Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Week 14 College Football Picks: The Annual Feast of College Football

This is the part where I rant about something related to the sport – but who cares? It’s Thanksgiving! We can save the talk about the confusing selection committee or impending realignment when there are no games going on.

Starting Thursday night and running through the wee hours of Sunday night, division titles will be decided, rivalries will be renewed, hearts will be broken, seasons will be ruined and so much food will be consumed.

If you love college football as much as I do – or even if you just merely like the sport – this is what the whole season has been building to. After Saturday, it’s conference championships and bowl games.

This weekend is about the essence of the sport. They can move the non-conference games to neutral sites. They can prevent conference foes from playing every year. But the powers at be cannot destroy Ohio State/Michigan, Notre Dame/USC or the Iron Bowl. Well, at least they haven’t yet – and for that, we should be thankful.

Overall Record: 70-75-1
Best Bet: 6-7
Upset Special: 6-6-1

It is becoming readily apparent I will not be hitting .500 in the regular season as I dug myself way too big a hole early in the season and a string of 6-5 weeks have not helped. Thankfully, there are enough bowls that I can turn it around by January. Right?

Tcu (-6.5) over TEXAS
I think Texas is a vastly improved team from the beginning of the season. I think Charlie Strong’s defense will make life miserable for TCU. I think the stadium will be packed and rocking as the faithful show up for a Longhorn revival.

But I also think TCU – despite being so, so wrong earlier this year – is going to make the playoff. I doubted them all year but there are one horrific stretch of football against Baylor from being undefeated and a clear #1 in the country. I wish the spread was a little lower, but this is TCU’s conference championship. Texas is simply a year away from winning a game like this.

IOWA (Pk) over Nebraska
Going against Nebraska has been such a good angle, as their last two losses haven’t come within three scores of covering the spread. This week, the Cornhuskers – in what has to be the end of Bo Pelini’s reign of indifference – finish out schedule against Iowa, where they will surely pick up their pre-ordained fourth loss.

Iowa has been up and down this year but you get the feeling they’ll have plenty of motivation after a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin last week. Also, Nebraska sucks this year and their only good wide receiver (Kenny Bell) is very questionable.

UCLA (-4.5) over Stanford
This line gives me great pause. UCLA is one of the hottest teams in the country playing at home for a Pac-12 South title while Stanford is barely bowl-eligible and hasn’t beat a team with a pulse all year. I actually would have given Stanford a better chance if they had lost to Cal and needed this game for a bowl. Instead, they have their bowl and UCLA appears to finally have figured out how to keep Brett Hundley protected.

GEORGIA (-13) over Georgia Tech
With a Missouri loss, Georgia is in the SEC Title Game. With a Missouri win, they’re not. So this game, technically, means nothing. It also means everything. Georgia needs a win to secure a New Year’s Six bowl. If they win out, including a win over Alabama, they could be in the playoff mix. For the season Georgia has had, that’s a pretty remarkable statement.

As for Georgia Tech, they haven’t played a team as good as Georgia all year, much less beaten one. Despite this game’s stature as a rivalry game, the more important game for the Yellow Jackets comes a week from Saturday in Charlotte.

LOUISVILLE (-12.5) over Kentucky *Best Bet*
To say things have run off the rails for Kentucky during an ugly five-game losing streak is being kind. They have been non-competitive in four of those five games and really, really non-competitive in road games against LSU and Georgia.

Louisville has reeled off two huge road wins – at Boston College and at Notre Dame – since they ran out of steam against Florida State. Depending on how Georgia Tech finishes, the Cardinals are in a very legitimate spot to play in the Orange Bowl as the ACC’s replacement for playoff-bound Florida State. Bobby Petrino is not one to take the foot of the gas pedal. This could get real, real ugly for the Wildcats.

Michigan State (-13) over PENN STATE
Last week, Michigan State was running end-arounds for offensive linemen in a 45-3 thrashing of Rutgers while Penn State was losing to Illinois. In the past two months, Penn State has only beaten Indiana and Rutgers. Michigan State is looking to make one last statement to the selection committee for a New Year’s trip to Dallas or Atlanta. You think they are about to screw that up by messing around with Penn State?

