Over the summer we had a Q&A with Underdog Dynasty, the catch-all site here at SB Nation for unrepresented FBS teams. Since then I have found an independent Marshall blog in Herd World, dedicated to the Thundering Herd. Ben Gibson and his staff were kind enough to take a few moments this week to answer some questions about the season opener on Sunday:
T-Mill: These teams played three years ago. Are there any significant contributors still around from that game or is this a mostly new team?
Herd World: Looking at that box score, I can't believe that Rakeem Cato threw 68 passes. What a crazy game.
There are very few contributors left from that game for Marshall. Linebacker D.J. Hunter had 7 tackles that day on his way to making the freshman All-American team in 2012. On offense, WR Davonte Allen and backup RB Remi Watson played sparingly three years ago. — Alex Vance
T-Mill: How much does Marshall lose from an offense that was really, really good last year?
Herd World: Childhood buddies Rakeem Cato and Tommy Shuler leave as Marshall's all-time leading passer and receiver. Michael Birdsong looks to be a talented quarterback, and the receiving corps is still loaded, but you just don't make up for the loss of two special players like that overnight.
At running back, the Herd loses the speedy Steward Butler to the, umm... unfortunate offseason incident but returns the powerful Devon Johnson who ran for over 1700 yards last year.
Also gone are Eric Frohnapfel, a tall target at TE, and Chris Jasperse, who was a four-year starter at center. — Alex Vance
The good news for Marshall is that there are plenty of returning starters, including Devon Johnson, who's dropped some weight and expected to simulate the experience of getting hit by a steel chair for would be tacklers. Another RB, Remi Watson returns as well and the offensive line has a trio of returning players and the wide receiving corps is still deep.
However, replacing the center, quarterback, wide receiver and tight end are all obviously issues. There should be talent to replace them, but expecting the first game to go as smoothly as games had went the past two years isn't a good bet. There will be some growing pains.
The heart, which was Cato, and the soul, which was Shuler. I don't think a lot of herd fans realize how much we're going to miss those two. — Eric Miller
T-Mill: Looking at the defense, Marshall got in some shootouts last year. Is there improvement or is the Herd going to have to simply outscore some teams?
Herd World: Plenty of ways to improve: Our defense could take a step forward. Our running game returns to the dominance it had early last year and we control time of possession and prevent shootouts from happening. A lot of the "shootouts" (WKU aside) weren't really shootouts. — Michael Beverage
As Beverage said, the scores often looked like the games were more competitive, but it really wasn't until the last part of the season that the defense started to give up points when it mattered. The defense will step up this year as long as they can make up for Darryl Roberts and some of the other departures, the defense will again put teams in situations where they can leverage the situations (like on passing downs) to keep opponents offenses out of the game. — Ben Gibson
Everybody remembers the 67-66 shootout loss to WKU, but the Herd defense was actually just as dominant as the offense for most of the season. They finished 18th nationally in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed despite the atrocious performance against the Toppers. The defense loses its premier DB (Darryl Roberts, Patriots) and LB (Neville Hewitt, Dolphins), but both of those units have almost everyone else back and appear to be just as deep and talented. The biggest weakness of the 2015 team may be the defensive line which has to replace last year's three leading performers. — Alex Vance
Fast paced offenses lend themselves to also giving up points. Marshall's defense needs to improve for sure, but an offense more centered around ball control and Devon Johnson is going to give the opposing teams less time to put points up as well. — Eric Miller
T-Mill: Who is the new quarterback taking over for Rakeem Cato?
Herd World: Michael Birdsong won the starting job in the spring and maintained it through fall camp. He started for James Madison in 2013 and put up decent stats (60% comp, 2728 yds, 22 TD, 15 INT) before transferring because of a coaching change that led to a different offensive philosophy at JMU.
He's a traditional pocket passer with a big body (6'5", 241 lbs) but can run a little bit if he needs to. — Alex Vance
Michael Birdsong, with a tiny asterisk. He's a transfer from JMU that is physically the opposite of Cato in pretty much every way. Big and tall, I'm hoping he reminds people of Byron after a while with his play style.
The tiny asterisk is because freshman Chase Litton has been looking very good in practice. I'd say there's probably a 95% chance we stick with Birdsong, but it wouldn't be a sign of a disaster if you saw Litton take the field.— Eric Miller
T-Mill: How big is a game against a power 5 conference team, even one as bad as Purdue, for Marshall when they have major bowl aspirations?
Herd World: It's huge for the national perception of the program. Despite the dominance throughout most of the year, Marshall was judged heavily for not playing a P5 team last season.
It's not entirely fair since Purdue should be better than last year and Marshall will likely not be as dominant, but many will view the Herd's recent success as smoke and mirrors if they fail to win in front of a national audience at home against a Purdue team that's currently near the bottom of the P5 ladder.
As for major bowl aspirations, Marshall probably needs to be undefeated. They can't afford to slip up anywhere. — Alex Vance.
Beating any P5 team will be big for Marshall's perception nationally. Some seem to attach a special status to any P5 no matter where they line up in the conference. If Marshall wants to get back in the top 25 like they were last year, making starting the season off with a win in near mandatory.
If Purdue is going to make a jump you expect it in the third year under a new coach, and you expect that with Darrell Hazell this year. I do think Purdue will be better than last season and that shouldn't be discounted whatever the outcome is on Sunday. For both teams we'll have a clearer picture of how good or bad they are in a month or so. — Ben Gibson
The committee hasn't been around long enough for us to get a good gauge on, but it appears to be extremely important. Marshall's schedule is such that one loss will probably eliminate any chances of an access bid, but as we saw last year a schedule without a P5 team could have put us out of the bid even undefeated. If they follow a similar track to last year it looks like without a P5 team on the schedule you need an awful lot of things to go perfectly to get into that bid. — Eric Miller
T-Mill: Finally, a prediction?
Marshall starts off slow, gets it together in the 2nd half and wins 23-16. Purdue covers the spread. — Michael Beverage
This will likely be the best atmosphere in Huntington since WVU visited in 2010. I look for Marshall to use the momentum of the crowd and jump out big early. Purdue slowly gets back into it, but a late Devon Johnson TD puts it away. 38-24, Marshall. — Alex Vance.
The game will be close as both teams go through the normal growing pains of the first game of the season. I believe Marshall is a -7 favorite at home and I think they'll cover that, but not until late in the game. Marshall comes out on top 36-23. - Ben Gibson
I could see this being a tough, grinding sort of game. New QB, probably a new flavor on offense, and probably an offense that will favor giving the ball to Johnson and watching him run over people. I'm not saying we won't see shootouts down the road, but I could easily see this one being a 28-24 sort of victory for Marshall. — Eric Miller