EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles by Jim Butta, a veteran sports writer for The Parkersburg News and Sentinel., who has served as the newspaper's beat writer for the Mountaineers.
The analysis is a compilation of research done on each opponent West Virginia University will face during the 2012 season.
Much of the information comes from the team's spring prospectus as well as stories written about the program during and after its spring drills.
Marshall Thundering Herd
Offense: The good news for Thundering Herd fans is that eight starters return from last year's Beef O'Brady's Bowl championship team. The bad news is that unit ranked 102nd in the nation in total offense moving up one spot from the previous year.
Quarterback Rakeem Cato returns after passing for more than 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns and will be joined in the backfield by junior Tron Martinez, who led the team in rushing with 649 yards and three touchdowns on 160 attempts.
Cato will also have his favorite target back as South Charleston native Aaron Dobson returns for his senior season after latching onto 49 passes for 668 yards and all but three of Cato's touchdown throws.
The offensive front appears to be solid with the return of three starters -sophomore Chris Jasperse at center, senior John Bruhin at right guard and junior Garrett Scott at right tackle. But, the left side has a pair of new faces in sophomore guard Josh Lovell and junior tackle Gage Niemeyer.
Defense: Conference USA Player of the Year Vinny Curry has departed for the NFL, leaving a huge gap in a Herd prevent unit that allowed 28.6 points and 405 yards of offense per game.
Increased athleticism at linebacker and more depth, however, could make this the best defense Marshall has fielded during coach Doc Holliday's tenure at the school.
Senior Devin Arrington will move into a linebacker spot and will strengthen a position already anchored by sophomore Jermaine Holmes while a healthy D.J. Hunter, who missed much of last season with a knee injury, gives the Herd four very talented corners, led by junior Darryl Roberts.
Up front, Marshall returns juniors Marques Aiken (tackle) and Jeremiah Taylor (end), but the key to this unit's success may lie in the development of juniors Brandon Sparrow at nose tackle and Alex Bazzie, who will attempt to fill the shoes of the departed Curry.
Specialists: Parkersburg native Tyler Warner, who made good on 12-of-15 field goals and all 32 of his PATs, is gone as well as punter Kase Whitehead. Justin Haig is the early favorite to kick while walk-on Austin Dumas holds a edge for the punting job.
Analysis: While another bowl appearance is not out of the picture, a C-USA championship, or a victory over WVU, looks to be a long shot.
Marshall has a chance for improvement if the offensive line can give the Herd's talented trio of Cato, Dobson and Martinez time to work their magic and the defense appears to be deeper and better prepared.
Expect Marshall to come out with all guns blazing against a Mountaineer defense that will be missing some big parts of its 2011 edition and going through the growing pains associated with installing a new system.
But, in the end, look for WVU's big three - quarterback Geno Smith and wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey - to be too much to handle.
Series: WVU leads, 11-0.