CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Marshall fans are going to hear it all autumn, especially if their team enjoys its best overall record in 11 years.And they'll hear it if the Thundering Herd shakes its eight-year history of bouncing between 3-5 and 5-3 in Conference USA games. They'll hear it even louder if the Herd plays for the league championship.In light of the latest realignment plate-shifting, the phrase already reverberates around the college football world.Watered down. As in C-USA. As in Marshall's schedule.
To hear some tell it, the Herd's path to league contention is not only watered down, it's waterlogged. MAC-like, even.With youthful programs such as Texas-San Antonio, Florida International and Florida Atlantic, the supposedly improved Marshall team has an eight-game cakewalk after September, right?If a few preseason polls and prognostications are to be believed - and that's all we have until the first kickoff - the Herd's league schedule rates about the same, if not a teensy bit tougher than it otherwise would be.Believe it? Read on and you make the call.After eight years of stability, C-USA bid farewell to defending East Division champion Central Florida, Southern Methodist, Houston and Memphis, now residents of the American Athletic Conference. Coming on board are UTSA, FIU, FAU, Middle Tennessee, North Texas and Louisiana Tech.Of course, Marshall can't play everybody in a 14-team league, and it won't play five teams in what seems to be an inferior West Division. Then again, the Herd plays prohibitive West favorite Tulsa, on the road with a short week to prepare.To compare, let's look at the schedule that might have been, had there been no realignment. The schedule to peruse is not that of 2012, but rather 2009.Why? The 2013 league matchups would have followed the C-USA rotation set in 2005 and renewed in 2009. In the 12-team setup, each team had three cross-division games per year, neatly rotated so that all East teams would face all West teams twice in a four-year span, home and away.In 2009, Marshall played division rivals UCF, Memphis, Southern Mississippi, Alabama-Birmingham and East Carolina as usual. From the West Division, the Herd played SMU at home and Texas-El Paso and Tulane on the road.This fall, the East Division includes Southern Miss, UAB and ECU, along with newbies Middle Tennessee, FIU and FAU. MU's cross-division foes are UTSA at home and Tulsa on the road.This comparison uses USA Today's ongoing 1-though-125 ranking, league coaches' polls and league predictions of another magazine (Phil Steele). Certainly, there are other outlets.
What would have beenOpponents that would have been on the 2013 without realignment:UCF, away (42nd USA Today, fourth by AAC coaches, second by Steele): Easily, the Knights are top team to jump to the AAC. They likely would be favored in the C-USA East.Memphis, away (116th USA Today, last by AAC coaches, ninth by Steele): You may have forgotten the Tigers went 4-4 in C-USA play, tying Marshall for third in the East. But they went 0-4 in nonconference play, including yet another loss to MTSU. No respect here.SMU, home (99th USA Today, eighth by AAC coaches, fifth by Steele): The Mustangs may win a bowl berth by not having to play AAC favorite Louisville, but they've suffered heavy losses and will take a step back. They'll avoid adding to the hex of Texas teams in Huntington (where they're 0-9).UTEP, away (112th USA Today, fourth by C-USA coaches, sixth by Steele): Los Mineros are undergoing a rebuilding year under new coach Sean Kugler and Marshall would be favored by a touchdown, maybe three.
But the Herd avoids a two-time-zone trip that went horribly wrong in '05 and '09.Tulane, away (109th USA Today, sixth by C-USA coaches, third by Steele). Herd fans missed a chance to invade Rue Bourbon and watch their team improve to 5-0 against the Green Wave.
The constantsSouthern Miss, home (82nd USA Today, fifth C-USA coaches, third Steele): The consensus is not only will the Golden Eagles not repeat their 0-12 season, but shouldn't have suffered anything close to that fate in 2012. Don't expect another 59-24 win by the Herd.UAB, home (91st USA Today, fourth C-USA coaches, third Steele): Marshall is well aware of what the Blazers can do, suffering a 31-24 loss last season in Birmingham. This is a year UAB could escape its losing rut.East Carolina, home (50th USA Today, first C-USA coaches, second Steele): The Pirates have a similar situation to that of Marshall - explosive offense, defense being overhauled. The Herd will need all the home-field advantage it can get in a potential division-title game.
The additionsTulsa, away (top 38 USA Today, first by everyone): When this school announced its exit to the AAC after 2013-14, Herd fans thought they were done with the Golden Hurricane forever. The four losses have been painful to watch, whether close or not.
On top of that, MU suffers the worst break in the entire league schedule, having to face Tulsa five days after a home game with UAB.(Tulsa has yet to be named in USA Today's one-per-day ranking. The last pick was MU rival Ohio at No. 39.)MTSU, away (79th USA Today, third C-USA coaches, fifth Steele): In 2012, the Blue Raiders crushed Georgia Tech 49-26 but lost to McNeese State and got pillaged 45-0 at Arkansas State. The latter result should stick with this squad, which is loaded with experience.FAU, away (111th USA Today, sixth C-USA coaches, sixth Steele): Second-year coach Carl Pelini thinks his Owls can break through, but few are buying it.
The weather on Oct. 12 poses a variable. By then, the humidity of summer has broken in Huntington, but south Florida stays soupy day or night.
FIU, away (118th USA Today, last C-USA coaches, last Steele): A slip from 8-5 in 2011 to 3-9 last year, an unexpected coaching change and few returning starters has this program drawing yawns. Weather is an issue again, with Huntington getting chilly by Nov. 23.UTSA, home (119th USA Today, last C-USA coaches, last Steele): Larry Coker guided the Roadrunners to 8-4 in the program's second season, but their task is much tougher.
Adding it upAveraging the USA Today rankings, MU's would-have-been foes averaged just better than 88th. The post-realignment schedule averages 86th, and that could go higher with 38th-or-better Tulsa.Another way to look at it: MU's schedule gets a near-even swap by losing UTEP, Tulane and Memphis and gaining UTSA, FAU and FIU. MTSU could be clearly better than SMU; Tulsa could be a smidge better than UCF.Southern Miss almost has to be better, UAB could very well improve, as could already-potent ECU. So let the questions begin: Does MU's schedule look weaker, or surprisingly a bit stronger? And how will that schedule look four months from now?And the final question: How easy will the Herd (40th USA Today, Steele's pick for America's most improved) make said schedule appear?Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock
.WEAKER OR NOT?
Following is a comparison of Marshall's 2013 Conference USA schedule with the list of opponents from the 2009 season. Under C-USA's old scheduling rotation, MU would have played the same foes as it did in 2005 and 2009.Rankings cited are those from USA Today's 1-through-124 list, which is still being unveiled one team at a time. Tulsa's ranking has yet to be unveiled, but will be in the top 38."Old" schedule(Repeated from 2009)At Central Florida (42)East Carolina (50)Southern Miss (82)UAB (91)SMU (99)At Tulane (109)At Texas-El Paso (112)At Memphis (116)Average: 87.625"New" 2013 scheduleOct. 5 - Texas-San Antonio (119)Oct. 12 - at Florida Atlantic (111)Oct. 24 - at Middle Tennessee (79)Nov. 2 - Southern Miss (82)Nov. 9 - UAB (91)Nov. 14 - at Tulsa (top 38)Nov. 23 - at Florida Int'l (118)Nov. 29 - East Carolina (50)Average: 86 (or lower)NOTE: Marshall's USA Today ranking is 40.