The Miami-Ohio Redhawks enter 2017 coming off of a historic 2016 season, finishing 6-7. The 6-7 record was by no means impressive, but the growth of the RedHawks over the season was unprecedented. Miami became the first FBS team in history to start 0-6 and finish the regular season 6-6 to qualify for a bowl game.
If it weren't for overly conservative play-calling, the RedHawks could have finished 7-6 with a résumé-building win over Mississippi State of the SEC. Miami fell 17-16 in a gut-wrenching manner to the Bulldogs in the St. Petersburg Bowl, due to several kicking woes. Kicker Nick Dowd had an extra point blocked in the first half and a potential 37-yard game-winning field goal blocked as well. Miami elected to play for that field goal rather than attempt to win with the touchdown, a decision that came back to bite.
Nonetheless, Chuck Martin's program looked stronger than ever during his tenure last season. Martin endured a 2-10 and a 3-9 season before turning an 0-6 start into a postseason appearance. The RedHawks nearly competed for the MAC Championship Game, finishing 6-2 in conference play. In-state rival Ohio also stood at 6-2 in MAC play but held a head-to-head tiebreaker over the team from Oxford, beating the RedHawks 17-7 in early October.
Miami finished 6-1 in games when Gus Ragland played under center. Ragland took over the reigns as the team's starting quarterback at midseason and instantly turned Miami 180-degrees from a horrendous non-conference start. Ragland stayed mistake-free in Miami's six wins, throwing zero interceptions during the massive winning streak.
His first test will transpire in Huntington, WV against the Marshall Thundering Herd.
Marshall was a shell of its normal self in 2016, finishing 3-9 after three-consecutive 10 win seasons (33-8 from 2013-15). Under head coach Doc Holliday, Marshall has played the role as a perennial Conference USA contender, winning the title in 2014 with a 13-1 record and narrowly missing out on a New Year's Six Bowl. Holliday is 4-0 in bowl games with the Thundering Herd, besting FIU, Maryland, Northern Illinois, and Connecticut in the postseason since 2011.
Marshall's defense struggled mightily in 2016, losing a surprising home game to Akron 65-38 before collapsing at the hands of Louisville, Pittsburgh, and North Texas. Marshall fell to competition including Charlotte and FIU, programs often located in the cellar of the FBS.
Players to Watch
Gus Ragland, QB, Miami OH
Ragland saved Miami's 2016 campaign and begins his quest to lead the RedHawks to their first MAC East title since 2010. The junior quarterback threw 20 career touchdowns (17 in seven games in 2016) before throwing his first career interception in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Ragland has been a model of accuracy, completing 64.9% of passes in his career in Oxford. The 2017 season will be his first year as the team's definite starter, claiming the job with ease after an incredible 2016 season. Ragland thrives in Martin's offense as a short-yard passer. He is excellent at pin-pointing his targets in short-yardage situations and moving the Miami offense down the field one play at a time. On one occasion, Ragland passed the 300-yard passing mark. He completed 26-of-35 passes for 380 yards and three touchdowns in a near-perfect game to beat Ball State in November. Marshall's passing defense took a major step backward in 2016, so Ragland has a golden opportunity to pick up where he left off if the trend continues in Huntington.
Heath Harding, CB, Miami OH
Miami's best defender is the senior wearing a 24 on his chest. Harding served as a real force in the RedHawks' 26th-ranked yards per game defense last season. He picked off four passes and deflected 11 during the team's 6-7 run. As a cornerback, Harding registered an impressive 67 total tackles but reached even further heights in 2015, tallying 97. He will likely draw senior receiver Hyleck Foster in Saturday's anticipated matchup. Marshall lost plenty of its top talent at the wideout position this offseason, so Harding should establish himself as the best player in the Marshall-Miami receiver-secondary duel.
Chase Litton, QB, Marshall
2016 was supposed to be Litton's year to run the C-USA. After finishing 10-3 with a bowl victory in 2015, Litton initiated 2016 as well as any quarterback in the nation. He shredded Morgan State of the FCS 62-0, completing 13-of-16 passes for 309 yards and six touchdowns, good for a 367.2 passer rating. Yes, his touchdown total doubled his incompletion total. He followed up the performance by throwing for 413 and three touchdowns in a shocking loss to Akron, but his three costly interceptions were the deciding factor, converted into 21 points by the Zips. Litton, a fairly accurate passer, enters 2017 after a disappointing season, but if there's anyone who can revive Marshall, it's him. The 6-foot-6-inch quarterback is capable of perfecting the long ball and is capable of lighting up defenses with hundreds of passing yards on the regular.
Keion Davis, RB, Marshall
When it comes to the running game, Davis will be called upon to do the majority of the work for the Herd. Davis did not play in Marshall's final four contests when the Herd fared 1-3, but he is slated to return to the lineup for Saturday's matchup. He rushed for 469 yards and three touchdowns a year ago and still seeks his first 100-yard performance of his collegiate career. Miami fielded a fairly decent rushing defense last year, so Davis must overcome the RedHawk front seven if he hopes to produce a career game.
Keys to the Game
Miami must maintain a balanced offense
In order for Ragland to perform at his optimal level, Miami must mix up the play-calling and keep the ball on the ground to leave the Thundering Herd defense guessing. Ragland, in order to maintain accuracy on his throws, should not be throwing out his arm all day. He's only surpassed the 30-attempt mark twice in his career. Instead, Miami has the power to run a balanced offense and give repetitions to junior running backs Alonzo Smith and Kenny Young. Utilizing two effective backs keeps the offense even more versatile, with Young specializing as a third down receiving back and Smith moving the chains on the ground. The duo combined 1,268 yards last season, and both backs will see action in hopes to defeat Marshall on the road.
Don't let the game get too Lit(ton)
When Litton is hot, he is on fire. He experienced a phenomenal game against Middle Tennessee last season and finished with 246 passing yards and four touchdowns, avoiding throwing an interception. Marshall entered the game as underdogs to the 8-5 Blue Raiders but finished on top 42-17 thanks to Litton's poise and dominance. With Litton under center, Marshall's offense is capable of competing touchdown-for-touchdown with almost any team outside the top 25. Miami's offense averaged an abysmal 22.8 point per game last season, often winning games with the assistance of the defense. If Litton finds early success against the RedHawks, it may be difficult for Miami to score over 30 to compete with the Marshall offense.
The game kicks off at 6:30 p.m. EST in Huntington. The two former MAC rivals last met in 2013 and 2014, with Rakeem Cato and the Thundering Herd dominating both meetings. Thanks the 1950s-1970s era, Miami leads the all-time series 30-12-1. After facing Marshall, Miami battles FCS opponent Austin Peay on September 9.
If the game is high-scoring, Marshall holds the upper hand. Conversely, if the game is a defensive slugfest, Miami is favored. Marshall is currently 2.5-point favorites, thanks to holding home field advantage. Ragland will probably continue his excellence but the rest of the Miami offense must step up if they want to compete in this one. The turnover battle will probably support the RedHawks, giving the current MAC member the narrow edge over the former MAC member.