ONE CAN almost feel the rumbling among Marshall football fans: The season opener is the most important game, and not just because it’s the next game.
After the Thundering Herd’s disaster of a 3-9 season, some will consider this game a harbinger of things to come, and an indication of how much the team improved in the offseason.
Oh, yes, the game is at home Sept. 2 against Miami (Ohio). Yes, that rivalry is relevant again.
The RedHawks finished the regular season 6-6, losing the first six and winning out from there and tying for the East Division championship in the Mid-American Conference. Reflecting what coach Chuck Martin had to work with when he arrived in Oxford, he is 11-26 after three seasons.
The last year the RedHawks made a bowl game and Marshall didn’t was 2003, when Ben Roethlisberger knifed through the Herd defense and many others. (It was a different era, as Marshall went bowl-less at 8-4. That was the autumn MU accepted its invitation to Conference USA and its multiple bowls.)
The RedHawks played 5-7 Minnesota in the St. Petersburg Bowl, which was stuck with that 11 a.m. slot on Dec. 26. I passed on it, though I missed a good game — Miami had a 16-7 lead, but lost 17-16 as Nick Dowd’s field-goal attempt was blocked with 5 seconds left.
So who’s back for Miami?
Gus Ragland threw for 1,537 yards and 17 touchdowns in seven games, after missing the first six with an anterior cruciate ligament injury. Do the logic, and you see the RedHawks went 6-1 with him starting. Hmmmm …
The RedHawks return their top three running backs — Alonzo Smith (709 yards, three touchdowns in 2016), Kenny Young (557 yards, two TDs) and Maurice Thomas (258 yards). Ragland netted 202 yards and two TDs himself.
The three top pass-catchers are back — James Gardner (45 receptions, 750 yards, six TDs), Jared Murphy (43-552, five TDs) and Ryan Smith (31-356, five TDs). Defensively, the top five tacklers are back, with one (De’Andre Montgomery) the team leader with four interceptions.
A lot of the above are redshirt juniors, meaning they came in Martin’s first recruiting class of 2014. Remember, it’s not easy to bring in talent in a coach’s first class, as he is usually hired late in the recruiting cycle.
Clearly, this RedHawk team is not the 2013 or 2014 edition that Marshall beat by a combined 97-41. Just to thicken the plot, I figure the Herd will be cast as an underdog.
Marshall can’t win the conference off this game, but this game will show whether it can. A win will keep Herd fans on board and a loss will …
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I was pleasantly surprised to see on the front of the Dallas Morning News site the announcement of Frisco, Texas, being awarded the Conference USA basketball tournament. I did have to scroll down a long way, though.
(Two-finger scrolling on laptops is one of the most underrated developments in the tech world.)
I bring this up because the event could receive the skimpiest home media presence in its 22-year history. I do place a positive asterisk on that statement, however.
The Denton Record-Chronicle covers North Texas, and does it well. The paper has staffed a football game in Huntington, something a handful of C-USA area papers can say. There is an outlet in Frisco, the Frisco Enterprise.
But as far as Dallas goes, Southern Methodist was in the league from 2005-13 and let me tell you, the Mustangs were a buried blip. I don’t recall North Texas, situated about 40 miles from downtown Dallas, getting any more of a ride during my two visits to SMU.
And I don’t see Dallas giving this basketball tournament much respect. Certainly not as much as Memphis, Tulsa, El Paso and Birmingham.
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When the league realigned earlier this decade, it lost some good coverage in large markets.
Memphis’ media were the most committed to their team, and the Orlando Sentinel once campaigned — with a straight face — to get Central Florida admitted to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Tulsa World does a great job with Tulsa considering the small private school is a small fish in Oklahoma’s and Oklahoma State’s giant lake. East Carolina has a credible presence in Raleigh, and enjoys the preference of the several small towns east of Interstate 95.
Then and now, Houston overshadows Rice, the small private school, in that city. Tulane maintained a niche in LSU/Saints-crazy New Orleans.
In the “new” C-USA, Western Kentucky is the undisputed champ in receiving media coverage, as the Bowling Green Daily News staffs all men’s basketball home and away. In El Paso, isolated from the rest of Texas, the Miners are really the only game in town.
The Virginian-Pilot’s coverage of Old Dominion’s football ascension is second to none in a large market without a major-league sports franchise. Southern Mississippi, Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech do well in smaller markets (please don’t tell try to me MTSU carries Nashville). Alabama-Birmingham gets as much coverage in that Bama-Auburn hotbed as it could ask, but Charlotte deserves better in its city.
I’m not sure how well the new Texas-San Antonio football program is registering, but it seems a little better than one might expect. The Florida Atlantic/Florida International duo scratches for every tidbit of attention — thus the big-splash hirings of Lane Kiffin and Butch Davis.
(To its credit, the Miami Herald didn’t turn its back on FIU when that quirky athletic department revoked a writer’s credential in a hissy fit.)
Where do I put Marshall? In a top-70 television market in which it competes with West Virginia, Ohio State and Kentucky for eyeballs and readers, really well.