HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Help Conference USA, Marshall and East Carolina. You're its only hope.
The 2013 season marks the end of the Bowl Championship Series era as we know it. Starting in 2014, college football is a land of four-team playoffs, "access bowls," the "Power Five" and the "Group of Five." And starting next season, one member of that "Group of Five" gets an automatic berth into one of the big bowls. No more of the mathematical formulas and crossing of fingers the smaller conferences must suffer through this year.
Since the BCS began in the 1998-99 season, eight small-conference teams made it into a marquee bowl. Conference USA, however, has never claimed a spot. Not undefeated Tulane. Not powerhouse Louisville. Not Kevin Sumlin's Houston bomb squad. Not Tulsa's fleet of steamrollers.
Even the Mid-American Conference's collection of tough little Midwestern engines that could sneaked into the spotlight when Northern Illinois played Florida State last season in the Orange Bowl. But Conference USA always has been on the outside looking in.
And if C-USA wants to crash the party in this final year, it's up to Marshall or ECU to do it. The Thundering Herd and the Pirates are the only undefeated teams left in the conference after just the season's second week, and it most likely will take an undefeated C-USA team to elbow in.
You may wonder why, considering NIU had a loss when it faced the Seminoles. BCS rules state non-automatic qualifiers make it in if they finish 12th or higher in the BCS standings or finish at least 16th and have an automatic qualifier conference champion finish below them.
The Huskies didn't have just one finish below them. It had two. Big East champ Louisville finished 21st while Wisconsin - the Big Ten Leaders Division representative despite finishing third because both Ohio State and Penn State were sitting through postseason bans - entered the Rose Bowl at 8-4.
Chances are that won't happen this season. The projected automatic qualifier conference champs all look like they can stay near the top of the BCS standings, so finishing at least 12th likely will be C-USA's only shot. An unblemished record will be the conference's only chance at a ranking that lofty, and the Herd and Pirates are the two guests left at that party.