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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Marshall set for fun in the Sun Belt with advantageous debut schedule

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 18: Rasheen Ali #22 of the Marshall Thundering Herd avoids a tackle by Bralen Trahan #24 of the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns during the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at Caesars Superdome on December 18, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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Marshall’s 2022 will not be defined by its trip to No. 5 Notre Dame on Sept. 10, no matter what happens that Saturday (2:30 ET; NBC). The Thundering Herd has made too big a leap this offseason for any non-conference game to be the lasting memory. The Sun Belt is not yet the best Group of Five conference, but it was already trending that way before the Big 12 raided the AAC.

Pulling in Marshall, Southern Miss and Old Dominion from Conference USA may not strike some college football fans as that big of a move for the Sun Belt, but all three programs have some football history, and they all immediately saw the value in jumping to the stronger league, along with the reclassification of James Madison.

Already, Marshall may be one of the better teams in the Sun Belt. Chasing a Fun Belt title will be the narrative that determines if the Herd’s season is a success or not. A competitive game in South Bend, or even an upset, would simply be a surprising chance to build momentum while cashing a paycheck.

While Grant Wells was named the starting quarterback at Virginia Tech on Wednesday, that may be a poor reflection on the Hokies considering his last two years. The former Marshall passer played aggressively and produced gross stats. Most notably, he averaged 7.88 yards per attempt the last two seasons while throwing for a combined 5,626 yards.

He also threw 22 interceptions compared to 34 touchdowns, lowlighted by five interceptions and no touchdowns against Rice in December of 2020, when Marshall was ranked No. 21 and 7-0 on the season. If his stat line did not make it obvious, the Herd lost 20-0.

Wells never thoroughly recovered from that debacle, throwing two total touchdowns in the last two games of that season and then posting a 16 touchdowns-to-13 interceptions ratio in 2021. In other words, in his last 16 games at Marshall, Wells threw exactly as many interceptions as touchdowns, 18 each.

So good luck with that Virginia Tech.

His turnover tendencies help explain how the Thundering Herd lost its first four one-possession games last season, going 1-4 in those games on its way to a 7-6 record. A first-year head coach, former Alabama running backs coach Charles Huff, also may not have been entirely prepared for those close calls.

Well, Wells, for starters.

The other notable departures all came along Marshall’s offensive line, with four starters departing, leaving only 36 returning starts this year. The Herd did add three transfers to try to counter that exodus, pulling from East Carolina, Purdue and Rutgers.

Marshall is at No. 105 here …

Marshall also snagged a quarterback transfer from Texas Tech, Henry Colombi. This will be Colombi’s third school in five seasons after starting his career with two seasons at Utah State and then spending two years in Lubbock. He played significant snaps in all four previous seasons, appearing in 24 games total with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Though the Herd have receivers for Colombi to enjoy — led by Corey Gammage and Florida State transfer Bryan Robinson — the star of the offense will be junior running back Rasheen Ali (pictured at top). He took 250 carries for 1,401 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, a 5.6 yards per rush average and a nation-leading propensity for crossing the goal line.

Overall, Marshall’s run game excelled, gaining 2,220 yards on 431 total attempts (sacks adjusted). If the Herd caters its approach to maximize its chances of beating Notre Dame, shortening the game with a run-heavy approach may be prudent, hoping to exceed last season’s sacks-adjusted weekly average of 170.77 rushing yards.

Marshall’s defensive line will set the tone. It racked up 40 sacks last year and now brings in transfers from Kentucky, Miami and Purdue.

In that regard — and to again add an Irish-centric view to this Marshall overview, understandable given the space which is publishing it — the Irish may face the exact right amount of challenge against the Herd to perfect cohesion along the offensive line. No. 2 Ohio State’s raw talent and the 105,000 fans making noise before the snap may give Notre Dame enough trouble to be frustrated after the season opener. The Herd will not be that much of a challenge, but its defensive line will still be enough of a pest to force the Irish offensive line to focus.

New arrivals to conferences are rarely expected to contend from the outset. When Houston and Cincinnati jump to the Big 12 next year, they will find themselves in the mix at the top of the conference, but they will not be seen as immediate championship contenders. Marshall is already at that level in the Sun Belt.

PointsBet gives the Herd the third-best odds of winning the conference, and more wide-ranging sportsbooks suggest Marshall will win eight games this season. Digging into the Herd schedule, though, there is a legitimate chance it is favored in every game except its trip to Notre Dame.

The Irish may be 17-point favorites on Sept. 10, if not more, but otherwise, only one Marshall opponent ranks ahead of it in preseason SP+ projections, and Appalachian State visits Huntington in their November meeting.

If Colombi takes care of the ball better than Wells, the offensive line transfers create a few holes for Ali and the Herd defensive line continues wreaking havoc, then a special season could mark Marshall’s arrival in the Sun Belt, the kind of season that warrants something more than, say, the LendingTree Bowl. Rather than head to Alabama, something closer to the Atlantic Ocean should be the Herd’s postseason destination.

Ohio State’s offense projects to match the best of the century

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