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1. Marshall vs. the field
So when does the surge begin, then? Now? Another year from now? Ever? Doc Holliday truly has done a startling job of amassing talent and raw athleticism in Huntington, but as I said at the top, that has to eventually translate into results. Marshall has won five, six, and five regular season games in Holliday's three seasons; after struggling on the offensive end, he fixed those problems just in time for his defense to fall apart. Both units have performed well at some point in his three years, and if the pieces come together in 2013, lord knows there won't be a lot of resistance within the conference.
Okay, so technically Marshall didn't win Conference USA in 2013, so there's a bit more breaking through to be done. But I capped my "Your future overlords" preview last year by asking for a bit more from Marshall, and to say the least, the Thundering Herd provided it last fall.
Doc Holliday has been accumulating talent in a way that dwarves most of the other teams, past and present, in Conference USA. There are 39 former three-star recruits listed below and three former four-stars. That is a level of recruiting (and/or transfer-wrangling) nobody else in the conference can touch.
And the scariest part is, in 2013 production began to match potential. With a team that was still relatively young, Marshall improved from 82nd to 52nd overall in the F/+ rankings. Marshall almost won at Virginia Tech (it took a relatively poor performance not to), pummeled East Carolina to win the Conference USA East, and looked like the bigger, stronger, faster team against Maryland in the Military Bowl. The Herd looked the part in 2013 and began to play like it.
And in 2014, they return an ace quarterback, his top target, a couple of explosive running backs, two all-conference offensive linemen, and nine starters from a defense that recorded 102 tackles for loss and improved from 117th io 78th in Def. F/+ last season.
So yeah, Marshall is indeed your Conference USA overlord in 2014. And I'm not sure it's close.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 10-4 | Adj. Record: 12-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 52|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|31-Aug||Miami (Ohio)||123||52-14||W||28.5 - 22.7||W|
|7-Sep||Gardner-Webb||N/A||55-0||W||26.4 - 19.3||W|
|14-Sep||at Ohio||104||31-34||L||37.9 - 22.2||W|
|21-Sep||at Virginia Tech||27||21-29||L||25.3 - 25.7||L|
|5-Oct||UTSA||67||34-10||W||28.2 - 14.6||W||8.3|
|12-Oct||at Florida Atlantic||73||24-23||W||31.9 - 31.7||W||7.2|
|24-Oct||at Middle Tennessee||85||49-51||L||31.1 - 30.9||W||5.9|
|2-Nov||Southern Miss||120||61-13||W||51.1 - 26.7||W||7.6|
|9-Nov||UAB||115||56-14||W||53.5 - 30.6||W||12.3|
|14-Nov||at Tulsa||94||45-34||W||33.9 - 26.0||W||11.1|
|23-Nov||at Florida International||125||48-10||W||36.2 - 26.0||W||13.1|
|29-Nov||East Carolina||40||59-28||W||44.5 - 23.6||W||17.3|
|7-Dec||at Rice||69||24-41||L||29.8 - 42.5||L||9.9|
|27-Dec||vs. Maryland||63||31-20||W||39.5 - 28.1||W||7.5|
|Points Per Game||42.1||7||22.9||32|
|Adj. Points Per Game||35.5||20||26.5||57|
2. They did lose to Ohio, MTSU, and Rice
Yes, Marshall mostly broke through in 2013. The Herd won 10 games for the first time since 2002, won their division, and whipped a local major-conference opponent in a bowl. All good things. But no matter how foregone the 2014 conclusion seems on paper, there is still some work to be done.
It took some poor turnovers luck (Ohio recovered all three of the game's fumbles, including one in the end zone), but Marshall still lost to what turned out to be a pretty iffy Ohio team. Despite having Virginia Tech on the ropes for most of the second half, the Herd never could put the Hokies away and still fell in overtime. The defense still fell apart late against Middle Tennessee, allowing scores on five of six drives after halftime (including the game-winner as time expired). And the Herd did still lay an egg in the Conference USA title game at Rice.
And beyond that, Marshall still ranked behind conference mates East Carolina (40th) and North Texas (51st) in the F/+ rankings. Granted, ECU's off to the AAC, but the Herd are neither the conference's defending champion nor the conference's defending best team.