Minnesota (+13.5) over WISCONSIN *Upset Special*
This has to be a first for me – Minnesota was my upset special a week ago against Nebraska and they’re my upset pick again this week.

I could not have been more impressed with Minnesota a week ago. Regardless of how bad I think Nebraska is, the Golden Gophers had every reason to call it a day. They gave up a touchdown on a field goal return. Their best player, RB David Cobb, was knocked out of the game. It was Senior Day in Lincoln. Yet, they keep pounded Nebraska on the ground and eventually wore them down.

Should Wisconsin win this game? Yes. But despite the exploits of Melvin Gordon, I simply do not trust coach Gary Andersen in a close game. The Badgers blew their opener to LSU and gagged one away at Northwestern. Last week, they did everything in their power to give away the Iowa game, but were saved by Gordon.

On the other sideline, Jerry Kill has proven to be a miracle worker whose teams tend to excel and execute in tight games – only Illinois this year proved to be an exception. This line is way too high.

FLORIDA STATE (-7.5) over Florida
I am so stupid. Florida State has covered small spreads and failed for big spreads. Last week, with a giant line against Boston College, I tried to outsmart myself and picked Florida State. They nearly lost.

I will not make that mistake twice in a row! The parallels to Ron Zook winning his last game as Florida coach in Tallahassee is cute but this Seminole team is the best team in the country. Yes, I said it. They don’t deserve to be #1 but they are the best. They take everyone’s best shot and rope-a-dope like Ali before winning. They may take the first half off again but the smallish spread means it won’t matter.

OLE MISS (-2) over Mississippi State
Vegas has to know something I don’t, right? We just saw Ole Miss get creamed by Arkansas. Mississippi State is still in the SEC West and playoff hunts. Why the heck is this line only two?

The line is begging you to pick Mississippi State. If the house wants you to do something, do the opposite. That’s it. That’s my reasoning. Because there’s nothing football-wise that suggests Ole Miss has a chance here.

Tennessee (-17) over VANDERBILT
They couldn’t make this line high enough. Tennessee is playing for its first bowl berth since 2010 while Vanderbilt just lost 51-0 to Mississippi State. If Vandy even covers, it’s further proof that college football makes zero sense.

ALABAMA (-9.5) over Auburn
Last year, Alabama was a 10.5-point favorite on the road and I took them. This year, they’re a 9.5-point favorite at home against an Auburn team that just got thumped by Georgia. Alabama is playing for a playoff berth, an SEC West title and revenge for its most painful loss ever.

If Auburn proves me wrong again, I will humbly admit that Gus Malzahn is the best coach in college football. Until then, I still think Alabama has the best one.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Should the Big 12 add Houston and SMU?

I was wrong. I was so very, very wrong.

Earlier this year, I thought TCU would ruin the Big 12. My reasons for being wrong have little to do with TCU's on-field performance. Their run to the playoff contention has helped the conference but it was more that I didn't understand the Big 12.

big 12 expansion
I wrote that piece under the mistaken assumption the Big 12 operated like the other power conferences in the extended game of Risk that is college football realignment. I lumped the Big 12 in with the Big Ten and ACC in their attempts to gain a foothold in New York City or the SEC adding Missouri for the St. Louis and Kansas City markets.

The Big 12 has the only Risk piece it will ever need – the state of Texas. When they added TCU, they were merely ensuring the Lone Star State would be closed to outsiders. Sure, Texas A&M can pop up and take some recruits, but it ultimately doesn't matter. Texas is the richest state in terms of football recruits and money. Texas A&M can't take all of it with them to the SEC.

I also foolishly believed that the Big 12 needed to add more quality, big-name programs to bolster its ranks and that was misguided too. The Big 12 has Texas and Oklahoma and that's all it needs.

On Thanksgiving night, TCU will play on the road at a 6-5 team. Yet this past weekend, analysts across ESPN were describing it as a “showcase” or “statement” game for the Horned Frogs. Why? Because that 6-5 team is Texas.

However, the Big 12 does face a looming problem that is not going away without expansion – the lack of a conference championship game.

In the preseason, this did not appear to be a problem. The Big 12 doubled down on their “One True Champion” motto. The league argued that it's the only league where everyone plays everyone else. In theory, it made sense.

