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.