But still ... this all looks set up perfectly on paper, doesn't it?
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||46.7%||23||Succ. Rt. +||108.3||33|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||28.9||50||Def. FP+||100.4||55|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||5.1||4||Redzone S&P+||100.5||60|
|Q1 Rk||43||1st Down Rk||47|
|Q2 Rk||62||2nd Down Rk||46|
|Q3 Rk||32||3rd Down Rk||11|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Rakeem Cato||6'0, 188||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||298||499||3916||39||9||59.7%||25||4.8%||7.1|
|Gunnar Holcombe||6'3, 192||So.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Kevin Anderson||6'2, 199||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Cole Garvin||6'1, 200||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
3. All hail Rakeem Cato
As a freshman, Rakeem Cato completed 60 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions for a 7-6 squad. As a sophomore, he was asked to throw nearly 50 passes per game and completed 70 percent of them with 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions; Marshall's defense fell apart, which cost the Herd a bowl, but Cato and the offense did their part. As a junior, Cato threw almost 200 fewer passes in a more balanced attack but still threw for almost 4,000 yards with 39 touchdowns and nine picks.
With each passing year, Cato has played the role he's been asked to play, and as a senior he'll have at his disposal a supporting cast as loaded with potential as any in the mid-major universe. He'll share the backfield with three three-star upperclassmen, two of whom showed major potential for explosiveness in 2013. He'll have to break in a couple of new pieces at receiver, but he gets slot receiver Tommy Shuler for another year, and those newcomers come highly touted. And his line features a mix of experienced, proven entities and three-star youngsters.
Marshall ranked 31st in Off. F/+ in 2012 and 30th in 2013; with Cato at the helm for one more year, a trip into the top 25 is conceivable.
|Kevin Grooms||RB||5'10, 168||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||91||503||6||5.5||6.8||36.3%|
|Steward Butler||RB||5'9, 178||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||87||765||8||8.8||10.6||47.1%|
|Rakeem Cato||QB||6'0, 188||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||74||475||6||6.4||4.4||54.1%|
|Remi Watson||RB||5'11, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||30||120||0||4.0||3.5||33.3%|
|Blake Frohnapfel||QB||6'6, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||10||98||1||9.8||12.2||50.0%|
|DeAndre Reaves||WR||5'10, 176||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||5||3||0||0.6||2.2||20.0%|
|Devon Johnson||TE||6'1, 240||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||5||13||3||2.6||2.0||20.0%|
|Kevin Rodriguez||RB||5'8, 195||Sr.||NR||5||11||0||2.2||0.5||20.0%|
4. If he keeps his nose clean ...
... Kevin Grooms could have a breakout season. The conference's freshman of the year in 2012 has shown rare explosiveness in his time in Huntington; he averaged 7.1 highlight yards per opportunity in 2012, and despite injuries, he averaged 6.8 in 2013. But injuries limited him to 91 carries for the season, and he had a pretty horrific year off the field. He was charged with underage consumption and obstruction in April, and in the hours after Marshall's big win over ECU, he was booked for misdemeanor domestic battery and obstruction. He was suspended indefinitely from team activities, but he's back with the team this spring, and if he improves as a person, he'll thrive as a player.
Even if Grooms is absent, Marshall could have a good enough duo of running backs in Steward Butler and Remi Watson. Buler was downright spectacular in six to seven carries per game; like Grooms, he is a smaller option, but his explosiveness is off the charts. If Watson -- by default the big back in the backfield at 5'11, 200 pounds -- can play a short-yardage role of sorts, this unit is loaded, with or without Grooms. With him, however, this is one of the best backfields in the country.
