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Derek Redd: Did early success lead to rosier forecast?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Preseason predictions are a tricky forest to navigate. Heck, it doesn't get much easier even one or two games into the regular season.

Experts (at least that's what we like to call ourselves) sift through reams of information, take into account coaching changes, roster turnover and strength of schedule - essentially, we predict an unknown based on other unknowns - and come out with what we feel is the most accurate prediction of a college football team's record.

A whole bunch of people figured Marshall would be better this year than the 5-7 record it ended with last year. The degree of improvement differed.

I figured Marshall would have a baseline of eight wins, with four games as toss-ups. That list began with Ohio, Virginia Tech, Middle Tennessee and Tulsa. Tulsa's collapse led to its removal and the addition of East Carolina. Depending on the degree of Marshall's improvement this season - and how the seasons of those four opponents shook out - the Thundering Herd could finish anywhere between 8-4 and 12-0.

Others, like prognosticator Phil Steele, went big. He called Marshall his pick for most improved team in America and ranked the Herd 38th in his preseason poll. And that wasn't a terrible prediction. Marshall returned most of the main cogs of its offense and made plenty of improvements on defense.

So, as the Herd sits at 4-3 following a last-second loss to Middle Tennessee, some voices from the fan base sound anywhere from disappointed to downright enraged that Marshall isn't any better than it is right now.

This begs the question: Which has been more off the mark - the Herd's performance or outsiders' expectations of the Herd's performance?

Three early events energized Herd fans in their belief that 2013 could be the year of a historic turnaround. The first was the Phil Steele prediction. He's been pretty accurate with them over the past few years. The teams he picked as the most improved since 2010 won at least five more games than the previous season.

The other two came when Marshall beat Miami (Ohio) 55-14 and Gardner-Webb 55-0. The offense looked as potent as ever and the defense was able to do things it never could in 2012.

But as the season wore on, we saw the true caliber of those first two opponents. At 0-8, the RedHawks are one of the worst teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They've already jettisoned their head coach and are losing by an average of almost 22 points per game. Gardner-Webb started the season 4-1, but has lost its last three and is 0-2 in the Football Championship Subdivision's Big South Conference.

As good as the Herd looked to begin 2013, it came from pummeling a pair of tomato cans.

The bad news for Marshall fans is that, so far, the Herd is 0-3 against the toss-up opponents. But here's the flipside - even if Marshall loses all four toss-up games, the Herd will finish 8-4, with three more wins than last season, a lock for a bowl game and likely playing for the Conference USA East Division title against East Carolina in the regular-season finale.

The Herd hasn't won eight games in a year since Bob Pruett led Marshall to an 8-4 record 2003, his next-to-last season. It would be just Marshall's third bowl appearance since playing in the 2004 Fort Worth Bowl. And it would be eight wins in a regular season for Doc Holliday, who has not yet won more than seven in a year as the Herd's head coach.

That's not too shabby.

But it's not 10 wins.

And that's not sitting well with some folks.

Some of the ire probably comes from the way Marshall has lost those three games, each by eight points or less and due to some costly early-game errors that ended up biting the Herd at the end. But that's takes us back to the warning about preseason predictions. Maybe Marshall has graduated to beating all the teams it should and going down the wire with everyone else. That's more than it could say last season (hello, UAB loss).

Marshall's season may not be as good as some hoped - and maybe not as good as what the first two weeks of the season presented - but it's shaping up to be better than any other season in Holliday's tenure. Still, it's proof that we "experts" who tend to shape opinion sometimes get it wrong.

Please, let me help you pick your jaw up off the floor.

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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