CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- ONE OF the pleasant surprises in an otherwise shaky year for Conference USA football: Most of its new teams have done a credible job, which we cannot say for several holdovers. (We're looking at you, Southern Mississippi.) In the East Division, Middle Tennessee is going to do no worse than a tie for second at 6-2, 8-4 overall. Florida Atlantic has overcome the shocking, drug-use-related firing of Carl Pelini and will become bowl eligible at 6-6. (If you doubt this, just check their schedules.) In the West, Texas-San Antonio has thrown one wrench into that division's race and will try to throw another one this week at North Texas. The Roadrunners should finish 6-6, but will be denied a bowl solely on its status as a reclassifying team. Of Marshall's seven wins, the 34-10 thumping of UTSA is the most impressive. A weak statement, yes, but the Herd made the Roadrunners look like roadkill for a day. Speaking of North Texas, isn't the Mean Green a newcomer? Yes, and that team controls its destiny to win the West - this after about eight years of struggling in the Sun Belt. Louisiana Tech arrived a year too late - the Bulldogs could have won C-USA last year in any alignment, former or current. This is a rebuilding year, perhaps more so with the coaching change to Skip Holtz, but Tech still has an outside chance at 6-6. Then there's the sixth newbie, Florida International. The last time we saw the Panthers, they brought several thousand fans to St. Petersburg for a spirited bowl bout with the Thundering Herd. Head coach Mario Cristobal, a Miami native of Cuban descent, was reported at the time to be wooed by Pitt. Two years later, FIU's football program is a giant, flaming dumpster pushed onto the railroad tracks in front of an ill-fated train. Cristobal, who clearly desired to stay in south Florida, coaches Nick Saban's offensive linemen at Alabama. His offensive line coach, Alex Mirabal, is doing a bang-up job at Marshall. And the Panthers are awful. Somehow, they blocked a field goal to beat Southern Miss 24-23 in the famous "Pillow Fight" Oct. 5 in Hattiesburg, but they are coming off a 33-10 loss Saturday at Texas-El Paso in "Pillow Fight: The Sequel." The heretofore horrendous Miners outgained the Panthers 407-200, rushed for 327 yards and held FIU to 11 first downs. The Miners only bothered to throw seven times, gaining 64 of their 80 yards on one backbreaking TD. In September, FIU lost 72-0 to Louisville, but that wasn't the worst indignity. A week earlier, the Panthers were flogged 34-13 by Bethune-Cookman. Cranked out nine first downs, gave up 311 rushing yards in that gem. Over the weekend, one of my Twitter followers prodded me to take a gander at FIU's stat summary, and it was frightening. Updated after the UTEP game, some of the highlights:
For the season, FIU is being outgained by a mile. This is not a figure of speech: The margin is 4,167 to 2,237, a difference 1,930 yards - 1.10 miles.
The Panthers are being outgained 2,016 to 780 on the ground - a ratio of 2.58-to-1.
The Panthers have managed to sack opponents 12 times, but their quarterbacks have hit the deck 37.
They are being outscored 375-101. Even worse-looking: Foes have scored 47 touchdowns to FIU's 12, a ratio of nearly 4-to-1.
On December 20, 2011, Cristobal's FIU team was favored to beat Marshall at Tropicana Field. When the ball goes off the tee at FIU Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday, the home team has exactly the same chance to defeat the Herd as does Barry University, St. Thomas University and Miami Dade College.
Take extra credit if you know the latter three schools do not sponsor football.
Athletic director Pete Garcia had the good sense to hire Cristobal after the 2006 season, and the brilliantly stupid idea to fire him after a 3-9 season in 2012. Garcia said "We've gone backwards," but he seemed to forget what the bottom of the barrel really looks like - FIU was coming off an 0-12 season and that embarrassing fight against Miami (Fla.) when he took the AD job.
Garcia and new coach Ron Turner, who has as much in common with south Florida as I do, have gotten reacquainted to that bottom of the barrel. The Panthers will have to look to basketball and Rakeem Buckles to lift their spirits.
Wait a sec ... the Panthers are ineligible for postseason play, running into academic index shortcomings. A legacy of another great Garcia personnel decision, the hiring of Isiah Thomas.
What a circus. And this school got into C-USA before Florida Atlantic?
Saturday's game won't do much for Marshall's strength of schedule, but what the heck. It's better to beat weak opposition than be weak opposition, I say.
Besides, this is a good warmup for MU's upcoming Conference USA semifinal game against East Carolina on Nov. 29. And a good chance for the Herd's Miami kids to perform in their home city.
Maybe someday the Panthers will be competitive again.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.