Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Toward the end of the 2013 college football season, the Marshall Thundering Herd and Rice Owls met up in a clash to determine the Conference USA champion.
Marshall entered the game as a six-point favorite, but was demolished by the Owls in the contest, 41-24. Still, the Herd were invited to compete in the Military Bowl, which they won against Maryland, 31-20. They finished the season with a 10-4 overall record.
Fast forward to this July, and while seemingly the rest of Conference USA has been hit relatively hard by the college athlete turnover, Marshall conversely comes in sitting pretty with a core group of players returning for another title shot.
But to go one step further than a conference title discussion for Marshall, the Herd could be starring down a potential unbeaten season if all things go well. Undefeated seasons aren't especially rare - there's been at least one Division I team to accomplish the feat in each of the past two seasons (Florida State and Ohio State, respectively, although the latter wasn't eligible for the postseason), and two programs each maintained unblemished records in both 2009 and 2010 (Boise State and Alabama in 2009, and Auburn and TCU in 2010).
The recipe for an unbeaten season can be broken down to two basic building blocks: a strong roster/staff and a favorable schedule. Marshall has both of those ingredients entering the 2014 season.
At the center of the discussion for the Herd is returning senior quarterback Rakeem Cato, who somehow managed to better a handful of his stats in 2013 from his breakout sophomore campaign in 2012.
The now-senior upped his passing touchdown total from 37 in 2012 to 39 last year, and increased his passing efficiency rating from 147.1 to 147.8 in a season's time. He also cut down on the number of interceptions thrown (11 in 2012 to nine in 2013), which could partially be due to his nearly 100 fewer pass attempts between the years (584 in 2012 to 499 in 2013).
By now, everyone knows a team almost certainly cannot be successful without at least a competent quarterback handling the reins. Since his sophomore season, Cato has been much more than that, having thrown at least 37 touchdown passes in each of the last two seasons with a completion rate of over 59 percent (69.5 percent in 2012).
Though his passing touchdown total and his passing efficiency rating were slightly higher in 2013, Cato's 2012 was much more impressive, especially considering he played in two fewer games than 2013. Cato went 406-for-584 passing for 4,201 yards, 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a sophomore. He added a rushing score as well.
Last year he was aided by a breakout season from running back Essray Taliaferro, who ran for 1,163 yards and 10 scores. Although Taliaferro isn't back on the squad for this upcoming season, both Steward Butler (87 carries, 777 yards and eight rushing touchdowns) and Kevin Grooms (91 carries, 511 yards and six touchdowns) will provide Cato with support out of the backfield.
Cato's leading touchdown weapon from 2013, Gator Hoskins (15 receiving scores), is gone, but top target Tommy Shuler returns after hauling in 106 receptions last season for 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns. Toss in multi- touchdown scorer Craig Wilkins, tight end Devon Johnson and freshman Angelo Jean-Louis, and the receiving corps seems set.
Jean-Louis was one of the highest rated members of Miami's 2012 recruiting class, but he decommitted and enrolled at a Virginia military academy before signing with Marshall. He was arrested and charged with two felony counts of fraudulent use of an access device in 2013, but appears ready to take the field once again.
The Thundering Herd retain eight starting members of last season's defense, which was the most improved in terms of scoring defense from 2012 to 2013. Marshall allowed 23 ppg last season after surrendering 43 ppg in 2012.
Eleven of the team's top 12 leading tacklers return again, including defensive lineman James Rouse, who had six sacks and eight tackles for loss. Free safety A.J. Leggett, who topped the squad with four interceptions as a freshman, is back as well, along with the rest of the starting defensive backfield.
Depth on defense is key for the Thundering Herd, and quality doesn't diminish with depth in Marshall's case. The Herd have accrued a handful of transfers from programs like USC, Miami and Virginia Tech on defense, with other original signees of programs that include Tennessee, Georgia and Clemson.
The second ingredient that could play in Marshall's favor for this upcoming season is the way the team's schedule came together. Last year the Herd faced a relatively tough non-conference matchup against ACC member Virginia Tech - a game in which the Hokies won, 29-21, in triple overtime. There are no matchups against a power five conference member in 2014 for Marshall.
The remaining non-conference schedule in 2013 came together like so: home against the MAC's Miami (Ohio), home against FCS program Gardner-Webb, and away against the MAC's Ohio. Marshall clobbered Miami in Week 1, 52-14, and did so again against Gardner-Webb, 55-0. The Herd lost back-to-back contests against Ohio (34-31) and Virginia Tech, then only lost one conference game the rest of the season to Middle Tennessee until the title bout.
This season, Marshall opens with the same Miami (Ohio) team from last year, and will host FCS program Rhode Island (finished 3-9 overall in 2013) and Ohio in back-to-back weeks. The final non-conference clash will be a road game against Akron of the MAC.
Marshall does get Middle Tennessee in the team's second C-USA contest (at home) and will play defending champion Rice on Nov. 15 (also at home). A potentially troublesome game against Florida Atlantic could stand in the Herd's way on Oct. 25, but again, Marshall plays the role of the host.
The rest of the Herd's schedule consists of conference games against C-USA newcomers Old Dominion and Western Kentucky, FIU, Southern Miss and UAB. There's nothing here for Marshall or its coaching staff to get too worked up about.
We all know injuries are a threat for any team at any time, and sometimes the competition rises to the occasion when battling a tough opponent like Marshall. But given the number of returning impact players on the Thundering Herd's roster and the amount of catching up the rest of Conference USA seemingly has to do, the conference title is Marshall's to lose.
Taking into account a pretty unspectacular schedule, Marshall's name could potentially be inscribed into the record books as an undefeated 2014 college football program.