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Rant Sports College Football Top 100: No. 97 Marshall Thunder Herd

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Thankfully, the college football season is just 97 days away. With that in mind, it’s time to preview team No. 97 in the Rant Sports 100 in 100 series: the Marshall Thundering Herd.

Let’s be honest: last season was a huge disappointment for MU fans. Entering the season fresh off of a St. Petersburg Bowl victory, the Herd dropped to a disappointing 5-7 record. While the offense was one of the most prolific in the country, the defense couldn’t seem to make the timely stops that it needed to last fall.

Will this year be more of the same or will Marshall win its first division title since 2002?

Offense

The Thundering Herd offense was one of the top attacks in the country last year. Rakeem Cato tormented opposing secondaries all season long, throwing for an NCAA-best 350.1 yards per game and 37 TDs. With top targets Tommy Shuler and Gator Hoskins returning, it’s safe to say that the MU passing attack will pick up where it left off last season.

But the offense isn’t just a one-trick pony: it can run the ball when it needs to. Sure, the ground game finished 10th in the conference a year ago, yet still managed to run for a respectable 4.6 yards per carry in league play. The veteran offensive line — led by C Chris Jasperse and T Jordan Jeffries — will be one of the best units in Conference USA this season.

Defense

Unfortunately, the defense was a completely different story. After surrendering a whopping 43.08 points per game, defensive coordinator Chris Rippon resigned in November.

Despite this poor showing in 2012, there’s plenty of optimism in Huntington about the upcoming season. New coordinator Chuck Heater arrives from Temple, where he guided the Owls to the third-best scoring defense in the country in 2011.

He’ll have plenty of experience to work with this fall. The defensive line returns all four starters, including top pass rusher Jeremiah Taylor — who finished the season with four sacks in his final three games. Top returning tackler DJ Hunter will move from outside linebacker to safety this year, giving the Herd a much-needed playmaker at the position. Provided that the secondary continues to play like it did in the Green and White game, when it broke up nine passes, the defense could finish near the top of the league this season.

Schedule

Aside from a Sep. 21 trip to play the Virginia Tech Hokies, Marshall’s non-conference slate is relatively easy with games against the Miami RedhawksGardner-Webb Bulldogs and Ohio Bobcats. Barring something unforeseen, the Herd should finish no worse than 2-2 in non-league play.

The conference schedule also sets up nicely. After all, the Thundering Herd faces the Tulsa Golden Hurricane on a short week (which always favors the underdog) and has the luxury of playing the UAB Blazers and East Carolina Pirates within the friendly confines of Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

Outlook

Marshall was one of the most unfortunate teams in the country last year, as four of its losses were by a touchdown or less. While the offense will continue to burn out bulbs on the scoreboard, it’s the defense that will make or break the Thundering Herd this season. If — and it’s a big if — the team can adjust to Heater’s scheme quickly this fall, MU could find itself playing in its first conference championship game in 11 years.

Terry Johnson is a college football writer for Rant Sports and a member of the Football Writers Association of America. Follow him on TwitterFacebook and/or Google+.