In practice, TCU may be playing Iowa State on the same day Alabama is playing Georgia and a day after UCLA plays Oregon. In the case of the latter, that's a rematch and, yet, it means so much more for the Pac-12 than Oregon playing everyone else.

Whether it's a rematch or not, the conference championship game adds another quality opponent on any team's resume. The lack of one is going to severely hurt TCU and Baylor – and more importantly, will hurt Big 12 teams as long as a four-team playoff exists.

Look at the bump Ohio State could get from beating Wisconsin. Imagine if TCU and Baylor, for argument's sake, were preparing to play a rematch. The winner of that game would have an infinitely stronger case for inclusion in the playoff.

Unfortunately for the Big 12, they have other issues that make expansion targets tough to consider. The league should have added Louisville and Cincinnati to go along with West Virginia and that would've solved everything. But now Louisville is in the ACC and Cincinnati by itself doesn't solve the Big 12's problem. They need two teams.

I also argued in the past for Boise State, which would have served the same purpose that West Virginia does now – the geographic outlier that is there to bump up the football side of things. The league can’t sustain two of those.  We've seen with West Virginia that the travel is a serious concern, which eliminate Cincinnati and Boise from being added together. There are few other enticing options.

Two schools that have been bandied about are USF and UCF as a package deal. It makes sense, again, in theory as the schools offer top TV markets and fertile recruiting grounds. But those two schools will always play second-fiddle in the state to Florida and Florida State in the perception battle – you think Oklahoma and Texas want to deal with that?

So that's how I've landed on Houston and SMU. And you probably ended up on this post scratching your head and wondering what I was smoking upon writing this.

The Big 12 has only one significant problem with the makeup of its league – it doesn't have 12 members. That's it. The other possible additions bring their own headaches. How do you do divisions? How will it impact travel? Are those schools guaranteed to be good in football?

Houston and SMU – I swear this is a compliment – are two warm bodies that the league needs to fill out it roster. Their addition would allow the league to create divisions that are shockingly equal in terms of competitiveness:

South: Texas, TCU, Baylor, Texas Tech, Houston and SMU
North: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State, West Virginia

That alignment also solves what was possible the league's biggest problem in a past life – the fall of Nebraska in the 2000's meant the league's South division was far too strong. With this alignment, Texas and Oklahoma are split up, with West Virginia and Kansas State giving the North three teams – four if you count Oklahoma State – that are Top 20 contenders in a given year.

Let's not forget that the Big 12 has a willing host in Jerry Jones for a title game at any time. They just have to ask. With this alignment, not only can they give Jerry Jones the title game, the league can dream about a Texas/Oklahoma title game. And unlike the Big Ten or ACC, they don't have to gerrymander the divisions to make it happen. The ACC divisions are still messed up because the league wanted a Florida State/Miami title game that hasn't happened in 10 years.

The answer of should they add Houston and SMU is an easy yes. Houston has proven to be a decent to very good football program. SMU is currently a dumpster fire but was knocking on the door of relevance a few years ago. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize both schools would be bolstered significantly by a jump to a Power Five conference.

The real question is. “Will this happen?” The obvious answer, as I write this, is no. SMU is the worst team in the FBS right now. The Big 12 has remained steadfastly opposed to expansion.

When will that change? It could change as soon as this December 7, when a 1-loss TCU or Baylor is left out in favor of Ohio State. It could take until next year, when Oklahoma is left out. Or maybe this gets played out for several years.

Make no mistake – at some point in time, the Big 12 will comprehend they need a conference title game. When that moment arrives, they will start looking over options. They will see few good ones.

Houston and SMU bring the least to the table themselves, yet their inclusion opens up a world of possibility for the league.

Pitch a Texas/Oklahoma title game on the first weekend in December with playoff implications to Fox or ESPN, and see what they say.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Parity has come to AAC football, and that's not good

This year, the AAC should have six bowl teams. Last year, they had only 4.

Last year, the AAC had four of the absolute worst teams FBS had to offer. This year, they have only 1.

ecu temple
That's good right? Nope, it's horrible. The parity that Roger Goodell fantasizes about is now keeping Mike Aresco up at night.

