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.