Rice coach David Bailiff didn’t parse words after his team faced Marshall last weekend. The Thundering Herd held the Owls to 180 total yards -- the program’s best defensive performance since 2009 -- in a 41-14 rout in Huntington, W.Va. When Bailiff faced reporters after the game, he did a bit of politicking for Marshall’s case as an overlooked contender.
“We’ve played (Texas) A&M and we’ve played Notre Dame,” Bailiff said. “Marshall is right up there with those guys. I don’t see much of a difference at all. They are explosive offensively, and we couldn't stop them. They are solid defensively. I would put that defense right up there with Notre Dame and A&M. Marshall is a good football team. They deserve to be ranked.”
Right now the College Football Playoff selection committee disagrees. Marshall wasn’t included in the committee’s latest rankings on Tuesday for the fourth consecutive week. In fact, no team from the so-called Group of Five conferences -- American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West and Sun Belt -- has made an appearance in the rankings since East Carolina fell from its No. 23 spot in the committee's initial rankings after losing to Temple. The highest ranked conference champion from the Group of Five is guaranteed a berth in the New Year’s Six bowls, but so far the committee isn't recognizing a favorite from the group.
Marshall has one of the more intriguing cases within the Group of Five. It’s currently one of two undefeated teams (Florida State) in the FBS, and it has won in dominating fashion. The Herd’s margin of victory (30.8 points per game) leads the country, and they’re allowing only 16.3 points per game on defense, fifth among FBS teams. Marshall players and coaches believe they’re one of the best teams in the country. The problem is, they might never have a chance to prove it on a national stage.
Marshall’s dominance has been enough to convince Associated Press voters of the program’s worth, as the Herd landed at No. 18 in the latest AP poll. But the playoff selection committee feels differently, and their ranking, or lack thereof, is the one that matters. Marshall coach Doc Holliday has given up trying to make sense of that conflicting opinion.
“I have no clue,” Holliday said. “That’s part of it that I don’t understand. I don’t worry about it, to be honest. At the end of the day, if we just take care of business and prepare every week and take them one at a time, [the committee is] going to have to notice you at some point. I think that’ll happen.”
Marshall will have to stay unbeaten to gain more attention, and the chances of that are good. Its victory over Rice clinched a spot in the Conference USA title game, and with a win there, the Herd would have a shot at entering the postseason 13-0. That’s where things could get interesting.
The biggest anchor to Marshall’s campaign as a contender is its soft schedule. The program won’t play a Power Five school this season, and thus far it’s faced only one bowl-eligible team (6-4 Rice). One of the Herd’s wins came against FCS Rhode Island, which is 0-11. The highly respected Sagarin ratings rank Marshall’s strength of schedule 141st in the country, worse than 13 FCS programs' schedules. Other programs, like Florida State, often find their schedules criticized, but the Seminoles play a full ACC slate with nonconference games this year against Oklahoma State and Florida. That’s head and shoulders above anything on Marshall’s resume.
The Herd were slated to play Louisville this season, but the Cardinals’ move to the ACC pushed that matchup to 2016. Holliday knows coaches are powerless when it comes to controlling the strength of their current schedules. “We’re going to play the schedule that’s dealt to us,” Holliday said.
That’s why Marshall players implore outsiders to focus on how they play, not who they play.
“We don’t play big-name teams, but we do go week in and week out, and we execute and we dominate,” center Chris Jasperse said. “It’s hard to stay focused through a 12-week season, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
From a statistical standpoint, Marshall might be one of the best teams in the country. FootballOutsiders.com ranks the Herd 18th in overall F/+ rankings, which uses success rate, drive efficiency and other advanced metrics to measure teams. They rank ahead of programs like Arizona State (No. 19), Michigan State (No. 22) and Notre Dame (No. 24), all of whom have spent time in the playoff’s top 10.
The selection committee, however, tends to value quality wins over the “eye test,” which is why Marshall’s unblemished record won’t hold much water in an argument for a semifinal berth. It’s not that the program is afraid of a tough schedule. Its 2011 slate was the 16th-toughest in the country and included games against West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Louisville and Houston. Marshall went 7-6 that year and ended up in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl. This season, however, hasn’t stacked up to other contenders.
Even with his program on the outside looking in, Holliday says Group of Five schools are in a better position now than ever before. In the playoff system, one Group of Five team is guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. He uses Marshall’s 1999 squad, which finished 13-0 and No. 10 in the AP poll behind the play of quarterback Chad Pennington, as an example of the difficulties Group of Five teams have faced in the past.
“They ended up playing in the Motor City Bowl,” Holliday said. “That’s not going to happen to us or any of the other [Group of Five] conferences at the end of the day if you take care of business. I think we’re in good shape. We just have to worry about what we can control.”
Unfortunately for Marshall, what they can’t control is the national perception of their program. As far as the rest of the college football world is concerned, the Herd play a bunch of cupcakes; that’s enough to smash their national championship dreams. But that is exactly why Marshall wants a shot at the big boys at season’s end: It feels like a title contender already. Now Holliday and his crew just want a chance to prove it.
“I’m sure we feel like that,” Jasperse said. “We’re just not too worried about that because we can’t control that. We can control what we can control, and that’s winning football games and trying to be undefeated by the time it comes.”