By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
If any school has benefited the most from realignment in Conference USA, it is the Marshall Thundering Herd.
Four school have left for the American Athletic Conference effective this season, Central Florida, Memphis, Southern Methodist and Houston, and East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa will follow in 2014.
Replacing those schools in ‘13 are Sun Belt imports Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Middle Tennessee and Texas-San Antonio, while Western Kentucky, Old Dominion and Charlotte will arrive in the near future.
See what I mean.
Let’s just say Marshall should challenge for championships — as Doc Holliday likes to say — every season, although it will be limited to Conference USA, which will likely never have a team qualify for the four-team playoff that begins in 2014.
Marshall was fun to watch last season, averaging 40.9 points a game, but the Herd couldn’t stop anyone, allowing more than 43 points a contest.
Rakeem Cato and the Marshall offense returns nearly all its weapons other than receivers Aaron Dobson and Antavious Wilson, and should be able to roll up the points in the watered-down C-USA.
The question? Will the defense be as bad as last season when the Herd scored 59 points against East Carolina with bowl eligibility on the line ... and lost the game to finish 5-7. Marshall also surrendered 69, 54. 51 (twice), 45 and 41 points, and actually won two of those.
Much of that defense is back, but the Holliday did shake up the defensive staff, and the heat will be on coordinator Chuck Heater. Both specialists also return for the Herd.
Richlands product Devon Johnson and Bluefield’s Joe Woodrum are both vying for playing time for Marshall.
What does the 2013 season hold?
Outside of a visit to Virginia Tech, the Herd will be competitive in the other 11 games. Look for Marshall’s season-ending contest with East Carolina in Huntington to determine the C-USA East Division championship.
Here’s a look at each game, with an early win/loss pick on each game.
Aug. 31. Miami-Ohio (Win): These clubs last met in 2004 when the Herd was still in the Mid-American Conference. Marshall has won six of its last eight season openers, with both defeats coming to West Virginia. Marshall probably wishes the Mountaineers were on the schedule this season.
Sept. 7. Gardner-Webb (Win): Blowout. Since losing to FCS member New Hampshire in 2007, the Herd has won the last three against those clubs by average of 18 points a game. Gardner-Webb was 3-8 last season. This is the first of what will be three games against first time opponents.
Sept. 14. at Ohio (Win): The Bobcats have won the last two, by three points in Huntington last year, and a 44-7 rout at home in 2011. These clubs have split four meetings over the last four seasons, with the Herd beating Frank Solich-coached Ohio to win the Little Caesar’s Bowl in 2009.
Sept. 21. at Virginia Tech (Loss): Marshall’s high-powered offense will be challenged by what should be a much-improved Virginia Tech defense. These clubs have met four times since 2002 with the Hokies winning all four by an average of 29 points a game. Johnson and Woodrum return close to home.
Oct. 5. Texas-San Antonio (Win): At least UTSA — one of several abbreviations that C-USA fans must learn — has a catchy nickname. Former Miami coach Larry Coker led the Roadrunners to an 8-4 record against lower-level competition last season. UTSA was 4-6 in its first season with a program in 2011. First meeting will be homecoming foe for Herd.
Oct. 12. at Florida Atlantic (Win): Another first time opponent. FAU was 3-9 last season, including a pair of defeats to Alabama (by 37) and Georgia (by 36). Head coach Carl Pelini is the brother of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. Will be first home game for Owls after playing five of first six on the road.
Oct. 24. at Middle Tennessee (Loss): A Thursday night and a national television audience on FOX. These clubs have met twice, with Marshall winning twice in the Division 1-AA playoffs in 192 and ‘94. MTSU is always competitive under Rick Stockstill. Upset alert in this one.
Nov. 2. Southern Mississippi (Win): Few programs have collapsed like this one, going from 11 wins in 2011 to an 0-12 mark in ‘12. Former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken takes over a team that could be Marshall’s main competition for C-USA dominance in the near future.
Nov. 9. Alabama-Birmingham (Win): The underdog has won five of the last eight in this series, with the home taking five of the last six. Marshall has struggled at historic Legion Field, but rarely have issues with the Blazers at home, and that trend will continue in this one. UAB won three games last year, and one was against the Herd.
Nov. 14. at Tulsa (Loss): Another Thursday night telecast on FOX. Tulsa is the prohibitive favorite to win the West, and could face Marshall again in the C-USA championship game. Marshall is 0-4 against the Golden Hurricane as C-USA opponents. Tulsa was 11-3 last season, beating Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl.
Nov. 23. at Florida International (Win): Another trip to sunny Florida, which isn’t a bad thing. These clubs met in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in 2011, with the Herd winning 20-10. FIU firing Mario Cristobal after last year’s 3-9 mark with those victories coming over three teams with a combined six wins.
Nov. 29. East Carolina (Loss): The Pirates are leaving for the AAC, but this should be a fun finale between the schools. The clubs scored 124 points last year, with East Carolina winning in overtime. The winner of this one should meet Tulsa for the C-USA championship. Go with the Pirates.
An 8-4 record would be Marshall’s best record since 2003, and will send Marshall to a postseason bowl game for the three time in the last five years.
The Liberty Bowl is reserved for the C-USA champion, which will be East Carolina or Tulsa — go with the Pirates — but the Herd could be in line for the Beef O’Brady’s, Heart of Dallas or Military bowls, but should be able to avoid the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
What will hold Marshall back from playing for the C-USA title? East Carolina and Tulsa are simply better football teams, especially on defense, which will be the undoing of the Herd. Marshall also tends to lose games they shouldn’t, and that is where Middle Tennessee State comes in.
Still, 8-4 would be a success in Huntington, with even better marks on tap as C-USA continues to weaken in the future.
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at email@example.com