In 2013, the AAC was comically top-heavy in football. UCF and Louisville, each led by first round NFL quarterbacks, combined to go 24-2 and finished in the Top 15. It was a resounding success for the AAC's perception and undeniably crucial as the league's automatic bid to a major bowl game disappeared.

As this year started, the AAC champion seemed to be the front-runner for the Group of Five's new automatic bid to a major bowl for the top-ranked champion. Even back in August, the rumblings about Marshall's weak schedule had begun and the Mountain West appeared void of a top contender with Boise State expected to take a step back.

In short, everything was in place for the AAC to place its champion in the Peach Bowl and remain the best non-power league. That's when parity struck the AAC. That's why the league will likely be on the outside looking in.

The first Top 25 from the selection committee revealed the AAC’s respect as East Carolina with two ACC wins – even over poor ACC teams – was the only Group of Five team in the rankings. Remarkably, they remain the only Group of Five team to be ranked, further indication of the committee’s respect.

Unfortunately for East Carolina, the ACC competition proved a lot easier than the AAC competition. They lost to a vastly improved Temple team in the rain. They went down to Cincinnati. It is not even first in the league.

UCF is currently tied for first. They lost to UConn. They struggled mightily to beat Tulane at home by 7.

There's two ways to look at the parity that has overtaken the league: the teams at the top aren't very good or the teams at the bottom aren’t that bad. It's likely a combination of both. Regardless, the league has produced far more close games and surprising results than it did a year ago.

While the focus last year was on UCF and Louisville, Houston and Cincinnati cruised to 8- and 9-win seasons respectively by feasting on bottom feeders. In the bowl season, the teams were exposed by power conference foes in Vanderbilt and North Carolina – not exactly Alabama and Florida State – in bowl games. They had been artificially propped up.

That isn't happening in 2014. That's why there's currently a three-way tie for the conference lead and four other teams with three conference wins.

The most unfortunate part of this new-found parity is the terrible, terrible timing. Last year, it didn't matter how good the league performed. Someone was playing in the Fiesta Bowl whether ESPN, fans or the media liked. UCF was a worthy team and proved so by dispatching previously-heralded Baylor.

ucf loses to uconn
Yet this is the year that the conference needed a Top 15 team led by an NFL quarterback. This is the year the AAC is forced to prove its worth and earn that bowl bid. East Carolina appeared to be that hope, but they failed once they realized the AAC conference slate is a lot harder than it is in Conference USA – just ask undefeated Marshall.

The conference is still getting respect, as a three-loss Memphis team was cited by selection committee chair as being under consideration for the Group of Five bid. Memphis, though, has no marquee games left and don't you think Aresco wishes Memphis played East Carolina and/or UCF.

It's not a lost season for the conference. The bottom half of the conference had to improve to prevent a Marshall-like scenario. Temple has gone from terrible to 5-5 and should be bowl-eligible. South Florida has improved as well, now 4-6 and finally showing signs of life. The aforementioned Memphis is one of the best turnaround stories in the sport. And while UConn is still leaving a lot to be desired, they have trotted out promising freshmen and have a young coach in place with potential.

There is no doubt that the AAC is a much, much better league from top to bottom in 2014. And that's the problem.

Moving forward, the AAC needs at least one great team to step out every year. East Carolina had that chance and failed. Who will be the AAC's Boise State?

The good news about parity is every AAC school – even SMU with the right hire – can realistically believe they are the answer.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Week 13 College Football Picks: The Pre-Thanksgiving Blues

This used to be the biggest weekend in college football.

There were always big games played on Thanksgiving weekend, but it used to be only a select few. As the years went on, and conference championship games popped up, more and more rivalry games moved to Thanksgiving weekend.

Still, it was only five years ago that Ohio State/Michigan and other season-enders took place before Thanksgiving. But the Big Ten realized that ending its season two weeks before anyone else was hurting its bowl performances. Then the conference expanded to 12, then to 14, and almost every single rivalry game worth watching is played next week.

usc ucla red blue
That leaves us with the second-to-last regular season Saturday of the year looking positively sad. Of the Top 10 teams in the playoff rankings, only UCLA will play another ranked foe. Isn't it funny how that ranked opponent is USC?

