David J. Neal

David J. Neal: FIU, FAU can derail Marshall, affect first College Football Playoff

Conference USA football coaches solidly picked FIU to finish last in the league’s East Division.

I think they’re off by one spot, but that doesn’t change this funky fact: If Conference USA shakes out as expected, FIU will host a game on Oct. 18 that could affect the first College Football Playoff.

A week later, FAU’s Oct. 25 road game could do the same.

Both involve Marshall, the non-Power Five conference team voted Most Likely to Succeed at Mucking Up The Playoff by several prognosticators. Don’t confuse “Most Likely to” with “likely to.” Still, the forward-lookers see the Thundering Herd making everyone in network TV offices nervous about the time they meet the Florida schools separated by 55 miles and a vowel.

Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato, the C-USA preseason Offensive Player of the Year, and wide receiver Tommy Shuler, Miami Central graduates, lead six returning starters from an offense that averaged 42.1 points per game. The defense gave up 22.9 points per game and is led by C-USA preseason Defensive Player of the Year James Rouse.

Marshall’s schedule includes four teams coming off two wins or fewer. So, the playoff’s nightmare scenario starts with The Herd rampaging through the season, blasting opponents out with numbers too massive to ignore.

Meanwhile, there’s just enough carnage in the Power Five conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12) that a 12-0 Marshall with Cato getting some Heisman noise, doesn’t just take the one non-Power Five spot in the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach Bowl. Marshall gets into the big four, the College Football Playoff.

“I think we have a good chance to have a great season,” Cato said at Conference USA’s Media Day. “I love our team right now. I think we have a good shot to win it all.”

It wasn’t clear if he was talking about the conference or the nation. Either assumes they don’t trip on an FIU or FAU in October.

Between those two, FAU’s the more likely to play stop sticks on Marshall. Led by defense and quarterback Jacquez Johnson, Conference USA Newcomer of the Year, the Owls came out of a midseason coaching change controversy with four season-closing wins under interim coach Brian Wright.

Now with Plantation native Charlie Partridge as coach, FAU returns its defensive middle, junior defensive tackles Brandin Bryant and Miramar High graduate Trevon Coley, senior middle linebacker Andrae Kirk (Central) and senior cornerback D’Joun Smith (American). Wright stayed as offensive coordinator. He’s got Johnson, also FAU’s leading rusher with 772 yards, and senior wide receiver Williams Dukes, who averaged 15.8 yards per catch.

FIU’s second year in Conference USA and under coach Ron Turner shouldn’t feature the old-school spankings distributed last year. Alabama-Birmingham looks like a Lego set fresh out of the box. Defending champion Rice needs to rebuild, as do Middle Tennessee State and North Texas.

There’s still no certainty about which conference foes FIU can outscore in this pinball points era of college football.

“Limited” defined the 2013 FIU offense. Limited experience, including five new offensive line starters, prompted Turner to limit how much of his offense he used. Deployed with limited creativity, that led to situations with limited options. The Panthers spent the season at third-and-long. That led to short possessions, short defensive rest and, eventually, defensive collapse.

That’s why FIU’s improvement starts with the offensive line, especially on first down runs. Second in that line needs to be the skill-position players. According to an Athlon Sports’ article on college football advanced statistics, the team with more-explosive plays wins 86 percent of games. FIU’s coming off a wet firecracker season. Only 24 offensive plays from scrimmage longer than 20 yards, 16 kickoff or punt returns and one interception return.

You can hear sighs of relief from West Dade at the return of redshirt junior cornerback Richard Leonard, who averaged 29.2 yards per kickoff return in 2012, from academic ineligibility, as well as wide receiver Glenn Coleman. Also, junior quarterback E.J. Hilliard (Northwestern) might get some youthful big play help from freshmen wide receiver Dennis Turner (Dillard) and running back Alex Gardner.

As for Oct. 18, Marshall will be coming in looking for the win, style points for the polls and for the South Florida products on its roster. FIU’s defensive strength, the secondary, matches up well with Marshall’s passing game.

It’s doubtful either FIU or FAU’s got the points in them to keep up with Marshall. But doesn’t it bring a chuckle to think that the highlight of either’s season might be saving the College Football Playoff for its Power Five big-budget brothers?

Related stories from Miami Herald