The running backs should have a pretty good line in front of them, too. Marshall's line was strong in most areas last year, and it's a glass-half-full situation this year -- three players who combined for 67 career starts (including all-conference tackle Garrett Scott) are gone, but four who have combined for 63 (including all-conference performers Chris Jasperse and Clint Van Horn) are back. A pair of three-star redshirt freshmen could join the fray this year as well. I figure the odds are good that this line's performance will resemble last year's, and that should be good enough.
|Tommy Shuler||SLOT||5'7, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||159||106||1165||66.7%||31.6%||60.1%||7.3||-96||7.1||138.4|
|Craig Wilkins||WR-Z||6'0, 175||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||57||32||408||56.1%||11.3%||45.7%||7.2||-8||7.0||48.5|
|Demetrius Evans||WR-Z||5'11, 197||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||30||19||134||63.3%||6.0%||74.1%||4.5||-98||3.8||15.9|
|Davonte Allen||WR-X||6'2, 203||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||27||9||163||33.3%||5.4%||59.1%||6.0||3||4.1||19.4|
|Devon Johnson||TE||6'1, 240||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||12||218||92.3%||2.6%||28.6%||16.8||95||13.1||25.9|
|Eric Frohnapfel||TE||6'6, 227||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||11||7||95||63.6%||2.2%||30.0%||8.6||10||8.3||11.3|
|Kevin Grooms||RB||5'10, 168||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||11||9||80||81.8%||2.2%||54.5%||7.3||-17||7.2||9.5|
|DeAndre Reaves||SLOT||5'10, 176||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||7||6||42||85.7%||1.4%||100.0%||6.0||-22||3.9||5.0|
|Justin Hunt||WR||6'2, 190||So.||2 stars (5.4)||4||2||48||50.0%||0.8%||N/A||12.0||20||0.0||5.7|
|Josh Knight||WR||6'0, 184||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Angelo Jean-Louis||WR||6'0, 175||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Deon-Tay McManus||TE||6'2, 227||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Hyleck Foster||WR||5'11, 186||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Emanuel Beal||WR||6'1, 200||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
5. Two openings and tons of candidates
Gator Hoskins was a red zone machine, and Devon Smith was the best big-play wideout in the group, and they're both gone. There are candidates galore, but there's nothing guaranteeing that the new contributors' production will match that of the old contributors.
Still, there is certainly room for optimism. Devon Johnson basically exceeded Hoskins' per-target production (with 65 fewer targets, yes), Craig Wilkins has shown potential for both efficiency (70 percent catch rate in 2012) and explosiveness (12.8 yards per catch in 2013), and two four-star redshirt freshmen enter the mix as well. Angelo Jean-Louis and Deon-Tay McManus were just about the most highly touted recruits any mid-major signed in the 2013 recruiting class, and after a redshirt year they get their chance this fall. Throw in experienced hands like Demetrius Evans (minimal explosiveness) and Davonte Allen (horrific catch rate), and you've got a potentially deep unit.
Hoskins and Smith will be missed, but there's a chance they won't be missed that much.
|Chris Jasperse||C||6'4, 289||Sr.||NR||39||1st All-CUSA|
|Garrett Scott||LT||35||2nd All-CUSA|
|Clint Van Horn||RT||6'4, 302||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||8||2nd All-CUSA|
|Sebastian Johansson||LG||6'4, 284||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||14|
|Cameron Dees||C||6'1, 285||So.||3 stars (5.5)||2|
|Michael Selby||RG||6'2, 275||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Blake Brooks||LG||6'1, 317||Sr.||NR||0|
|Trevor Mendelson||RG||6'7, 295||Sr.||NR||0|
|Tom Collins||LG||6'4, 272||Jr.||NR||0|
|Chris Huhn||LT||6'5, 284||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Sandley Jean-Felix||RT||6'5, 321||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Cody Collins||C||6'1, 281||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Nathaniel Devers||OL||6'3, 261||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|A.J. Addison||OL||6'6, 274||Fr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||38.7%||29||Succ. Rt. +||91.7||94|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||31.6||36||Off. FP+||99.5||68|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.0||45||Redzone S&P+||90.8||86|
|Q1 Rk||48||1st Down Rk||72|
|Q2 Rk||91||2nd Down Rk||105|
|Q3 Rk||105||3rd Down Rk||85|
6. An attacking bend-don't-break?
It's fun finding contradictions. This is my fourth year previewing every FBS team in big profiles, and after a while, it's easy to start profiling offenses or defenses based on specific characteristics.
