C-USA Marshall

North Texas defensive end Joshua Wheeler (18) sacks Marshall quarterback Chase Litton during the 2016 season at Apogee Stadium. Marshall hit rock bottom in 2016 when it finished 3-9 and has been on a steady rise ever since. The Thundering Herd were picked to win Conference USA’s East Division this year in the C-USA preseason poll.

FRISCO — Marshall offensive lineman Levi Brown remembers the 2016 season well. It’s not one of his fonder memories of his time with the Thundering Herd.

Marshall was expected to be one of the top teams in Conference USA that season, which is the case nearly every year. The Thundering Herd didn’t come close to measuring up to their lofty standards and crashed to a surprising 3-9 finish in one of the worst seasons in recent program history.

Marshall has been steadily climbing its way back since and this fall it looks like they have a team capable of winning the Conference USA East Division, for the first time since 2014.

“It’s strange that something like that can happen,” Brown said of Marshall’s unexpected fall a few years ago. “We bought into what the media was saying. The difference now is that we have guys who went through that. When we see something like being picked to win the East, we shrug it off.”

That is exactly what Marshall coach Doc Holliday and his players did on Thursday during the closing session of C-USA media days at Baylor Scott & White Performance Center.

The Thundering Herd were one of the main attractions Thursday, when C-USA’s East Division coaches talked about their programs. The race in the East is of particular interest to North Texas fans this fall.

The Mean Green are the favorites in the West and would meet the top team in the East in the C-USA title game if they can win the division for the second time in three years. UNT won the West in 2017 before falling to a loaded Florida Atlantic team in the conference title game.

Marshall was picked to win the East Division in the C-USA’s preseason media poll and appears to have its best shot in years to regain its perch atop the league. The Thundering Herd’s biggest competition in the East appears to be Florida International.

Marshall will have the advantage of hosting the Panthers in the final game of the regular season.

Florida Atlantic could also be a threat but lost talented running backs Devin Singletary and Kerrith Whyte Jr. to the NFL.

The question now is if Marshall can capitalize on what looks like a good opportunity and live up to the expectations that are always there for one of C-USA’s storied programs.

“At Marshall, we expect to be in the championship game every year,” Holliday said. “That is a good thing. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere expectations are not high.”

The return of sophomore quarterback Isaiah Green heightens those expectations. Green threw for 2,459 yards and 15 touchdowns in his debut season with the Thundering Herd.

Marshall has four players who were named to the preseason all-conference team, including Brown.

“This can be one of our better teams,” Holliday said. “We have to go out and win games. Duke had three players picked in the top 10 [of the NBA draft] and didn’t win the championship. The best team is going to win each week and that team doesn’t always have the best players.”

Marshall will have plenty of elite players this fall, just like it always has. The Thundering Herd’s talent level gives Brown confidence in Marshall’s chances to contend in the league this fall, but he is also well aware of what it will take to capitalize.

“There are always three, four and sometimes five teams that have a good shot of winning this conference,” Brown said. “That is what makes it so fun to play in and also so heartbreaking.”

Marshall has steadily risen through the ranks among C-USA teams since its heartbreak season of 2016. The Thundering Herd have won a bowl game in each of the last two seasons.

Marshall appears to have a team capable of taking the next step and winning the East Division — and maybe the overall C-USA title — for the first time since 2014.

The question now is if Marshall pulls through. Reaching that goal won’t be easy.

“This conference is as good top to bottom as it has ever been,” Holliday said. “There are tremendous coaches in this league. You have to prepare and play your best every week or you won’t have a chance.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvitthey

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