College football season is finally upon us and the Marshall Thundering Herd is gearing up for its season opener Saturday night at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington, West Virginia against the resurgent Miami (OH) RedHawks in a battle of former bitter MAC rivals.
Miami leads the all-time series with the Herd 30-12-1, but 28 of those wins came between 1905 and 1980 with Marshall having won eight of the last 10 meetings since 1980. This will be the first meeting in the series since a 42-27 road victory for the Herd in 2014.
This series has seen many important and infamous moments over the years and during Marshall’s second stint in the MAC from 1997-2004, the Herd and the RedHawks were never separated by more than two games in the final MAC East Division standings and played each other for control of the East Division on many occasions.
However, Miami had been down in recent memory including the previous two times it played Marshall in 2013 and 2014, which diminished the rivalry significantly. But this year’s matchup should have a much different feel than the previous two games between these teams that come in heading in opposite directions.
While Marshall was the juggernaut and the RedHawks were the building program during that last meeting in 2014, the Herd comes into this contest reeling after a 3-9 season in 2016 and Miami comes in with a wave of optimism after a remarkable turnaround to end the 2016 season.
Marshall’s 3-9 season came as a shock to Herd fans and C-USA in general in 2016 and many feel the Herd can regroup this season and return to its winning ways.
But the RedHawks have other ideas following their 2016 season that saw the team rebound from a 0-6 start to the season to win six of its last seven games overall with the only loss coming in the St. Petersburg Bowl against Mississippi State by just one point.
Marshall, while returning a number of starters, will be a team introducing many new faces this season as well while Miami returns 17 starters from the 2016 season and is a prime contender in the MAC East Division. This is a game that could set the tone for the rest of the season for both teams.
The current spread for this game sees the Herd as a 2.5 point favorite over Miami, but the RedHawks currently have a 52.1 percent chance of winning according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
A key matchup to look for in this game will be the play of Marshall’s new-look defense against Miami quarterback Gus Ragland. The Herd’s defense returns seven starters, but an influx of new players will see the field for the first time as members of Marshall and will be tested by a Miami offense that is capable of establishing the run or the pass.
Ragland completed 64.2 percent of his passes last season while passing for 1,537 yards along with 17 touchdowns and only one interception after becoming the starter midway through the season. Ragland also ran for 313 yards last season with two touchdowns while the RedHawks’ offense returns each of its top three rushers from 2016.
The Herd struggled on defense last season, giving up an average of 35.3 points-per-game after leading C-USA in scoring defense in 2015 at just 17.8 points-per-game. How Marshall’s progressing defense performs against a veteran Miami offense will be a determining factor of who wins this game.
And it goes without saying that the Herd’s offense must produce as well. Marshall’s offense in 2016 had its lowest points-per-game average since 2011 at just 26.4 points-per-game after averaging at least 40.9 points-per-game three of the previous four seasons.
While Miami’s offense struggled out of the gates last season, it averaged 29.8 points-per-game over the final six games of the regular season in which the team went 6-0. The RedHawks return more offensive starters this season than Marshall does and will have the experience edge over the Herd.
This is arguably Marshall’s most important season-opening game in years with much at stake. The same can be said for Miami who is looking to prove it belongs as an upper-echelon team in the MAC and that the second half of last season was not a fluke.
But recent history will not be on the RedHawks’ side in this contest. Miami has not won in Huntington since 1979 and has yet to win in five attempts at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
These teams have had a memorable football history and another entertaining chapter could be written Saturday night at Edwards Stadium. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. and will be streamed live on Facebook through Stadium Network’s partnership with Facebook to offer nine C-USA games.