Mid-Major schools rarely churn out true Heisman contenders, but Marshall University may have its fourth candidate since moving up to the FBS (Formally D1-A) in 1997.
Rakeem Cato enters the 2014 season with over 10,000 yards and more than 90 touchdown passes. He’ll likely pass former Heisman candidates Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich in every major passing category.
So the senior signal caller must be on every voter’s pre-season radar right? Well, not quite. While Cato has been nothing short of magnificent since he stepped on campus at Marshall, the Heisman Trophy is as much a team award as it is an individual one.
That’s not to say the Herd has been bad. Last year they won 10 games, made an appearance in the CUSA title game, and beat Maryland 31-20 in a bowl game. But, actual accomplishments aren’t as important as team perception. The fact of the matter is Marshall plays in one of the weaker FBS conferences in the country, and until Cato and company’s resurgence last season the Herd had fallen into college football mediocrity.
What hurts the most though isn’t the down years, it’s that even the good years won’t be as respected because of the lack of quality opponents on the schedule. Not all of that is Marshall’s fault, the Herd moved from the MAC to CUSA in 2005. A move that was supposed to improve the schedule, except the conference realignment plates were already beginning to shift and the Herd was left in a conference made up of beefed up Sun Belt schools, and passed over CUSA programs.
The school also hasn’t shied away from playing big name opponents during the out of conference slate. Marshall has faced Kansas State, WVU, Virginia Tech, Tennessee, Miami (the real one), Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Louisville, and Purdue since 2005. Some of those teams like the Hokies and Mountaineers the Herd played multiple times.
The issue? The down years at the program coincided with its step up in scheduling and aside from Louisville in 2011 the Herd couldn’t beat any of those teams. Sure they came close a few times, losing to WVU 24-21 in 2010 and Virginia Tech 29-21 last season, both games went to overtime.
But, all of that is different in 2014. Marshall has the pieces in place to knock off its fair share of power 5 conference teams. Wins against big time opponents would surely boost Cato’s national image. So what is the problem? Well, while the Herd is more than capable of notching some program shifting wins in 2014 the opportunities just aren’t there.
The schedule for Marshall in 2014 is one of the weakest in the country with three MAC schools (Ohio, Miami Ohio, and Akron) and one FCS opponent making up the out of conference portion. Again, the poor schedule is not necessarily Marshall’s fault. Louisville was supposed to visit Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington in 2014 but a move to the ACC forced the Cards to buy out that match up. With most teams’ schedules filled the Herd was forced to settle on Rhode Island as the replacement.
So despite the national perception of Marshall (and all mid-majors) and the reality of a truly awful schedule can Cato be considered a true Heisman candidate?
The answer is a resounding YES! The weak schedule has one advantage; the Herd should and will be favored to win all 12 games. If Cato can guide Marshall to a perfect regular season record while putting up numbers anything close to his previous two seasons then the Florida native is almost a guaranteed lock for an invitation to New York.
Unfortunately, once there the big school bias will again rear its ugly head, leaving Cato with absolutely no chance to win the award no matter how good his numbers are. I mean, Randy Moss was a Heisman candidate from Marshall, and despite putting together one of the best seasons in college football history and becoming the first sophomore to win the Biletnikoff Award, Moss finished fourth.
In fairness, Moss may have been a part of the best Heisman class of all time. Only Ryan Leaf (who finished third) won’t be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
Still an invite to New York City is an honor, and one that comes few and far between to those players outside the power 5 leagues. Cato can become the fourth Marshall player to garner such attention, but to do it he will have to follow in the footsteps of his mentor Chad Pennington. Pennington was a finalist for the award in 1999 after leading the Herd to a perfect record. Cato will have to make sure his version of the Herd is perfect as well if he wants a slice of the “Big Apple” pie.