If you haven’t heard it, you haven’t been listening: Marshall’s football team likely will be favored in every game this fall.
So, as the speculation season gives way to preseason camp, the issue is raised: If Marshall upholds that weekly favorite role and wins the Conference USA championship to boot, the Thundering Herd will be 13-0 on the morning of Dec. 7.
Things have changed since the 1999 Herd downed Clemson and ran the 12-game table, yet settled for the Motor City Bowl and a dismemberment of 25th-ranked Brigham Young. There is no Bowl Championship Series, and no “BCS Busters” such as Boise State and Northern Illinois.
The American Athletic Conference, that league formerly known as the Big East, no longer has a seat at the “Power 5” head table. Central Florida, which won the Fiesta Bowl last season, has exactly the same access as Marshall of the Knights’ former league, C-USA.
For that matter, UCF has the same access as Mid-American Conference gridiron barnacle Eastern Michigan, and with any member of the Mountain West and Sun Belt conferences.
Amid the rubble of the Bowl Championship Series, college football has adopted a four-team playoff, with two of six top-tier bowls serving as semifinal contests. The first championship game takes place Jan. 12, 2015 at the palatial AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
That likely will not concern teams in the “Group of 5” conferences. Of all the BCS party crashers, only Texas Christian entered its bowl game in the top four of the BCS ranking, doing so in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. At the time, the Horned Frogs were members of the MWC.
The just-released coaches Top 25 preseason poll was completely filled with Power 5 teams, those formerly known as “BCS AQ” programs. You had to plunge three spots into the “others receiving votes” category to find a G-5 team, UCF; Marshall is next at 37th.
Still, the 60 so-called mid-major schools have a nice prize to chase: One will be selected to play in a New Year’s Eve/Day bowl.
Much of the selection procedure has been well documented. A 13-person committee will announce its top-25 rankings on Tuesdays beginning Oct. 28, leading up to the final selection process on Dec. 7. The members will select the four playoff teams and rank the next group of teams for other New Year’s bowls.
Then the committee selects “the highest-ranked champion from the five conferences without New Year’s bowl contracts” — ergo, the Group of 5. That team likely heads to the Cotton, Peach or Fiesta Bowl.
By that definition, exactly five teams will be eligible for that bowl berth on Dec. 7. Their wait will be a few hours longer — ESPN will announce the playoff quartet at 12:45 p.m. Eastern, but won’t spill the beans on the other top-tier bowl teams until 3 p.m.
Until that day, the lobbying will grow a bit louder, the angst will bubble up quicker. It won’t just be the possible issue of two Southeastern Conference teams making the final four; it could be whether an 11-1 or 10-2 Cincinnati team has a case to muscle out a 12-1 or 13-0 Marshall team. Or whether Boise State or Northern Illinois is more deserving at 11-2.
That presents a new dynamic, albeit under the national radar.
“I don’t think there’s any question. I think there will be people watching from all over [wondering] who’s going to be that highest-ranked team,” said Mike Hamrick, Marshall’s athletic director. “It’s good for college football and good for Conference USA. There’s a more legitimate place at the table for us, with the way the playoffs are set up.”
The lobbying got a head start in conference media days this summer, with coaches and commissioners talking a good game.
American commissioner Mike Aresco thinks his league should be returned to the big boys’ table, despite Louisville’s departure.
“We hear a lot about Power 5 conferences, the Equity 5, the High Resource 5, the Group of 5, the Autonomy 5, whatever you choose to call them, and we consider ourselves a power conference as well,” he said last week. “We’re not going to take a back seat from anyone. We see the landscape as five plus one and we’re knocking on the door.
“Our goal is to be in the conversation as the sixth power conference.”
Mountain West commish Craig Thompson has other views: “We think that over a 12-year period, it’s going to be our champion frequently. Under the more restrictive access to the postseason, we had four teams play in BCS bowls.”
C-USA has to bolster its top-to-bottom profile, or at least top-to-middle. And it’s not just about the new membership, it’s also about the established programs — charter programs Southern Mississippi and the University of Alabama at Birmingham combined to go 3-21 last season.
But that league kept up with the happy-face crowd. Coach David Bailiff of defending league champ Rice had his say: “I think we’re getting better as a conference. I think we’ve got to make sure we end up the sixth. We’ve got to be the best of the other five. I think that’s the commissioner’s [Britton Banowsky’s] plan.
“He expects us to get better and play a competitive nonconference schedule and beat some of these guys.”
That “competitive nonconference schedule” phrase might knock a championship Marshall team into a “regular” C-USA bowl. The Thundering Herd’s nonleague slate of MAC schools Miami (Ohio), Ohio and Akron could draw yawns from the selection committee, especially if other league champs knock off a “Power 5” team or two.
A sample of schools to which Marshall might be compared, should the Herd win its first C-USA championship:
Cincinnati was a strong favorite in the AAC’s media poll. Highly touted Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel is seizing the quarterback job and the Bearcats are loaded at the skill positions — returnees combined for 16-plus rushing touchdowns and 20-plus receiving TDs. The schedule is a potential knock, as the Bearcats somehow avoid UCF.
UCF lost star quarterback Blake Bortles, but the Knights are loaded with experience on defense. Nonconference foes are Penn State, Missouri and Brigham Young, all with winning 2013 records.
Houston is a nice sleeper in this race, as John O’Korn is back at quarterback. East Carolina has QB Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy back, but must fill several holes.
Boise State over the last decade and asked, “Why can’t we do that?” Chris Petersen left for Washington after last season, but former BSU quarterback and offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin may not miss a beat. Running back Jay Ajayi (1,425 yards) and QB Grant Hedrick return, among others.
Fresno State was one 62-52 loss from a 12-0 regular season and won the MWC title game. QB Derek Carr is gone and Duke transfer Brandon Cannette is expected to step in. The Bulldogs have most of their defense back.
San Diego State could win the West Division. Utah State, once a pushover in the old Western Athletic Conference, is the defending Mountain Division champ.
Northern Illinois is expected to recover from the loss of Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch, and could scoop up brownie points at Northwestern and Arkansas. Bowling Green won the 2013 title and is expected to repeat in the East under new coach Dino Babers. QB Matt Johnson and RB Travis Greene form an explosive offense.
Louisiana (the Lafayette variety) is loaded with seniors, led by QB Terrance Broadway. The Ragin’ Cajuns travel to Mississippi and Boise State back-to-back in September, providing an opportunity to spice up the mid-major scene.
BYU, Army and Navy have the same access that all FBS programs have to the playoffs and bowls, with one exception: They are NOT part of the G-5 picture. BYU could play a spoiler role, though, taking on UCF, Boise State and Utah State.
First and foremost, Marshall must win C-USA. If that mission succeeds, perception may keep the Herd out of Atlanta, or wherever. A big problem: It’s tough to argue that the American and Mountain West aren’t the best of the G-5 leagues.
But the Herd may have the best quarterback in Rakeem Cato and could pillage its schedule in shock-and-awe fashion. It’s hard to tell how the new selection committee will think about scoring margins, but a few more touchdowns and 400-passing-yard games won’t hurt.
Whatever the case, Hamrick likes the new format.
“The good thing about the college football playoff [and related format] is it creates interest before the season, from the first team to the last teams, because everybody’s got a chance,” Hamrick said.
Reach Doug Smock at email@example.com, 304-348-5130 or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.