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.
Before 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.
In 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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