C-USA could have fewest bowl teams since '99
When Marshall takes the field at 2 p.m. Friday at East Carolina, it will do so in a win-or-else situation as far as bowl eligibility goes. That's well-documented.
The Thundering Herd (4-3 conference) will be the first of three 5-6 teams trying to defend the sullied honor of Conference USA. Right now, there are just three teams eligible -- West Division winner Tulsa, probably East Division winner Central Florida and ECU.
That number may stick, giving C-USA its fewest bowl teams since 1999, when four teams were eligible and three were selected in a nine-team league.
Southern Methodist (5-6, 4-3) has the toughest assignment, taking on Tulsa (9-2, 7-0) at noon Saturday in Dallas. It doesn't help the Mustangs that they're playing some of their shakiest football, losing 36-14 last week to resurgent Rice.
Strange stat: the Mustangs are in the midst of a 26-game streak in which the team that scores first wins. Alas, they have split those games, going 13-13.
Rice (5-6, 3-4) is playing its best football, winning four of its last five and making Tulsa fight to the final minute in the one loss. Taylor McHargue, who gave Marshall fits with his 467 total yards, accounted for all three touchdowns to complement five Chris Boswell field goals.
The Owls play at Texas-El Paso (3-8, 2-5) in the league's final regular-season game at 7 p.m. That will be an emotional game for the Miners, who bid farewell to retiring coach Mike Price.
Price is 48-60 in nine seasons at UTEP, 177-182 in 31 seasons at Weber State, Washington State and UTEP - none particularly easy jobs. He is grateful for UTEP to take a chance on him after his ill-fated stay at Alabama, when his contract was rescinded in 2003 before coaching a game.
"I am retiring from the game that I have loved and respected my whole life ... 44 years, I guess," Price said. "That's all I've wanted to be, a football coach."
Price has thrown his support to Andre Patterson, who is finishing his third year as UTEP's defensive coordinator, to succeed him.
Price's departure will leave George O'Leary of Central Florida (8-3, 6-1) as the league's longest-serving coach. O'Leary also is finishing his ninth season amid speculation he will retire, but even if he stays, he will become a Big East coach.
Barring other developments, the "dean of coaches" title will go to Rice's David Bailiff and Mario Cristobal of incoming Florida International. Both are expected to begin their sixth season in 2013.
Speaking of the incoming schools, FIU is having an unexpectedly tough year at 3-8. The Panthers did beat rival Florida Atlantic in what appears to be the final Shula Bowl, as Boca Raton-based FAU is being left behind in the Sun Belt Conference.
Louisiana Tech (9-2) is certainly the toughest of the six incoming teams, but lost its No. 19 ranking and a shot at the Western Athletic Conference title with a 48-41 overtime loss last week to Utah State. The Bulldogs rallied from 24 points down to tie the game on a Matt Nelson field goal on the last play of regulation, but faltered in its overtime possession.
"Maybe we were a little emotionally done at that point," said Tech coach Sonny Dykes said. "We battled so much to get back in - I don't know if we ran out of gas down the stretch."
Old Dominion has the splashiest record, 10-1, and is preparing for a deep run in the FCS playoffs. The Monarchs will host Coastal Carolina or Bethune-Cookman on Dec. 1 at its S.B. Ballard Stadium.
The Monarchs won the Colonial Athletic Association, though it will not receive official credit. In retribution for ODU's pending move out of the conference, the CAA disqualified the school from championships in all sports.
Coach Bobby Wilder's Monarchs, who are planning to be up to FBS speed in 2015, are averaging 44.5 points and 538.3 yards per game.
Texas-San Antonio is 7-4 entering its game Saturday against Texas State, though the Roadrunners are just 2-3 in the WAC. Attendance is still relatively strong, at an average of 27,265 at the Alamodome.
North Texas, like Sun Belt brethren FIU, will not be bowl-eligible. The Mean Green (4-7) finishes the season Saturday at Western Kentucky.
North Carolina-Charlotte, a program in its pre-infancy, conducted its fall finale scrimmage last Saturday. The 49ers begin play in 2013, and will join C-USA competition in 2015.
With his five field goals, Rice's Boswell is keeping its C-USA's tradition of strong placekicking alive and well. These weren't chip shots, either: 56, 51, 43, 53 and 28 yards.
But at 19 of 24 and five made from 50 or more yards, Boswell isn't the most accomplished kicker in the league. That honor is going to Tulane's Cairo Santos, who has hit all 20 attempts, including long shots of 54 and 57.
Accordingly, the Brazilian was named this week as one of the three finalists for the Lou Groza Award.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.