It makes you wonder why more rivalry games don't move to this light weekend. Duke and North Carolina, one of the best rivalries in college sports if not known for football, will take the ESPN spotlight on Thursday night.

It's unfortunate that so many college teams and conferences are more than willing to toss this Saturday away – the SEC treats it as a bye week – instead of spreading out rivalry games. There is plenty of opportunity for conferences to move some of the lesser known rivalry games up a week to garner some more attention.

Of course, the beauty of college football is that this light weekend will almost certainly provide a stunning upset, maybe a last-second victory or two, and we'll forget all about #1 Alabama playing Western Carolina by the time we stuff our faces with turkey.

Overall Record: 64-70-1
Best Bet: 5-7
Upset Special: 5-6-1

Last year's 60% win rate seems like a long, long, long time ago. I have been stuck in .500 rut for the past few weeks after falling way below .500. One of these weeks, I need to hit a bunch of winners. I have three left before the bowls start so....let's hope it happens.

WEST VIRGINIA (-2) over Kansas State
This is the game we discover Kansas State is overrated. They are being propped up by a win against Oklahoma in which the Sooners did everything possible to lose the game. It’s not like Oklahoma is the Top 10 team we thought they were. Similarly, Kansas State was completely dismantled by TCU – the same team West Virginia took the wire.  If this game was in the Little Apple, I may have a different opinion.

But it’s in Morgantown and West Virginia has had a bye week to contemplate their let-down loss to Texas, when the Big 12 travel and the TCU loss conspired to render the Mountaineers useless. They will be ready Thursday night.

North Carolina (+6) over DUKE
Time for everyone to admit Duke was a bit overrated. This version is not as good as last year’s version. Their performance against Virginia Tech last week pretty much summed that up. Like Kansas State, they are being propped up by one good win (Georgia Tech) but aren’t that good.

duke football unc
There is a tremendous amount of pressure on Duke in this spot, since they have to win out for a date with Florida State in the ACC Title Game. UNC, on the other hand, feels like it’s on a roll and you know they can score. Can Duke participate in a shootout?

Unrelated: Does Georgia Tech want to win the ACC Coastal? If they beat Georgia (heck, or even play them close) and don’t make the ACC Title Game, they will play in the Orange Bowl. If they do make the ACC Title Game, they would have to beat Florida State to play in the Orange Bowl. The former seems way more doable than the latter, no?

MICHIGAN STATE (-22) over Rutgers *Best Bet*
The last two times Rutgers went on the road, they were bludgeoned into submission by Nebraska and flat-out embarrassed by Ohio State. Similar to last year, Rutgers is a team that wins the games they are supposed to and loses the games they are supposed to.

This is most definitely a game they should lose. Michigan State is still very much in play for a New Year's Six bowl and it feels like they will be making a statement in their last two games against Rutgers and Penn State. This is a “name the score” deal for the Spartans.

Minnesota (+10.5) over NEBRASKA *Upset Special*
This is just a stupid line. Nebraska gave up 4,008 yards to Melvin Gordon last week. Minnesota's David Cobb has already rushed for 1,300+ yards. That feels like a recipe for disaster.

As I said last week, Nebraska is not a very good football team this year and I have zero idea why they are ranked instead of an undefeated Marshall. Minnesota gave Ohio State a pretty decent game but simply did not have the athletes to keep up with the Buckeyes. Luckily for the Gophers, Nebraska does not have Ohio State's talent...or quarterback...or coach.

Smu (+28) over UCF
This may seem like a strange game to pick, especially considering SMU is winless and UCF is tied for first in the AAC. But I'm a UConn fan, so I know UCF's only conference loss came to a really, really bad team.

Other reasons I like this pick: SMU has been extremely feisty in its last two games, which shows it has not given up hope of getting a win, and UCF hasn't beaten an FBS team by four touchdowns all year, which includes some pitiful teams like Tulsa and Tulane. I wouldn't go crazy and predict an SMU upset, but this feels like a game where SMU is winning 10-7 at half and holds on for an easy cover.

FLORIDA STATE (-19) over Boston College
Florida State has a pretty obvious pattern, in terms of gambling. They cover small spreads eventually; see Louisville and Miami. They do not cover large spreads; see Clemson, Notre Dame and Virginia.

