Fourteen weeks into the 2014 season, Marshall and Florida State were the only unbeaten teams remaining in the FBS. Yet the Thundering Herd were barely clinging to their spot in the College Football Playoff’s top 25, trailing fellow Group of Five team Boise State even though the Broncos had lost twice.
As the college football world adapted to the playoff era, Marshall served as a harsh lesson of the increased weight strength of schedule now plays. The Herd’s loss to Western Kentucky knocked them out of the rankings entirely, but even if they had gone undefeated, they may have been unable to earn the New York’s Six bowl bid guaranteed to the highest-ranked conference champion from the Group of Five.
As Marshall prepares for 2015 seeking to defend its first Conference USA title, the Herd are adapting to their own new era: the post-Rakeem Cato era. Marshall’s star quarterback is gone, but its offense is still filled with explosive weapons. How its defense copes with the loss of six starters could determine whether the Herd will be back in the conversation for a New York’s Six bowl—if strength of schedule issues don’t weigh them down once again.
SI.com caught up with Marshall coach Doc Holliday to discuss who will step into bigger roles for the Herd this season, how Holliday feels strength of schedule should be used and his thoughts after year one of the College Football Playoff.
SI: Any discussion of Marshall this season has to start with filling Rakeem Cato’s shoes. What’s the most difficult aspect of his game to replace?
Doc Holliday: Anywhere I’ve ever been where you have the opportunity to win championships starts at the quarterback position. When you’ve got that guy, you’ve got a chance to be great. We had him a year ago. He just had the “it factor.” He found a way to win games. He provided great leadership. As you know, the intangibles are the most important thing at the quarterback position, and he sure had those.
SI: What did Michael Birdsong do to put himself in position to win the starting job?
DH: Well, I think No. 1 is his leadership skills, the intangibles, his toughness, the way he prepared himself for practice. The other thing I liked about him is he played a few years at James Madison. His true freshman year he played there. As a sophomore he played there and actually played well with a really good football team. He’s been in the arena, so it’s not going to be his first time when we open up against Purdue in September.
SI: How does having Birdsong at QB instead of Cato change the offense?
DH: Not a lot. He’s a big guy, but he still can run well. He’s different than Cato. Cato was around 6’1” and about 175 pounds, whereas he’s 6’4” or 6’5”, 235, 240 [pounds]. He’s a little more physical. He doesn’t run well enough to what Cato did as far running the football without concern, but we don’t want to try to fit square pegs in round holes. Our offense is built to take advantage of his skills and to do what he does best, but that being said, he can take what the defense gives him and do some of the same things that Cato did.
SI: The skill-position players returning seem to leave you with plenty of big-play threats. How do you balance that with making sure you can also consistently move the chains now that Tommy Shuler and Eric Frohnapfel are gone?
DH: There are three guys on that offense that we’ve got to replace their production: Cato, of course Tommy Shuler—he walked out of here being the leading receiver in the Conference USA and also our school—and Chris Jasperse, who played more snaps that anybody else in college football as an offensive lineman. So those three guys all provided great leadership for us, they were all tremendous players. We’re going to work hard to replace that production that Tommy gave us. Michael Selby will replace Jasperse. Michael’s a tremendous player and a great leader. With Cato, we’ve got to get that production somehow. With our running back situation, Devon Johnson was a tremendous player for us a year ago. He’s back. I like our offensive line. So I think we’re in a good enough position where if we can just get Birdsong early on to take care of the football and manage the game and do what we ask him to do, I think we have enough weapons to be O.K.
SI: On both sides of the ball you lose at least one starter at every position group, guys that helped you get a Conference USA title last year. But you also have a wealth of mostly former three-star recruits set to step in for them. How confident are you that the new guys can match the high level of production of their predecessors?
DH: Well, they have to. For us to win championships, you have to play great defense. At the end of the year last year, regardless of what we did offensively or what anybody did offensively in our league, the two best teams defensively were the ones that played in the championship. We were No. 1 in the conference, and the Louisiana Tech was No. 2. So for us to get to where we want to go and reach our goals, we have to play great defense. We lost Darryl Roberts in the secondary. He’s with the Patriots right now, a tremendous player. But we’ve got some really good young players coming in. [Antavis] Rowe was All-Conference USA freshman team a year ago. Corey Tindal is back. [Keith] Baxter is back. We’re adding Chris Williams-Hall, who’s a good player, so I think we have enough players there to get some good production out of them. We lost James Rouse up front. He was a tremendous player who signed with the Texans. We have to replace his production, but we’ve got good depth at defensive line. We lost Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year Neville Hewitt, but we also got [Evan] McKelvey back, who didn’t play most of the last year [due to a torn ACL]. He was our best defensive player going into the season.
SI: With the loss to Western Kentucky and the close wins over UAB and Louisiana Tech, it seemed like your team lost a little steam toward the end of last season before rebounding for the bowl game. How do you make sure you maintain a high level of performance for the entire season?
DH: Winning is hard. Those three teams you talked about were all three really good football teams. UAB was bowl eligible, and they had some good players and were a good football team. Western Kentucky went to a bowl game and won, and Louisiana Tech went to a bowl game and beat Illinois. They were good football teams.
It’s a long season. There wasn’t a team at the end of the year last season that was undefeated, so it’s hard to win them all. That being the said, the goal is always to win them all.
SI: I imagine this year’s matchup with Western Kentucky and Brandon Doughty on Nov. 28 holds a little extra significance?
DH: Well, it’s a long way to go. We’ve got a lot of teams between now and Western Kentucky. But they’ve done a tremendous job. Jeff Brohm has done a tremendous job there. They’ve got that quarterback back who is a tremendous player. We’ve got a lot of challenges. We’ve got to worry about us right now.
SI: Last year the College Football Playoff selection committee seemed to send a pretty clear message about the importance of strength of schedule by not ranking Marshall even when you were undefeated late in the season. How do you feel about how that played out in the first year of the playoff system?
DH: What bothers me a little bit is people look at strength of schedule at the beginning of the year. That should be looked at at the end of the year. At the end of the day, we played eight or nine bowl-eligible teams. We played an excellent Northern Illinois team in the bowl that was ranked in the top 25. So if you look at the entire body of work throughout our schedule and also look at the bowls—there’s not a conference out there that won at a higher rate than Conference USA did. We took a little flak about schedule. We can’t worry about that. We’ve just got to worry about what we can control. I know at the end of the day Conference USA was the second-ranked conference in the Group of Five. Our Rice team beat a team from the Mountain West that played for the championship game (Fresno State). If you look at our overall body of work, I think our schedule was, as it turned out, a pretty daggone good schedule.
SI: Going forward, do you consider perceptions of your schedule out of your hands and there’s not much you can do other than win the games that you do play?
DH: There’s no question you’ve got to take care of your own business. At the end of the day there were zero undefeated teams in the entire country. So you’ve got to worry about what you can control, and that’s going out and playing every week and playing well.
We’re working as hard as we can work to get people to play us. We’ve got a home-and-home scheduled with NC State, a home-and-home scheduled with Pitt, a home-and-home scheduled with Navy, so we’re working hard to try to schedule the best possible teams we can play. That’ll never change.
SI: Some of the advanced stats had Marshall in the top 10 when you were undefeated last year. Do you look advanced stats and would you like to see the committee use them?
DH: There were a lot of things that I heard last year out of that committee that I had never heard before. I had never heard of a “good loss,” to be honest with you. To me, if you lose, you lose. I’m not sure what a good loss is. There are a lot of things that they factored in that I didn’t quite understand. But I’m sure they’re doing the best that they can.