, and two, a single loss – again due to the schedule – will make the Thundering Herd a national afterthought. Rather than worry about perception, the Herd should embrace the challenge. Don't just win every game; dominate every game. Don't just score 40 points on a bad team; score 50, if not 60. Make an impression not by the quality of competition but by the quality of victory – do what good teams do and dominate inferior foes. If all goes according to plan, Marshall will enter the postseason unblemished. I worry that there's a single loss hiding somewhere, but you have to acknowledge the strong possibility that Marshall ends the regular season as one of two or three undefeated teams across the entire country.
Dream season: Marshall goes undefeated, winning each games by 28 or more points, and battles against perception to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Nightmare season: The Herd lose four games: Ohio, Middle Tennessee, Rice and Western Kentucky.
Who's No. 19? This program is 80-39 since 1990 in years following a season with eight or more wins.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM 64-1