In those five games, I am 4-1, missing out only on the Virginia game. So why am I going against trend here? Because Boston College was the only ACC team that gave FSU a game last year. That, combined with the Noles falling to #3, makes me think this becomes a statement game. I said that before the Virginia game and was wrong. Let’s see if I’m right this time.

ARKANSAS (+3) over Ole Miss
TENNESSEE (-3.5) over Missouri
I’m putting these two together because they’re eerily similar. The home teams have finally turned the corner after some tough losses and have young, talented rosters that seem ready to produce big wins. The road teams are playing for their playoff and SEC title hopes, respectively. The road teams also have terrible matchups to deal with.

arkansas defense lsu
For Arkansas, their Achilles heel has been great offensive teams, like Auburn and Georgia. Ole Miss, without Laquon Treadwell, is not a great offensive team. This will be another low-scoring affair and Arkansas has been great in those – beating LSU and playing the #1 and #4 teams very tight.

For Tennessee, their Achilles heel has been teams with superior talent in space, like Oklahoma, Alabama and Ole Miss with Treadwell. Missouri is not that team.

Throw in the home field advantage – not to mention both home teams playing for a long-awaited bowl berth – and it’s really dicey for the road teams.

NOTRE DAME (-4) over Louisville
Notre Dame's season is either about to run completely off the rails or end up pretty respectable. With Louisville and USC to finish, Notre Dame could beat two ranked teams to end the season, go 9-3, and probably play in Orlando against Kansas State or Oklahoma. Or, they could lose both, finish 7-5, and end up back in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Here's the deal with Notre Dame: they are simply too good to go 7-5. I know that sounds crazy for a team that lost to Northwestern, but that was the product of Brian Kelly having two of the worst brainfarts in recent coaching history. Seriously, who goes for two up 11? It made poor Doug Flutie's brain hurt as he tried to explain it.

Usc (+3.5) over UCLA
Before USC put the car in the garage, they were absolutely throttling Cal. And before that, they tore up Washington State. Let's not forget that USC should have beat Utah, but a misplaced foot on a fourth-down call gave Utah life. If that doesn't happen, USC is 8-2 and a Top 10 team. Oh, and Arizona State won on a Hail Mary, so USC should be 9-1.

Meanwhile, UCLA is 8-2 and a Top 10 team because they beat the Arizona schools. However, they have been less than impressive against every non-Arizona school. I'm not sold on UCLA at all.

While everyone is discussing UCLA as controlling the Pac-12 South, USC remains very much alive in the division race. If they beat UCLA, they would only need an Arizona State loss to set up an enticing Pac-12 Title Game versus Oregon. I believe USC is better than people think and I believe UCLA is not as good as people think – makes this a no-brainer, right?

WASHINGTON (-6) over Oregon State
The line tells you everything you need to know about the relative strength of these two teams. Oregon State upset Arizona State at home in one of those wacky #Pac12AfterDark games where nothing makes sense. Earlier in the day, Washington outplayed Top 15 Arizona on the road and gagged it away late with a bad fumble.

Make no mistake: Washington is a better team than Oregon State this year. The home field advantage plus teams feeling very different – an angry Washington team and an Oregon State team ripe for a letdown – equals a Washington victory.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An Undefeated Marshall Deserves to Play on New Year's Eve

No one knows how good Marshall is this year. We should find out.

The playoff era in college football will kick off in Atlanta, just past noon on New Year's Eve day, when the Peach Bowl becomes the first “New Year's Six” bowl to kick off. If Marshall is a 13-0, Conference USA champion, they need to be in that game.

rakeem catoBefore the season even started, the rumblings about Marshall's schedule began. In the non-conference, Marshall played three MAC schools – bad ones at that – and an FCS school. Their Conference USA foes have proven to be as uninspiring as they appeared in July. Marshall hasn't scored less than 35 or won by less than 15 in 10 games this season.

Are they really that good? Does it even matter at this point?

The selection committee made it very clear with its first rankings that Marshall was not the front-runner for the lone Group of Five slot, reserved for the best champion of a non-Power Five league. Those initial rankings did include East Carolina, who had a pair of wins over ACC teams and only a tight loss at SEC East contender South Carolina. It was a no-brainer: if East Carolina won out, they would play in the Peach Bowl.

