Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato returns to lead the Thundering Herd offense. (Peter Casey / USA Today Sports / September 21, 2013)
The Orlando Sentinel's college insider Matt Murschel has ranked all 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country entering the 2014 season. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 128 to our projected No. 1 team.
Today at No. 35: Marshall
Coach: Doc Holliday (27-24, 5th season; 27-24 overall)
2013 record: 10-4 (7-1 in C-USA, tied for first in C-USA East)
Look back: In 2013, Marshall finally began to get the production it has expected from the talent it has put together in the past few seasons under Holliday. There were disappointments — losses to Ohio, Virginia Tech and Middle Tennessee came by a combined 13 points — but the team's improvement during the season was evident. Rakeem Cato grew into one of the top quarterbacks in the non-Power 5 conferences, and the Marshall offense averaged 42.1 points per game, seventh-best in the country. A 17-point loss to Rice in the Conference USA championship was a major letdown, but the Herd responded with a win over Maryland in the Military Bowl to set up a big opportunity in 2014.
Offensive starters returning: 6
Offensive starters lost: 5
Defensive starters returning: 8
Defensive starters lost: 3
Key losses: RB Essray Taliaferro, TE Gator Hoskins, WR Devon Smith, OL Garrett Scott, OL Alex Schooler, OL Gage Niemeyer, DE Alex Bazzie, DT Brandon Sparrow
Top returnees: QB Rakeem Cato, WR Tommy Shuler, OL Chris Jasperse, OL Sebastian Johansson, DL James Rouse, LB Evan McKelvey, DB Corey Tindal, DB Darryl Roberts, DB A.J. Leggett
Strengths: The strength of the team is the offense, which averaged more than 200 yards rushing and nearly 300 yards passing last season and brings back some major threats. That list is led by Cato, who could surpass Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich as the top passer in program history. Cato has thrown a touchdown in 32 consecutive games, six shy of the FBS record. WR Tommy Shuler returns after two straight seasons with 100-plus receptions and 1,110-plus yards. The Herd also bring back five of their top defensive backs from last season and should be very good in the secondary.
Weaknesses: The defense was markedly improved from 2012 to 2013, allowing 21 fewer points per game, but will need to find some more talent up front on the line after losing two of its best run stoppers in Alex Bazzie and Brandon Sparrow. Sophomore Gary Thompson should contribute at end while sixth-year tackle James Rouse adds experience. The offensive line must replace three starters.
Outlook: Marshall has a legitimate chance to cruise through the season a perfect 12-0 and perhaps earn a spot in one of the top six bowls. There are few challenges on the schedule — Rice is the only opponent ranked in the Sentinel's Top 50, with four teams ranked 112th or worse — and the Herd might need to put up some style points to earn respect of the voters. Cato is capable of putting up big numbers, though, and Marshall should win its first C-USA title.
Aug. 30 at Miami (OH)
Sept. 6 Rhode Island
Sept. 13 Ohio
Sept. 20 at Akron
Oct. 4 at Old Dominion