clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

College football’s better when Marshall’s winning with swagger, and that might be back on track

Doc Holliday engineered a five-win turnaround in 2017 and should return the pieces to make a run at 10 wins in 2018.

NCAA Football:  New Mexico Bowl-Marshall vs Colorado State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Sports writers have the tendency to long for a younger time. We all have a “College football is better when [Team A] is good” list, and for the most part, it’s the teams that were good either when we were children or in college or first beginning our careers.

Considering the age range of many writers, that means a lot of “College football is better when Nebraska/Michigan/USC is good” and longing for 1980s rivalries like Nebraska-Oklahoma.

Consider it anti-social tendencies, but I always have to be different. The Missouri fan in me doesn’t long for a return of Nebraska dominance, and the underdog fan in me tends to come up with a different list.

I tend to enjoy college football a lot more when Marshall’s good and Marshall fans are particularly chesty.

Marshall is the ultimate chip-on-shoulder program. The Thundering Herd don’t occupy a natural recruiting hotbed, and their revenue suggests an Eastern Michigan- or New Hampshire-level program, but over the last 30 years, they have won.

They made six FCS title game appearances between 1987 and 1996, winning two, and they made the greatest jump to FBS on record, winning 10-plus games in five of their first six seasons. And after a rough patch in the mid-2000s, they erupted for 33 wins in three seasons from 2013-15.

Holliday is in many ways the perfect Marshall coach. He attracts talent by any means necessary — local recruiting, transfers, qualification risks, whatever — and figures out what to do with it from there. We saw the payoff during the Herd’s 13-1 run of 2014, a season that saw them win the Conference USA title and finish ranked for the first time in 12 years.

In the years that followed, though, we saw the downside. Holliday dealt with some non-qualifiers, some transfers who weren’t as good as the ones who preceded them, and enough injuries to create depth issues and talent gaps.

The Herd fell from 22nd to 72nd in S&P+ in 2015, albeit with a schedule that still allowed for 10 wins, then plummeted again, to 118th, in 2016. The defense fell apart at the beginning of the year, and while it rebounded, the offense had little to offer. The schedule couldn’t save the Herd either — they plummeted to 3-9.

Holliday entered 2017 needing a somewhat unlikely rebound. He got it. The offense wasn’t good, but it wasn’t as bad either, and the defense reached new levels. Marshall ranked 25th in Def. S&P+, 52nd overall, and surged to a 6-1 start.

Poor fortune eventually took Marshall down. In losses by a combined eight points to FAU, UTSA, and Southern Miss, the Herd suffered 28.9 points’ worth of bad turnovers luck. Despite a nice bowl win over Colorado State, the misfortune led to a mere 8-5 instead of something more profound.

Still, that’s how you pull off a rebound. Holliday was a couple of breaks from another 10-win season, and he signed what was, per the 247Sports Composite, the second-best recruiting class in the conference. And Marshall fans are a bit on the chesty side again, too — when I called FIU’s class the best in C-USA, I was quickly reprimanded.

So Marshall’s back then? All’s right in my strange little world? We’ll see. Holliday faces some new challenges. Quarterback Chase Litton declared for the NFL draft despite merely decent passing numbers, leaving Holliday to find a replacement a year early. Plus, offensive coordinator Bill Legg resigned, replaced by former Nevada and Sam Houston OC Tim Cramsey.

Perhaps more importantly, stalwart defensive coordinator Chuck Heater left for Maryland. Holliday promoted linebackers coach and former Chattanooga DC Adam Fuller.

Marshall enters with most of its top skill guys, most of its offensive line, and about nine defensive starters. The talent level is where it needs to be, but three of the most important figures have to be replaced. That puts a lot of outcomes on the table for this wonderfully volatile program.

Offense

2017 Marshall offensive radar

Legg pulled the strings beautifully for Rakeem Cato and the 2012-14 Marshall offenses that peaked at 12th in Off. S&P+, and he did engineer a bit of a rebound in 2017, but he didn’t have nearly enough answers.

Litton was good at getting the ball out of his hands, taking sacks just 2.4 percent of the time and completing 60 percent of his passes. And in Tyre Brady, he occasionally had a big-play partner. But Legg couldn’t save a diminished ground game — Marshall ranked an abysmal 128th in Rushing S&P+ and was rendered mostly one-dimensional in losses. Herd backs averaged just 4.1 yards per carry in five defeats, and Litton was asked to throw at least 39 passes in four of five.

That’s okay — Cramsey wasn’t big on running the ball at Sam Houston. Bearkats quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe threw 579 times for 5003 yards in 2017, winning his second Walter Payton Award (for the nation’s top FCS player). Granted, SHSU also ran 34 times per game; Cramsey’s up-tempo style (77.1 plays per game) left time for both. But if he’s got a passer, Cramsey will use him. A lot.

He’ll go downfield, too. Briscoe completed only 58 percent of his passes but averaged nearly 15 yards per completion. His is an aggressive offense.

Cramsey will have someone making the FCS-to-FBS transition with him. Former Wagner quarterback Alex Thomson, a 6’5, 225-pound specimen with 3,826 career passing yards and 25 career touchdowns to his name, will join the Herd this fall as a graduate transfer. He’ll have to years of eligibility remaining after missing most of 2017 with injury.

NCAA Football: Wagner at Boston College
Alex Thomson
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Thomson did a heck of a Briscoe impersonation in 2016, completing 57 percent of his passes at nearly 14 yards per completion. He has pro potential (per the often-wrong Phil Simms, at least), and he’ll spend time in a passer-friendly system in Huntington. And if he doesn’t fit the bill, there are three former three-star recruits to choose from: junior Garet Morrell or one of sophomores Isaiah Green and Jackson White.

