Two caveats before I begin:
- We are having a conversation which, at its core, centers around projecting 2015 performance based on 2014 results, which is, in and of itself, flawed in many ways.
- I am presenting my interpretation of Bill Connelly's interpretation, which is also flawed on its face (the idea of analyzing analysis, not the original analysis itself).
Dominating Bad Teams Only Proves So Much
Yes, Marshall came mere inches and fractions away from an undefeated season. They also were three opponent scoring drives away from heading into bowl season as a 10-3 conference championship game loser despite an insanely weak schedule, especially when measured by F/+.
The Herd played one FCS opponent, plus four more games against the bottom 25 in 2014 F/+. The Miami Redhawks just missed being in that bottom 25, and they were Marshall's sixth easiest opponent. That weak schedule is hammered home further when you look at their percentile performances:
Destroying inferior competition is great. However, many teams do that year in and year out. You also need to compliment that with either playing well or winning against teams that are at or above your level. Did they?
- Average percentile performance (overall): 75.3%
- Average percentile performance (vs F/+ Top 80): 55.8%
Many Options vs One Good Option
You can talk all you want about how most of the openings created in Marshall's lineup has multiple talented players to potentially fill the gap. As anyone who has ever visited Golden Corral can tell you, multiple options and multiple worthwhile options are not the same thing.
Rakeem Cato is a great example. No matter how much talent any one player has in their body, the drop off from "four-year starter and offensive leader" to either "sophomore who got garbage snaps last year" (Gunnar Holcombe) or "FCS transfer who started one season" (Michael Birdsong) is incalculably massive for multiple reasons.
You no longer have an established vocal leader on offense. You no longer have a quarterback who knows the offense like the back of his throwing hand. You no longer have a confident and proven presence under center.
Replacing the two receivers who caught 46% of the team's passes last season (Tommy Shuler and Eric Frohnapfel) and the center who snapped the ball are less significant replacements, but still substantial. Marshall isn't just replacing five offensive starters, they're also replacing four of their five most important offensive starters.
Compare that to a team like Western Kentucky, who is only replacing three starters on offense, none of whom is their best receiver or senior quarterback, and the balance shifts.
O.K....So What's Your Point?
I'm not saying that Marshall won't have a good year. The gap between the talent that departed and the talent that remains isn't so drastic that they won't still beat up on bad teams, but their success will be much more due to their schedule than their ability.
Bill C. said that he would be shocked if Marshall didn't crack 10 wins again this season, and I'm not sure I agree. I am confident that they will enter the month of November with a record of either 9-0 or 8-1 (pending the season opener against Purdue).
They could also win anywhere between eight an thirteen games without shocking me.
A road trip to Middle Tennessee is no gimme, then they come home to face a Florida International team who is nothing if not strong defensively, something a lesser offense will struggle to capitalize on. Lastly, after finally having their bye (a not insignificant fact), they will travel to face a Western Kentucky team that is better and will have played a tougher schedule.
Not much will have changed in Marsall's favor during the year since the 67-66 game; I will be shocked if the Herd even keeps it close, let alone wins. That's at least one loss, one that might keep them out of the title game.
So yes, Marshall isn't massively worse than last season, but a weaker team and a weaker schedule means very likely an identical or worse result.