CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Mountain State’s only two major college football programs will simultaneously begin improbable quests this Saturday.
Marshall travels to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio for Game 1 of 14 in a season that could realistically end with an unblemished record. That game begins at 3:30 p.m., which is when West Virginia and Alabama are scheduled to get under way inside Atlanta’s Georgia Dome in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic. The Mountaineers are nearly four-touchdown underdogs a few days away from its nationally televised season opener.
That begs the question, at least from this columnist, which is more likely to happen: Marshall’s perfect season — from the last Saturday in August to a bowl game in December or January — or WVU knocking off the No. 2 Crimson Tide?
The Thundering Herd, of course, have the friendly schedule. According to Phil Steele, only Texas State, Middle Tennessee, Colorado State, Northern Illinois, North Texas and Georgia Southern have softer regular-season schedules.
MU’s non-conference schedule includes three Mid-American Conference teams — Ohio, Miami and Akron — that combined to go 12-25 last season. The fourth team, Rhode Island, is a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) program that won three games in 2013. The Rams lost its last four games by a combined score of 197-27.
If the Conference USA opener at Old Dominion is included, the Herd plays games in West Virginia or bordering states the first five weeks. And, of course, the conference has been pillaged by leagues higher on the food chain, so strong programs like UCF, Houston, Tulsa, Southern Methodist and East Carolina are out of Marshall’s way this season. Doc Holliday is 27-24 in four seasons on the sidelines, but he was 4-9 against the aforementioned defectors (although 2-0 last season).
The path for the Herd is relatively clear to a perfect regular season, although carrying around a target is a challenge in any league. Marshall will get every team’s best shot, from the MAC schools to Middle Tennessee to Rice.
MU would have to win its first-ever C-USA crown to get a shot at No. 14 against an unknown opponent.
Keep in mind that 14-0 — even with a schedule softer than my mid-section — is not a cinch. Since 2006, when regular-season schedules expanded to 12 games and teams could use conference championships and bowls to get to 14 total games, only five teams have managed to navigate a season 14-0.
Ohio State did it in 2002, followed by Boise State and Alabama in 2009, Auburn in 2010 and Florida State last season. That’s five out of 967 possible perfect seasons in eight years, with only one non-power conference school represented.
OK, so what about massive upsets like the one the Mountaineers would have to pull this weekend?
West Virginia is a 26.5-point underdog, and that line may move up or down slightly before kickoff. The Mountaineers have only been a heavier underdog three other times in program history.
In 2001, WVU lost to the Miami Hurricanes by 42 points. The Mountaineers were 35-point ‘dogs. Last season, West Virginia was a 30-point underdog at Baylor and the Bears won handily, 73-42. In 1991, the Mountaineers were 28.5-point underdogs to Miami and lost by 24 points.
WVU has never won, straight up, when its opposition was favored by at least three touchdowns.
That doesn’t bode well for the Mountaineers this Saturday, but there is a sliver of hope. Since 2006, the same year regular-season schedules were allowed to balloon to 12 games, there have been five underdogs of four touchdowns or more win straight up.
Stanford beat Southern Cal, 24-23, as a 42-point underdog in 2007. That same year, Syracuse knocked off Louisville, 38-35, while the Cardinals were a 39-point favorite.
That was a spectacular season for upsets. Appalachian State was a five-touchdown underdog at the Big House when it took down Michigan, 34-32. Three years ago, Texas Tech defeated Oklahoma, 41-38, as a 29-point underdog.
Then, of course, in 2007, Pitt marched into Mountaineer Field as a 28-point underdog and, well, you might remember what happened. WVU was ranked No. 2 at the time, just like Alabama is now.
So, in the past eight seasons five teams have escaped a season 14-0 and five times a four-touchdown favorite has lost a game outright.
Will the Herd survive this season unscathed? Can the Mountaineers surprise state native Nick Saban when the odds say no?
Improbable, but possible.