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Derek Redd: Marshall, East Carolina C-USA's only hope in current setup

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.

The key for ECU and Marshall is to get through their respective four-game non-conference schedules unscathed, mainly because their conference schedules leave little opportunity to build momentum.

There's a reason Alabama could win the 2011 title despite losing to LSU in the regular season, not even playing in the SEC title game and counting creampuffs like Kent State, North Texas and Georgia Southern among their non-conference opponents. The Crimson Tide had to fight its way through a meat-grinder of a conference slate.

But Florida International? Florida Atlantic? Tulane? Southern Mississippi? The University of Texas at San Antonio? Those are the tomato cans Marshall and ECU get to dent this season. Yet if Marshall can beat Virginia Tech and Ohio, or ECU can beat North Carolina, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, they'll prove they can step up in competition and succeed.

And that would make the regular-season finale between the Herd and Pirates even more crucial, especially if both teams enter the game undefeated. What if ECU can bolster its resume with a win over a good Herd team? Or what if the Herd can take out a Pirates team that vanquished three ACC foes? Win that Nov. 29 game and beat the West Division champion in the C-USA title game for an unbeaten season, and it should be hard for the polls to discount either team.

The human polls are where things could get hairy. The USA Today coaches poll and the Harris poll, the two that go into the BCS formula, both had Northern Illinois ranked 16th for the final BCS standings. That plus the computer rankings allowed the Huskies to jump to No. 15 overall and sneak into an automatic berth. The backlash against their inclusion was immediate and nasty. And while NIU held its own for a little while, it still lost by three touchdowns to Florida State.

Surely there were many pollsters, and plenty of BCS bigwigs, who would rather have seen a team like Oklahoma, ranked 11th in the last 2012 BCS standings, face the Seminoles for the sake of competitiveness and television ratings. Would the prospect of another small conference team sneaking in scare the polls into low-balling a Conference USA team and ensuring that a big-boy conference team gets an at-large berth?

Conference USA has one last chance to screw up the system, to thumb its nose at the BCS and stand in the land of the giants. It just needs a team that gives the BCS no reason to reject it.

Herd and Pirates, you're the last ones standing. 


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