Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

An absurdly premature assessment of the 2011 Thundering Herd.

Previously On… It had more to do with the front-loaded schedule than any midseason revelation, frankly, but a turnaround is a turnaround, and as far as the standings are concerned, Marshall's turn over the second half of 2010 was as sharp as any in the country. The Herd barreled into the offseason on the strength of four wins in their last five, rebounding from an ugly 1-6 start in which the lone win came by lone point when Ohio U's two-point conversion attempt to win came up empty with no time on the clock.

Obviously, it was a season that cried out of a spoonful of sugar. Marshall fired head coach Mark Snyder for going 6-6 in 2009 — his first non-losing season in five years and good enough to end a four-year bowl drought — and if successor Doc Holliday's first season represented a small step backward overall, at least the late surge salvaged some pretense of progress moving into year two.

The Big Change. No one ever really looks forward to the transition from a two-year mainstay with 26 consecutive starts to an untested sophomore with exactly zero starts, but it's not like there are going to be any glowing halftime retrospectives of the Brian Anderson era anytime soon, either. Anderson was competent enough under center to hold on to his job for two years, but he finished both as one of the least efficient passers in Conference USA, and went out last year ranked last or next-to-last among regular league starters in efficiency, yards per attempt, completion percentage, total interceptions and touchdown:interception ratio. He had better numbers down the stretch against the likes of UAB, Memphis and Tulane, and got no help whatsoever from the running game (see below), but I still imagine Herd fans muttering to themselves throughout the season, "We crushed Willy Korn's dreams for this?"

The Least You Should Know About...

In 2010
5-7 (4-4 Conference USA); Won four of last five after 1-6 start.
Past Five Years
2006-10: 24-37 (18-22 Conference USA); 5-15 in C-USA road games.
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2007-11: N/A (No classes ranked in top 50 nationally).
Best Player
If he was really determined to, defensive end Vinny Curry could have used his breakout junior season in 2010 as a springboard to the NFL — his official evaluation from the league "came back draftable" in January — and taken his chances as an undersized (officially: 6-4, 252 pounds) speed rusher somewhere in the middle rounds. Instead, he's back for one more run at "unfinished business," specifically a) A degree and b) The continued maiming of C-USA quarterbacks: Curry led the league last year in sacks (12) and tackles for loss (18), was credited with 16 quarterback hurries and got in on at least one QB takedown in nine different games.
Best Year Ever

Say what you will about the quality of Marshall's domain, but the Thundering Herd were its undisputed master on multiple levels throughout the 90s, beginning with a decade-long run that included seven top-10 finishes, six appearances in the I-AA championship game and two national titles from 1987-96. (The '96 team, featuring one Randy Moss, left an unprecedented trail of devastation en route to a 15-0 finish, still the last I-AA outfit to run the table through the regular season and playoffs 15 years later.) The step up to the I-A level in 1997 didn't diminish the dominance: The Herd took four straight MAC championships in their first four seasons in the conference, culminating in 1999 with a 13-0 record, another Heisman finalist (quarterback Chad Pennington) and a spot in the top 10 of the final polls.

Best Case
One of the new quarterbacks clicks and gets better run support to the tune of 26-28 points per game, Curry remains the most disruptive pass rusher in C-USA. 7-5, New Orleans Bowl, buzz reaffirms Doc Holliday as an up-and-comer in the profession.
Worst Case
Revolving door at quarterback, continued void in the running game; lack of second pass rusher allows opposing offenses to focus on and somewhat neutralize Curry. 3-9, no established quarterback coming out of the season, hot seat buzz begins in earnest for Holliday.
* Based on Rivals' national rankings (top 50 only)

The good news: There are enough candidates vying to replace Anderson that at least one of them will probably prove to be not a complete disaster. The bad: It may take weeks of actual game time to figure out who that is, because relevant data points are few and far between. Eddie Sullivan completed 6 of 24 passes last year as a true freshman (yes: 6 of 24) and provided the unfortunate "mah babeh!" moment at the top of the post; fellow sophomore A.J. Graham is a former "Mr. Football" in Florida who was arrested for robbery the night before his high school graduation. (The charges were later dropped.) With Graham, incoming freshman Rakeem Cato and former Michigan signee Conelius Jones in the mix, though, it's a good bet the offense will feature significantly more opportunities for the quarterback to run than it did for the stone-footed Anderson — all the better to keep them from putting it in the air.

Big Men On Campus. The defensive backs took their lumps in September — Ohio State, West Virginia and Bowling Green combined to pass for 857 yards with six touchdowns and only one interception in Marshall's 0-3 start — but wound up as the best secondary in the conference by a mile: In C-USA play, the Herd easily led the league in pass defense by almost every conceivable measure except yards per game, and that was only because they faced more passes than any other team. (They came in third in that category, anyway.) By conference-wide standards, Marshall was well above average against the pass in every single C-USA game — and yet somehow failed to place a single member of the secondary on the all-conference team, first or second team.

That should change this year with the entire cast returning intact, namely seniors Omar Brown and Rashad Jackson, junior Donald Brown and sophomore Monterius Lovett. An encore will go a long way to giving the makeshift offense a chance without forcing a very green quarterback to revert to permanent shootout mode.

Open Casting. Shootout will remain the primary mode, however, without a complete transformation of the running game, which existed last year only in concept. Three different backs earned carries on a semi-regular basis, none of whom topped 350 yards for the season, scored more than one touchdown or managed to average above four yards per carry. Fifty-one individual players nationally ran for more yards than Marshall's top four rushers combined.

And Juniors Martin Ward and Andre Booker and scintillating-named sophomores Tron Martinez and Essray Taliaferro, who didn't touch the ball until well into November but fared slightly better (very slightly) in his few carries than the competition. Barring a surprise from one of a pair of true freshmen — both from Lakeland, Fla., though not from the same high school — it will be a committee approach again, and barring the sudden transfer of five 340-pound Polynesians to play offensive line, it will be another nightmare scenario for trying to break in a new, young quarterback.

Overly optimistic spring narrative. The defense gets back nine starters, can get to the quarterback thanks to Vinny Curry and doesn't give up a lot of big plays (relatively speaking) in the secondary. If the D can keep scores within reach, the sheer number of options at quarterback should yield someone who's good enough at something for the offense to keep pace. Raw and green as they are, Graham and Jones both have a relatively high ceiling as dual-threat types.

The Big Question. Can the new quarterback carry the offense? The ground game can improve by a full 50 percent and still fell below the Mendoza line to qualify as "average." In the absence of ground support, the quarterback has to make plays; Anderson didn't, and the offense foundered, barely finishing above the truly desperate "attack" from Memphis as the worst in C-USA. It doesn't help that his first six games include dates with West Virginia, Southern Miss, Virginia Tech, Louisville and Central Florida, which looks like a recipe for another 1-5 (or even 0-6) start while the offense tries to figure something out, and another quasi-respectable finish against weaker competition. Graham and Jones also have relatively low floors. There's no indication on paper that this outfit can or will top last year's lame 20.8-points-per-game average, and if it somehow does, it won't be by much.

- - -
Other premature assessments (in alphabetical order): Iowa State. … Nebraska. … Nevada. … South Florida.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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