Considering FCS upsets of FBS programs are generally few and far between, especially when first-year head coaches are making their debut, the bottom line — wins and losses — deserves a free pass this fall.
Nine of the 15 FCS programs that are suiting up for limited schedules are facing multiple FBS opponents, including seven with three or more games. Eastern Kentucky's Walt Wells has the most FBS games among new FCS head coaches with three, beginning with a difficult assignment at Marshall on Saturday.
Both teams seek to make strong first impressions before a national TV audience. Separated by about a two-hour drive, they met as recently as 2018 — a 32-16 Marshall win — and are former perennial FCS national championship contenders that squared off in each season from 1985 to 1992.
Wells is trying to get his Ohio Valley Conference program, which was 7-5 last season, back to a national level in the FCS. Meanwhile, Doc Holliday usually has Marshall in the upper echelon of Conference USA, with last year’s 8-5 team losing to UCF in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl — his only loss in seven bowl appearances over 10 seasons.
Eastern Kentucky at Marshall
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 5 at 1 p.m. ET
Series: Marshall leads 11-8-1
When Eastern Kentucky Has the Ball
Walt Wells says he has called on some of his SEC connections, such as Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops, South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, and Alabama assistant Butch Jones, while preparing for his first season. They'll all want to see the Colonels be multiple on offense even though Wells' background is as an O-line coach.
Eastern Kentucky is replacing OVC rushing champ Darryl McClesky Jr. but returns Alonzo Booth (673 yards, 14 touchdowns), who had a TD carry against Marshall in 2018. While the Colonels have different options at quarterback, Parker McKinney made seven starts as a redshirt freshman last season. The right side of the O-line is particularly experienced and will help free up time to get the ball to No. 1 wide receiver Keyion Dixon. Still, the line will be tested by Marshall defensive ends Darius Hodge and Koby Cumberlander, who combined for 11.5 sacks a year ago.
The Colonels have a long-range weapon in placekicker Alexander Woznick, a graduate transfer from South Carolina.
When Marshall Has the Ball
The Thundering Herd can ease in redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells because of their rushing attack. Not only do they bring back the 2019 Conference USA Most Valuable Player in running back Brenden Knox, but they are scheduled to open with five fifth-year seniors on the offensive line, including C-USA preseason right tackle Cam Madden as one of three returning starters. Plus, Eastern Kentucky has a relatively new defensive line rotation.
The 6-foot, 223-pound Knox rushed for 1,387 yards on 5.1 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns in his sophomore season. The Thundering Herd were 6-1 when he rushed for more than 100 yards, losing only to UCF.
Wells will counter Eastern Kentucky with zone-reads and can get the ball out quickly to tight end Xavier Gaines (27 receptions for 306 yards and three TDs), wide receiver Broc Thompson, or Knox coming out of the backfield. The new signal-caller has to be cognizant of a Josh Hayes-led EKU secondary that seeks to force mistakes.
While Eastern Kentucky has had close games against FBS opponents, it has only one win since 1985 (Miami of Ohio in 2014). Meanwhile, Marshall hasn't lost to an FCS program since falling to New Hampshire in 2007.
This matchup doesn't have the feel of an upset, especially considering the pandemic has likely hindered teams with new head coaches. The visiting Colonels can't waste opportunities if they are going to have Marshall in trouble in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Marshall 31, Eastern Kentucky 13
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo courtesy of Marshall Athletics)