Thomson (or whoever) will also have some deep threats at his disposal. Brady, a former Miami receiver, was one of only 12 FBS receivers to combine 100 targets, a marginal efficiency of at least plus-10 percent, and a marginal explosiveness of at least plus-0.25 points per play. He missed most of three games with injury but came up big in some of Marshall’s biggest games, catching 11 balls for 248 yards against NC State, a combined 17 for 183 against FIU and FAU, and six for 165 against Colorado State.

NCAA Football:  New Mexico Bowl-Marshall vs Colorado State
Tyre Brady
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Brady’s got some threats lined up opposite him, too. Senior slot man Marcel Williams and sophomore Z-receiver Willie Johnson combined for 77 catches and 962 yards — Williams had four for 122 against FAU, and Johnson had six for 86 against Southern Miss.

Toss in junior possession man Obi Obialo and youngsters like three-star sophomore Monterio Hunt, three-star redshirt freshman Devin Miller, and any of a few three-star 2018 signees, and you’ve got yourself one of the top receiving corps in the conference.

This will mean a lot more if Marshall can run the ball, of course, but at least experience will be on the Herd’s side. Senior Keion Davis and sophomore Tyler King both showed occasional sparks in the backfield, and the Herd return seven linemen who combined for 61 of Marshall’s 65 combined starts last year. And sophomore tackles Tarik Adams and Will Ulmer are no longer freshmen. That can’t hurt.

Thomson could make a huge difference, obviously, but the sophomore class really could be the key. Johnson, King, Adams, and Ulmer all played big roles in some big games, and former star recruits like Hunt and tight end Xavier Gaines still have time to grow into their potential as well. If they take solid first-to-second-year leaps, Cramsey will have more than enough tools.

Defense

2017 Marshall defensive radar

Heater’s last Marshall defense might have been the program’s best. The Herd were good against the pass (39th in Passing S&P+) and outstanding against the run (19th in Rushing S&P+), holding nearly every back not named Devin Singletary (FAU’s star carried 28 times for 203 yards) below their season-long per-carry averages.

Heater’s gone, but most of the players return. In fact, it’s far more succinct to start with who doesn’t:

  • Ends Blake Keller and Davon Durant are gone after combining for 40.5 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. That loss will be offset by the return of junior ends Marquis Couch and Ty Tyler, who combined for 41, 12, and five, respectively.
  • Safety C.J. Reavis is gone after producing 47.5 tackles, three TFLs, and three passes defensed. That will mean a larger role for sophomore Brandon Drayton (44, three, and five).
  • Corner Rodney Allen departs after recording 36.5 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, and seven PDs. That will probably mean more playing time for junior Jaylon McClain-Sapp, who battled injuries for half of 2017 but did manage 0.5 TFLs and three PDs.
NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Marshall
Chase Hancock (37)
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody else is scheduled to return.

  • Defensive tackles Ryan Bee and Channing Hames (combined: 50.5 tackles, 15 TFLs, 10 sacks)? They’re back.
  • The linebacker quintet of seniors Chase Hancock, Frankie Hernandez, Artis Johnson, and Juwon Young and junior Omari Cobb (combined: 32.5 TFLs, 8.5 sacks, and 13 PDs)? Yep.
  • Star cornerback Chris Jackson (13 PDs) and safety Malik Gant (6.5 TFLs, five PDs)? Indeed.

Marshall will have spectacular depth, and, as with the offense, I haven’t really talked about the crop of rising sophomores — Drayton, linebacker Jaquan Yulee, nickel backs Nazeeh Johnson and Jestin Morrow — or redshirts who might be ready for larger roles.

Fuller’s first year as DC will have astronomical expectations.

NCAA Football: Marshall at Texas-San Antonio
Chris Jackson
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

In Kaare Vedvik, Marshall must replace the most and least effective pieces of its special teams unit. Vedvik was a fantastic punter, averaging 44 yards with a return average of only 3.9 yards, and more than half of his kickoffs went for touchbacks. But he was a bit scattershot in the place-kicking department, producing a FG efficiency ranking of just 104th. Still, that’s a net loss.

The Herd still have Keion Davis, though. The senior wasn’t very successful as a running back, but he scored twice on kick returns and averaged 30.4 yards per attempt.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Miami (Ohio) 82 1.4 53%
8-Sep Eastern Kentucky NR 34.2 98%
15-Sep at South Carolina 35 -7.8 33%
22-Sep N.C. State 37 -2.8 44%
29-Sep at Western Kentucky 90 4.0 59%
6-Oct Middle Tennessee 83 7.3 66%
13-Oct at Old Dominion 114 10.9 74%
20-Oct Florida Atlantic 31 -4.3 40%
3-Nov at Southern Miss 94 5.4 62%
10-Nov Charlotte 126 19.6 87%
17-Nov UTSA 104 12.8 77%
24-Nov at Florida International 120 12.2 76%
Projected S&P+ Rk 62
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 101 / 24
Projected wins 7.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 1.1 (63)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 80 / 73
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -8 / 1.9
2017 TO Luck/Game -3.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 76% (72%, 80%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.4 (0.6)

Marshall has a strangely stratified schedule. The Herd are projected 62nd in S&P+, which feels about right to me considering the returning personnel, but they don’t play anyone projected between 38th and 81st. They have three games against teams in the No. 31-37 range (two at home), and everyone else is projected 84th or lower.

That quite obviously presents an opportunity. S&P+ says there’s about a 78 percent chance that they pull at least one upset against South Carolina, FAU, and NC State and gives them at least a 62 percent chance of winning in seven of the other nine games. An 8-4 record seems like a safe landing spot, but something greater is on the table.

The turnover gives one pause. It’s a tall ask, but the talent on defense and at receiver are undeniable. If Fuller proves worthy, this team is a home upset of FAU away from contending for the C-USA East.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.