HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Marshall's perfect season came unraveled in December, leaving the Thundering Herd without a Conference USA title and ending the era of coach Doc Holliday.
It turns out Huff's biggest hurdle in his debut season could be an opponent only an hour from his old stomping grounds in Tuscaloosa. UAB won the 2020 championship game, no less on Marshall's home field.
The Blazers and Thundering Herd could be on course to meet again in the title game in December. They're already scheduled to play at Marshall on Nov. 13.
Under Nick Saban, Huff was Alabama’s associate head coach and running backs coach. He is the first Black head coach at Marshall, which started last season 7-0 and was ranked as high as No. 15 but was outscored 59-23 in losing its final three games.
“Yes, we were 7-0 last year. Yes, they did play in the conference championship game. But none of those points carry over,” Huff said. “The experiences carry over. And what you learn carries over. But we've got to start from scratch."
Since reviving its program in 2017, UAB has won the league title in two of the past three seasons.
The Blazers return quarterback Tyler Johnston III and wide receiver Trea Shropshire. Shropshire had five receptions for 180 yards last year against Marshall, including a 71-yard TD in the fourth quarter.
“We talk all the time about winning championships," said UAB coach Bill Clark. "I've spoke before to people and they say when you speak about championships, you set yourself up for failure. And in return I say, well I don’t know how you expect to win championships if you don't talk about it and work for it. Now, you've got to stay humble.
“We've got a big bull's-eye on us this year again.”
No one wants a repeat of last season when the coronavirus pandemic threw numerous games — and some entire schedules — into chaos.
Old Dominion never played a down, canceling its season due to safety concerns. That meant former Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, hired after the 2019 season, has waited a long time for his debut.
“We’ve been using a quote by Abraham Lincoln: ‘If you give me six hours to chop down a tree, we’ll spend the first four sharpening the ax,’” Rahne said. “Well, we’ve had a long four hours of sharpening that ax before we get to swing it. So we find out real quick who really loves the game and who just loves the hype of game day.”
UAB went six weeks without playing due to the pandemic, regrouped to beat Rice to earn a spot in the title game, then saw its Gasparilla Bowl trip canceled after organizers could not find a replacement when South Carolina opted out of the game.
Marshall was picked as the clear favorite in the East Division and UAB in the West.
The Thundering Herd's biggest challenge could come from Florida Atlantic, which has nearly every starter back and added Penn State transfer quarterback Michael Johnson Jr.
UAB could get some heat from UTSA, which returns league Offensive Player of the Year Sincere McCormick and dual-threat quarterback Frank Harris.
McCormick: He set multiple school records as a sophomore and finished second in the nation behind Iowa State's Breece Hall with 1,467 rushing yards.
DeAngelo Malone, Western Kentucky: The defensive end's stats weren't as impressive as 2019, when he compiled 100 tackles and 11.5 sacks. Still, he blocked a pair of kicks a year ago and has 23.5 sacks over the past three seasons.
Grant Wells, Marshall: The conference freshman of the year finished with nearly 2,100 passing yards and 18 touchdowns, both league bests.
The conference will get off to an early start with 15 games played before Labor Day. UTEP kicks it off with an Aug. 28 matchup at New Mexico State and UAB heads to Jacksonville State on Sept. 1.
REMEMBERING THE FALLEN
Huff took his players Sunday to a Huntington cemetery to remember those lost in the worst disaster in U.S. sports history.
Among those who spoke to the players was Red Dawson, an assistant coach on the 1970 Marshall team who drove on a recruiting trip before heading to the game at East Carolina and was not on the team plane. The chartered jet crashed short of the Huntington airport on Nov. 14, 1970, killing all 75 aboard.
“Any time you join a family, it’s important that you learn that family’s history,” Huff said. “Today was an opportunity for all of our guys to learn our family’s history.”