For instance, when I see a team that ranked 94th in Success Rate+ and 44th in IsoPPP+, that tells me that they were willing to sacrifice some efficiency to prevent big plays. Bend-don't-break! However ... Marshall was also one of the most successfully aggressive defenses in the country, logging 102 tackles for loss (seventh in the country) and 32 sacks (31st) while intercepting 18 passes (13th) and breaking up another 58 (13th). Granted, those raw numbers are boosted by the fact that the Herd played 14 games, but even on a per-game basis, these totals are well above average.
In the end, the numbers are a little bit confused by Marshall's schedule. The Herd played a lot of big-play, low-efficiency teams (Maryland and Virginia Tech, to name two obvious ones), and while they didn't willfully sacrifice efficiency, the numbers suggest that they allowed a few seven-yard gains for every tackle for loss. And with a couple of key absences up front and almost complete continuity in the back, these strengths and weaknesses could both become more pronounced in 2014.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Ra'Shawde Myers||DE||6'4, 246||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||14||38.5||4.6%||5.5||4.5||1||0||0||0|
|James Rouse||DT||6'5, 270||Sr.||2 stars (4.9)||14||30.5||3.6%||14.0||6.0||0||3||0||0|
|Gary Thompson||DE||6'2, 241||So.||2 stars (5.2)||14||21.0||2.5%||5.0||3.0||2||4||1||0|
|Steve Dillon||DT||6'3, 280||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||14||16.5||2.0%||1.5||1.5||0||1||0||0|
|Jarquez Samuel||NT||6'4, 273||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||14||15.0||1.8%||3.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Arnold Blackmon||DE||6'1, 242||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||14.5||1.7%||6.0||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|Josh Brown||NT||6'7, 307||So.||3 stars (5.6)||8||10.5||1.3%||1.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Armonze Daniel||DE||6'4, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||5||3.5||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ricardo Williams (Miami)||DE||6'5, 251||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Marcus Gilchrist||DE||6'4, 249||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jason Smith||DE||6'3, 235||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Malik Thompson||DE||6'6, 275||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
7. Stiffen up that run D
Though he only had two sacks for a pass rush that wasn't very good outside of tackle James Rouse's contributions, Alex Bazzie was probably the best playmaker Marshall had against the run. He had 11 non-sack tackles for loss, one of the largest totals you'll see. He and nose Brandon Sparrow are both gone from a line that was particularly shaky in short-yardage situations, so we'll see how they cope.
Sophomore end Gary Thompson showed serious potential in an undersized frame and could team with Ra'Shawde Myers and Miami transfer Ricardo Williams to better harass opposing quarterbacks, but we'll see if this relatively undersized trio holds up to run blocking any better than last year's ends did. With Rouse's return, there is all sorts of potential at tackle, but this line might be treading water instead of improving.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Evan McKelvey||WILL||6'1, 211||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||14||76.0||9.1%||5.0||0.5||1||3||1||0|
|Jermaine Holmes||MIKE||5'11, 246||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||14||65.0||7.8%||8.5||2.0||1||1||0||0|
|Neville Hewitt||MIKE||6'2, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||14||57.5||6.9%||3.5||2.5||1||1||1||0|
|D.J. Hunter||SAM||6'0, 212||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||14||36.5||4.4%||1.5||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Stefan Houston||WILL||6'3, 209||So.||3 stars (5.6)||11||32.0||3.8%||5.5||0.5||0||1||0||0|
|Raheem Waiters||SAM||6'0, 220||Sr.||2 stars (5.1)||14||15.0||1.8%||1.0||1.0||1||2||0||0|
|Cortez Carter||MIKE||5'11, 240||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||8.5||1.0%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kent Turene||MIKE||6'3, 236||So.||3 stars (5.5)||3||3.5||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Maurice Hall||LB||6'3, 225||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Frankie Henrndez||LB||6'2, 203||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Kaleb Harris||LB||6'3, 207||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Corey Tindal||CB||5'9, 179||So.||2 stars (5.4)||14||50.5||6.0%||5||1.5||0||6||0||1|
|Darryl Roberts||CB||5'11, 177||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||13||49.5||5.9%||5||0||2||7||0||0|
|A.J. Leggett||FS||5'11, 190||So.||4 stars (5.9)||11||38.5||4.6%||0.5||0||4||3||0||0|
|Taj Letman||S||6'2, 192||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||14||37.0||4.4%||0.5||0||1||4||1||0|
|Tiquan Lang||SS||5'9, 178||So.||2 stars (5.2)||13||34.0||4.1%||0.5||0||1||2||1||0|
|Keith Baxter (2012)||CB||5'11, 196||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||11||25.0||3.2%||1||0||1||6||0||0|
|Michael Johnson||CB||5'10, 163||So.||3 stars (5.7)||11||3.5||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Corie Wilson||FS||5'9, 168||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||7||2.0||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Andre Scott||FS||6'0, 182||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Quintavious Knight||DB||6'0, 175||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|CB||5'10, 181||So.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Demetrius Johnson||S||6'2, 205||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Kendall Gant||S||6'3, 184||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
8. Loaded in the back
Opponents ran on Marshall far more frequently than the national average in 2013, in part because Marshall's run defense was shaky and in part because the pass defense was pretty exciting. There were some big-play glitches here and there, but last year's top six defensive backs combined for 14 tackles for loss, 10 interceptions, and 33 break-ups.
