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Derek Redd: Steele projection puts sunny spin on Herd's summer

One sentence should add a little bit of sunshine to Marshall football fans'  summer.

"Add it all up and MU gets the elite designation of my #1 Most Improved Team in the country."

That came from noted college football prognosticator Phil Steele, a man who crunches numbers like an accountant with a Red Bull IV drip to determine which are the top teams entering each season. And he ranks the Thundering Herd as the Football Bowl Subdivision's No. 38 team going into this fall.

That's the Marshall team that finished 5-7 and out of bowl contention in 2012 and whose defense was among the nation's worst. And that's a heck of a leap in perception.

So what's led a team that stayed home for the holidays last year to become, just based on these numbers, one of the front-runners for the Conference USA title? Take a look at some more of Steele's preseason honors.

The Herd has 16 players on Steele's four preseason all-C-USA teams, including seven on the first team. And that includes two on defense - defensive end Jeremiah Taylor and safety D.J. Hunter. If you include kickers, punters and returners, there are 24 starters on every football team. Marshall has all but eight of its starters on one of these teams.

But here's the thing about grading on potential: You still have to live up to it.

There were a number of teams on Steele's 2012 chart that didn't. He had Alabama ranked fifth and Oregon ranked sixth going into last season, and he wasn't too far off there. The Crimson Tide won the BCS title and the Ducks finished right behind in the Associated Press poll at No. 2. But what of his preseason No. 1, Florida State?

With a team stocked with NFL draft picks, the Seminoles suffered what's becoming its yearly tradition of a head-scratching midseason loss to an inferior opponent, that time North Carolina State. Still, FSU won the ACC title and finished a respectable 10th in the AP poll, but it had to settle with running away from Mid-American Conference champ Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl.

His No. 2 team, Oklahoma? The Sooners finished 15th after losing the Cotton Bowl to Texas A&M. His seventh-ranked Texas team finished 19th, while his fourth-ranked Southern Cal team imploded and finished out of the final AP poll altogether.

And failing to meet expectations isn't a foreign concept to the Herd, either. Just look at last season. The team was coming off a Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl win and just its second winning season in its last eight. It had plenty of starters returning and a number of talented young players emerging. But a team primed to take the next step took that step backward.

Marshall found out that life without a premier pass rusher like Vinny Curry and a healthy secondary isn't exactly a walk in the park. Both contributed to a defense that allowed more than 43 points per game.

That being said, Steele is right that the pieces are in place for a major rebound. Most of the components from last year's nuclear-powered offense - C-USA MVP quarterback Rakeem Cato and record-setting receiver Tommy Shuler chief among them - are back. The team has a new defensive coordinator in Chuck Heater, key defenders returning to natural positions and newcomers who should boost the unit's athleticism.

If anything should give Marshall fans reason for hope as the days until the 2013 season tick away, it's that at least one national pundit has noticed what's going on in Huntington and likes what he sees so far. After a season as disappointing as last year's, that's something decent to grab onto.

They have an even greater hope that the good feelings don't end in the pages of a preseason magazine.

Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.redd@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.

 


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