Both Marshall and West Virginia have chances to kick off their seasons in style over the next two weeks, with the same opponent — Eastern Kentucky of the Football Championship Subdivision — traveling in for home games.
But as much as opening pay-for-play games against the Colonels present opportunities for early-season momentum, they also present opportunities for disaster.
Such is the dichotomy of FBS teams scheduling FCS opponents. Win and no one remembers. Lose and no one forgets.
I mean, what of-age college football fan doesn’t remember Appalachian State at Michigan? And how many WVU fans can name the last three FCS opponents the Mountaineers have played without looking it up?
I had to — Delaware State (2017), Youngstown State (2018) and James Madison a year ago.
That game against the Dukes last season kicked off the Neal Brown era and it was far from a formality, with the Mountaineers hanging on for a 20-13 victory.
This Eastern Kentucky team likely isn’t that James Madison team, which made the FCS championship game a year ago, falling to North Dakota State. WVU and the Bison accounted for the only two losses on JMU’s ledger.
But this is 2020, and if there was ever a year to prepare for the improbable, hopefully we’ve all learned by now that it’s this one.
And aside from the year that has been, there are factors that should, if not concern, at least put the Thundering Herd and the Mountaineers on high alert.
In these pay-for-play games, the visiting FCS squad usually enters with nothing to lose, and that has never been the case more so than now. EKU is one of just a handful of FCS teams even giving football a go this fall and there is no conference championship or playoff berths to worry about at the end of the season. No goals but winning each and every game.
For EKU, the status of the season resulted in a patchwork schedule of eight games, including three at FBS opponents (the third is at Troy on Oct. 17) and a home-and-home series against Central Arkansas, which kicked off the college football season on Saturday with a close win over Austin Peay.
Going back to WVU’s narrow win over JMU a year ago, the Dukes led at halftime and had a chance to tie the game late despite an amped crowd of 61,891, most of which were there to get an early glimpse of a new coach and the direction of West Virginia’s program.
Marshall will allow fans in its opener against the Colonels on Saturday, though the crowd will be limited. The Mountaineers won’t allow fans at all.
No matter what players or coaches may say about playing in half-full or empty stadiums, trust that it does make a difference in several ways.
There will be no or lessened crowd energy for the home teams to feed off. No or limited noise to interrupt opposing offensive play calls. And, maybe most importantly in this case, no raucous environment to give EKU pause.
A fanless game in Morgantown is likely to resemble an exaggerated scrimmage. And if the Colonels can hang in for a while and maybe lull the favored Mountaineers to sleep, there will be no screaming masses to wake WVU up.
Of course, there is adversity once the game starts for both WVU and Marshall to overcome. The Thundering Herd will trot out former George Washington standout Grant Wells to make his first start at quarterback. The Mountaineers will have to find a way to run the football and will be playing their first game without a true defensive coordinator.
However, on paper, both WVU and Marshall should be fine against an FCS team that has gone a combined 14-9 over the last two seasons and lost its leading rusher Darryl McClesky (1,238 yards, eight touchdowns) off a run-heavy attack.
But it’s said that hindsight is always 20/20, and in terms of the 2020 football season, both Marshall and WVU better have all eyes focused on the first task at hand.