Derek Redd: C-USA title game features foes that plan to stay put
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Marshall football Coach Doc Holliday looks across the Rice Stadium field Saturday at his Conference USA title game opponent, the Rice Owls, there will be plenty for him to worry about - a punishing running attack, a dual-threat quarterback and a defense among the nation's best.
Yet if he allows himself a few free seconds as he's scanning that opposing sideline, he can see at least one thing that would make him smile - an opponent that can join him in this same title game next season.
When Realign-mageddon finally irons itself out completely next year and all of the teams on the move reach their destinations, the Herd and the Owls will remain rooted in C-USA.
"To be honest with you, I think it's great," Holliday said earlier this week. "It's nice that whoever that defending champion will be, will be back next year. It's a good thing and both teams will be back. Rice has a lot of young guys on their roster and we have a lot of young players on our roster too. Hopefully we'll both have a great shot at being really good next year too."
If the season played out as was predicted in the preseason, Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky would be looking over the field Saturday in a much different, much gloomier mood. Tulsa and East Carolina, two teams packing up for the American Athletic Conference along with Tulane, were picked to win the West and East divisions, respectively.
If that came to pass, the C-USA title game would have played out like a professional wrestling storyline - with whoever won the conference crown grabbing the trophy, blowing Banowsky a good-bye kiss and stealing away into the sunset, ready to hand American Commissioner Mike Aresco a shiny new prize.
Tulsa's championship hopes vanished early in a fog of injuries and turnovers. ECU and Tulane had their shots until the last weekend of the regular season, but Saturday's two contestants dashed those dreams. Marshall flummoxed ECU quarterback Shane Carden and manhandled the Pirates to win the East. Rice shut down Tulane's already shaky offense to squeak by the Green Wave in the West.
"I think it's healthy for the conference," Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue said. "I think that looks good, that your two best teams this year are teams that will be back and will continue to be good going forward.
"That wouldn't look great for the conference if it was two teams on their way out," he added. "It would verify those teams were going to a bigger or better conference for a reason."
Until this year, those teams had plenty of ammunition to say that. Since C-USA came to be in 1996, only one team who will remain in the conference, Southern Mississippi, has even played for the conference title, let alone won it. Most of those teams absconded to what is now the American. A couple of old-school champs, Louisville and Texas Christian, will spend 2014 in the ACC and Big 12, respectively.
Rice and Marshall's inclusion in this year's C-USA title game strikes a blow for the teams who have stayed, those which arrived this year and those which will arrive soon. While the Pirates, Golden Hurricane and Green Wave leave this year for what they feel are greener pastures, they do so being forced to admit on the way out that they weren't the class of Conference USA.
Now, that's not to say Conference USA still doesn't have some rungs to climb on the ladder of national reputation. The bottom tier of the conference - Florida International, UTEP, UAB and Southern Miss among them - are among the worst in college football. But it has five teams with at least eight wins, more than the Big 12 can claim. And it has seven teams with winning records, which is more than the American can claim.
Plus, one team still has the potential for as many as 11 wins. If that team can reach the 11-win plateau, that could mean an end-of-season top 25 ranking. If that team returns the key members of its roster - as Marshall could next year - that puts it on the right path to a preseason top 25 ranking. And no C-USA team found itself in the top 25 at all this year.
The two teams on the field Saturday have that chance, both this year and next.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.