Five of the six return, and the one departure, Monterius Lovett, might be replaced with either junior Keith Baxter (who missed 2013) or four-star sophomore Donaldven Manning (a Virginia Tech transfer) without much of a dropoff. This secondary is going to be dynamite -- maybe not as good as FAU's within the conference, but as good as anybody else's.
And if the pass rush improves, Marshall's overall pass defense ratings could soar. There is certainly a lot more potential in pass defense than run defense this year.
|Tyler Williams||6'0, 195||Jr.||56||42.3||5||13||13||46.4%|
|Amoreto Curraj||6'2, 202||So.||97||63.5||52||3||53.6%|
|Justin Haig||5'8, 174||Sr.||4||44.3||0||0||0.0%|
|Justin Haig||5'8, 174||Sr.||77-80||9-13||69.2%||2-3||66.7%|
|DeAndre Reaves||KR||5'10, 176||Jr.||37||25.0||0|
|Steward Butler||KR||5'9, 178||Jr.||6||22.0||0|
|DeAndre Reaves||PR||5'10, 176||Jr.||6||8.5||0|
|Special Teams F/+||89|
|Field Goal Efficiency||100|
|Punt Return Efficiency||24|
|Kick Return Efficiency||65|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||45|
9. Replacing Devon Smith
MU returns almost everybody from its special teams unit, from a kicker who boomed touchbacks more than half the time as a freshman, to a solid kick returner in DeAndre Reaves. Punter Tyler Williams returns as well, though he outkicked his coverage a few too many times for comfort. But the loss of Devon Smith at punt returner could be costly. Smith was one of the best in the country.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|30-Aug||at Miami (Ohio)||121|
|4-Oct||at Old Dominion||NR|
|18-Oct||at Florida International||119|
|8-Nov||at Southern Miss||110|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-7.3% (81)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||63|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||3 / 1.1|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (6, 9)|
10. This team will almost certainly be favored in all 12 games
This schedule! Wow, this schedule. According to preseason projections, Marshall's toughest home game is against a Rice squad that is rebuilding at least a bit. The Herd's toughest home game is either against Southern Miss or ODU.
Marshall does a nice job of not only scheduling local major-conference foes like WVU, Virginia Tech, and Louisville, but also scheduling interesting mid-major matchups against teams like Ohio, Bowling Green, and other former MAC mates. This year, however, year there are no major-conference foes and three of those former MAC mates, all of which are projected 108th or worse (though I expect Akron and maybe Ohio to be better than that). Combined with the fact that the Herd reside in what is by far the weaker C-USA division this year -- FAU is going to be strong, but UTSA, Rice, and North Texas are on the other side -- and there really are no excuses for Marshall to miss the C-USA title game.
Actually, let's raise the stakes. If Marshall improves to a nearly top-40 level as I anticipate, the Herd could not only go 12-0 but go 12-0 while winning every game by double digits. That's probably unfair to FAU and Rice, but if this team improves upon last year's performance, there will be only minor speed bumps standing in the way. If the Herd bring something resembling an A-game every week, this could be an incredibly memorable season. Granted, injuries and other issues could derail the train, but as currently constituted, this roster should just be too much for pretty much every opponent on the schedule.
No pressure, guys.