But the Pirates proved to be a paper champion. Those wins proved to be over mediocre ACC teams. They have lost twice since to bowl-bound AAC teams. They are no longer part of the discussion.

Now, observers look to the Mountain West, which boasts a one-loss Colorado State team and a two-loss Boise State. The Rams have the best single win, though a road victory over a middle-of-the-road Boston College team is hardly awe-inspiring. The Rams also lost to Boise State, which makes the Broncos the Mountain West favorite. Unfortunately, the Broncos were annihilated by Ole Miss in their first game and added another loss to Air Force.

In order to maintain some semblance of a united FBS, the power conferences guaranteed one spot a year to the non-power conferences. Someone has to play in that bowl game. That someone needs to be Marshall.

The phrase that pays in college football this year has been “strength of schedule” and it's all we've heard. It has been endlessly and fruitlessly debated. The strength of a team's schedule, due to the importance of every game for small sample size, varies wildly from week to week. TCU's win over Minnesota has, at times, looked great, good, bad and meaningless. Florida State's win over Notre Dame went from proof of greatness to reason for concern. It's maddening.

Most maddening, though, is the outsized importance of schedule strength. Yes, a team needs to be challenged. Yes, a team should be play good teams. No, a team should not be judged solely on its competition.

When Marshall put together its 2014 schedule, they had no idea what the criteria would be for inclusion in a major bowl game. Hell, there is still no concrete evidence that we even know now what will be used as criteria for inclusion. It's all being made up as we go along.

Just as Ohio State and Florida State cannot be blamed for the failures of their conference brethren, neither can Marshall. Conference USA, more so than any non-Big East conference, has been decimated in realignment. The newly-formed American swooped in and raided every team with value. UCF, Houston, Tulsa, Tulane, Memphis, East Carolina – they were all swiped away. It left Conference USA a shell of its former self and it has left Marshall to beat up on a string of overmatched opponents.

Why does Marshall get punished?

Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the Thundering Herd is being punished for the sins of the BCS.

In 2007, Hawaii parlayed a ridiculously soft schedule into a Sugar Bowl bid, which in turn became one of the worst televised beatings in recent memory. I believe Colt Brennan is still part of the Superdome turf. That Hawaii team, you may recall, escaped week after week by the skin of their teeth against bad opponents. Marshall hasn't done that.

peach bowl 2015In 2012, Northern Illinois parlayed a Big Ten disaster – Ohio State on probation meant an unranked Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl – into a BCS bowl berth because they snuck into the Top 16 despite a loss. They played Florida State tight for three quarters but all people really remember are the really, really bad TV ratings.

Only last year, Fresno State (win over Rutgers) and Northern Illinois again (win over Iowa) were very, very close to undefeated seasons that would have guaranteed them a BCS bowl berth. Both teams had a better win than Marshall. Both teams lost after Thanksgiving. Before the losses, both teams endured ridicule from a national sports media that really, really wanted to see Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

I fear that the selection committee will go out of its way to send a message to Marshall, which is a whole lot different than sending a message to Baylor.

Baylor is a Big 12 team with a Heisman Trophy winner and a preseason playoff contender that willingly chose to eschew any challenge in the non-conference. Flush with TV money, Baylor will be fine. They played in the Fiesta Bowl last year. No one will cry if Baylor misses out on a playoff spot because the Bears played Buffalo.

Marshall is a Conference USA team that no Power Five conference team wants to play. Few will pick up the phone when the Marshall AD calls to schedule a game. It may be years before they trot out another Rakeem Cato as quarterback.

It's not Marshall's fault that Conference USA sucks this year. It's not Marshall's fault that Hawaii and Northern Illinois didn't win their BCS games. It's not Marshall's fault no one wants to play them.

The Thundering Herd is 10-0. They have yet to be challenged. It would be a damn shame if they finished the year that way.

The Peach Bowl is being played just past noon on New Year's Eve day. Of the New Year's Six this year, it is clearly low-man on the totem pole. Let's make it fun. We know Marshall fans will travel in droves. We know the likely SEC opponent (Ole Miss? Georgia? Auburn?) will ensure an easy sell-out.

Let's find out how good Marshall is. They deserve it.

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