HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Marshall's football team has won running away this season. It's won close. It's won pretty. It's won ugly.
Can it win Conference USA?
Many of the pundits think the Thundering Herd should. A growing number have the team pegged for the Liberty Bowl berth that goes to Conference USA's champion. And Marshall is the only team without a conference loss in CUSA's East Division, which is shaping up to be the stronger of the two.
Should Herd fans start making space on their calendars on Dec. 7 for the Conference USA championship game? Well, the path to the title might not be as clear as some think. A handful of teams remain in the way.
EAST CAROLINA - Before the Herd can even think about a conference title, it must win the division, and the Pirates are still a big ol' roadblock to that happening. Even though Tulane stunned ECU in triple overtime last week, the Pirates still can overtake the Herd by staying unblemished and knocking off Marshall in the regular- season finale.
East Carolina shouldn't have much trouble winning out until it faces Marshall. Its four conference opponents before the Herd have a robust combined record of 5-18. The Herd's conference opponents before the ECU game are a little stouter. Those five teams have an 8-22 combined record. Even with the Pirates' early stumble, that ECU-Marshall showdown still looks like it will decide the division.
TULANE - The Green Wave is 5-2 on the season, 3-0 in the conference, at the top of the C-USA West Division and one win away from being the conference's first bowl-eligible team.
No, that sentence was not meant for a Weekly World News story and accidentally placed in this column.
For the past few seasons, there was a better chance of finding Elvis alive and living in a Kenosha, Wis., trailer park with Jimmy Hoffa and Bat Boy than there was of finding Tulane anywhere but the bottom of the conference standings. But the Green Wave's win over ECU served notice that the team is a legitimate contender in the West.
And Tulane pulled that upset without starting quarterback Nick Montana, son of NFL legend Joe Montana. Devin Powell stepped in and threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns on his way to CUSA offensive player of the week honors. The Green Wave plays a disappointing Tulsa this week, and the Golden Hurricane could always play above its current 2-4 record, but it's shaping up for Tulane and Rice to have their own season-ending showdown for the division title.
RICE - The Owls share a 3-0 conference record with Tulane and sit with the Green Wave atop the West Division. Rice's spot at the head of the division is much less surprising. The Owls won their last five games last season, including an Armed Forces Bowl win over Air Force, and gave Texas A&M everything it could handle before Johnny Manziel's two-quarter suspension expired and he reminded everyone why he won the 2012 Heisman Trophy.
Otherwise, the Owls have kept things exciting all season. They're 4-1 since the season-opening loss, but none of those games have been decided by more than nine points. Rice has a tough Halloween night game against a North Texas team that pummeled Middle Tennessee, but if the Owls can get past that one, only Tulane stands in the way of the division crown.
The Herd knows the Owls quite well after Marshall's 54-51 double-overtime win last season, where the teams combined for 105 points, 1,240 yards and 65 first downs. Dual-threat quarterback Taylor McHargue is back for Rice, but the Marshall defense is vastly different from its 2012 version. Chances are the final score of that game would finish much further south of the century mark.
The Herd has a heck of a chance at its first Conference USA title, but only one team - Houston in 2011 - made it through the conference schedule unscathed since C-USA split into divisions. And that Cougars team didn't even win the conference title. Southern Miss squashed Houston's BCS-buster hopes with a 49-28 upset in the championship game. So even though the pundits might place the Herd in the Liberty Bowl on New Year's Eve, it might be prudent to just keep an eye on airfare to Memphis and hold off on that ticket purchase for now.