The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 67: Marshall
Coach: Doc Holliday (12-13, entering third season)
2011 record: 7-6 (5-3 in Conference USA, second place in Eastern Division)
Look back: Marshall freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato, who graduated from talent-rich Miami central High School, took over the Thundering Herd offense. His strong play inspired Herd fans, who have been through a bit of drought after the program produced a string of elite offensive playmakers.
Marshall opened Doc Holliday’s second season on the sidelines by dropping three out of its first four games. The Herd lost 34-13 at rival West Virginia, a dose of payback from the Mountaineers for the near upset Marshall almost pulled off the previous year. Marshall picked up a big 26-20 win over Southern Miss, the eventual Conference USA champion. The Herd then suffered a surprising 44-7 loss at Ohio, betraying the youth and inexperience of the lineup. The following week, the team fell 30-10 against Virginia Tech.
The Herd found its footing and Cato had a break out game during a 17-13 win at Louisville. Marshall then ran into its nemesis, UCF. The Knights held on for a 16-6 home win over Marshall during a game played in heavy rain, extending a seven-game winning streak against the Herd.
Marshall bounced back with a 24-20 win against Rice, then struggled against a Case Keenum-led Houston team and lost 63-28 on the road. Marshall recorded a blowout of its own, claiming a 59-14 win over UAB.
Marshall was 4-5 and had to win two of its final three games of the regular season to become bowl eligible. The Herd started the stretch with a 59-17 loss at Tulsa, but it bounced back for a critical 23-22 win at Memphis and a 35-27 overtime victory against East Carolina in the regular season finale to claim a bowl bid.
The Herd faced FIU in the Beef `O’ Brady’s Bowl played in St. Petersburg. While FIU was coming off a strong season and had a strong contingent of fans who made the trip from Miami, the Herd claimed a 20-10 win.
While Cato was a key ingredient in Marshall’s success, the Herd’s strong defense eased his transition to playing at the FBS level as a freshman. Defensive end Vinny Curry, who faced double teams all season, ranked fourth in nation in tackles for a loss (1.69 per game) and tied for seventh in sacks (0.85 sacks per game). Curry earned a variety of national awards, including first team FWAA All America honors.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 4/7
Defensive starters lost/returning: 6/5
Key losses: DE Vinny Curry, LB Tyson Gale, DB Omar Brown, DT Ryan Tillman, DB Rashad Jackson.
Top returnees: QB Rakeem Cato, TE Gator Hoskins, RB Tron Martinez, WR Aaron Dobson, LB Devin Arrington, OL Chris Jasperse, OL Garrett Scott, DL Marques Aiken, DL Jeremiah Taylor, DB Monterius Lovett.
Strengths: Cato, who earned valuable experience last season, returns to lead the Marshall offense. He is one of seven returning starters. He will get help from veteran receiver Aaron Dobson, running back Tron Martinez and offensive linemen Chris Jasperse and Garrett Scott.
Marshall lost both starting safeties, but it’s getting an immediate infusion of experienced help at the position. Boston College starting defensive backs Dom LeGrande and Orlando Okoraho transferred to Marshall. Both players earned bachelor’s degrees at Boston College and are pursuing master’s degrees at Marshall not offered at their previous school, making them immediately eligible to play for the 2012 season.
Weaknesses: Marshall lost its top four tacklers from last season, including an elite leader in Curry. He wasn’t surrounded by superior defensive talent and took on a lot of pressure from opposing teams. Despite a big effort from Curry and a handful of other defensive leaders, Marshall didn’t exactly post strong defensive numbers. The team ranked No. 96 in passing defense (255.15 yards allowed per game), No. 58 in rushing defense (149.85 yards allowed per game) and No. 74 in scoring defense (28.62 points allowed per game).
One of the Marshall defense’s biggest challenges was inconsistent production by the offense. The Herd ranked No. 102 in total offense (333.38 yards per game) and No. 99 in scoring offense (21.85 points per game). Cato’s ability to scramble under pressure and make game-winning plays helped offset the relatively weak offensive numbers.
Outlook: Marshall is one of the few Conference USA teams to returning its starting quarterback and head coach. Holliday is a strong recruiter who keeps loading up on talent to run his system. The combination returning talent and newcomers should help Marshall compete for another bowl bid and the Conference USA Eastern Division title.