New Mexico Bowl Football

Marshall running back Keion Davis (24) celebrates with quarterback Chase Litton after scoring a touchdown against Colorado State in the Thundering Herd’s New Mexico Bowl win.

The Marshall football program has escaped a state of desperation, and now must handle higher expectations after its 8-5 season.

We could just as easily be talking about another disastrous Thundering Herd season, a repeat of the 3-9 debacle of 2016. We could be talking about an impending coaching change. We could be talking about fans revolting.

(OK, there has been a revolt by a cranky faction, but I said my piece about that last month. Let’s stay on task here.)

Very few MU followers and fewer outside observers expected the Herd to win eight games. I personally thought 7-6 was the ceiling, with a few agonizing defeats — and boy, did those happen. But you can say the Herd had a legitimate look at 10-3, and there was only one pure stink-it-up loss, that mess against Florida International. Last year, I counted six real stinkers out of nine losses.

But let’s be frank: 4-4 in Conference USA is unacceptable. Getting knocked out of conference championship contention in the first weekend of November is not good. The Herd has beaten two teams above .500, and the combined record of MU’s eight victims is 37-54 with bowls pending (actually 37-62, but I deduct the eight losses to the Herd).

So the Herd has another big offseason, which begins Wednesday with that new December signing day. With a few exceptions, this team handled its business in the weight room and on the practice field last offseason, and saw some positive results.

More must be done.

A few observations on the state of the Herd:

n For the first time in a few years, the 2018 team shouldn’t be so young.

Again, I look around at a larger, talented junior class and see all-conference players Chase Hancock and Ryan Bee, and see several others who could be all-league. The 2018 senior class just might be special.

And then I see sophomores such Malik Gant, the team’s best open-field tackler, and Channing Hames, defensive MVP of the New Mexico Bowl, and I see another very good junior class for 2018.

The offensive line will still be young and there will be inexperienced tight ends, but the team carries a combined 378 career starts into the offseason, plus long-snapper Matt Beardall (22) and holder Jackson White (13).

n Attrition must become less of a factor, and players need to keep their schnozes clean.

The Herd had too many leave during the offseason, even through the month of September.

That included some “ain’t starting, ain’t staying” cases, but the case of Damien Dozier leaving after a three-sack game is the strangest. Offensive lineman Nate Devers getting in trouble after the FIU game was tough to stomach.

I won’t address Devers’ guilt or innocence in this space, but I will say this: After the Herd’s performance against FIU that night, I would have called out for pizza and skipped the late-night scene. I’m not sure Devers will regain his status in the program.

An aside: Ty Tyler being sent home before the bowl game is disturbing. Getting suspended on bowl week ranks high on the dumb-dumb list.

n The “Kill Bill” crowd won’t get its pound of flesh, but the offense needs some soul-searching.

The scoring went from 26.4 points per game in 2016 to 26.7, though the total yardage had a bigger bump, from 350 to per game to 379.8. Still, that’s not enough for a program with an offensive legacy.

I, too, would like to see coordinator Bill Legg get a little more daring, especially with the rejuvenation at the skill positions. With quarterback Chase Litton likely becoming a four-year starter, perhaps the Herd should pass to set up the run in games against tougher defenses.

But if that young offensive line can raise its run-blocking to the level of its pass protection (11 sacks allowed), the Herd should be able to score in any strategy, as the best MU offenses have done.

n Then again, Litton should face a strenuous battle to keep his job. When I get the feeling Litton is close to hitting the next level, he throws another interception.

He’ll need several big games to flush the seven turnovers in the FIU/Florida Atlantic swing out of everyone’s head. Redshirted freshman Isaiah Green should get a long look in spring and August, with more first-unit repetitions than most challengers get.

Just remember the old boxing adage: To beat the champ, you have to knock him out. Litton is still your odds-on favorite to start in 2018.

n I am reminded that offense sells tickets.

I know good and well that dissatisfaction with the offense, and with its coordinator, is a factor in the attendance decline. That’s unfair to a Herd defense that is really fun to watch, but that’s the way it goes.

n Conference USA, maligned as it is, became more difficult the minute Lane Kiffin and Butch Davis came to FAU and FIU. Expect more of the same from those teams, and don’t expect the Herd picked to finish higher than third in East Division.

Those coaches aren’t going away. Davis is riding the FIU job into retirement, and Kiffin needs at least another year of image rehab before a desperate “Power 5” athletic director comes calling.

n Colorado State’s contract extension for coach Mike Bobo strikes me as an alarming development. With his 21-18 record in three years at Fort Collins, he will make $1.8 million in 2018.

That was a bit more than the $1.7 million Scott Frost was earning at Central Florida, and more than doubles the pay of Marshall coach Doc Holliday. Forget the gulf between the “Power 5” and “Group of 5”; MU is going to have to get on its horse to keep up in the G-5.

Doug Smock can be reached at dougsmock@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dougsmock, and read his Inside Marshall Sports blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/dougsmock.