A Big Mac Attack What's next for the midsized conference that continues to show up the BCS big boys?

September 28, 2003

At this rate, Marshall may have to consider sharing its nickname
with its Mid-American Conference brethren. The MAC as a whole
proved to be a Thundering Herd last Saturday, leaving hoof prints
all over the Top 25 with wins over three ranked teams and a near
miss against a fourth. Like a stampede growing ever closer, the
MAC is getting harder for the major conferences, and perhaps even
the BCS, to ignore.

Marshall's 27-20 road victory over No. 6 Kansas State was the
most impressive performance by a MAC team, but Toledo's 35-31
home win over ninth-ranked Pitt and the 19-16 victory by Northern
Illinois over No. 21 Alabama in Tuscaloosa weren't far behind.
Nor was Miami of Ohio's 41-21 pasting of Mountain West power
Colorado State, another road victory. Bowling Green nearly outdid
them all, pushing fifth-ranked Ohio State to the brink before
falling, 24-17, in front of a relieved Columbus crowd. Throw in
earlier W's by Northern Illinois over Maryland and Bowling Green
over Purdue, and MAC squads have beaten five ranked teams from
five major conferences this season, an eye-opening showing for a
league that rarely turns up on network TV and doesn't have an
automatic berth in a BCS bowl.

"This weekend didn't surprise me at all," says Marshall coach Bob
Pruett. "We've known for a while that we had the kind of talent
in this league to accomplish something like this. A day like
Saturday makes it seem like it happened all of a sudden, but our
conference has been building toward this for a few years."

Marshall (2-2) has been the MAC daddy, the leader of the
conference's upward mobility. Though backup quarterback Graham
Gochneaur was subbing for the injured Stan Hill, the Thundering
Herd still ended Kansas State's 41-game home nonconference
winning streak, thanks to 112 yards rushing from Butchie Wallace
and a defense that forced four turnovers. Marshall's D loaded up
on the line to stop the run and dared Kansas State to beat its
man-to-man coverage. The Wildcats couldn't do it.

With stars like Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, the
Thundering Herd has finished in the Top 25 in four of the last
five years, but like the rest of the teams in the conference,
Marshall has never played in a BCS bowl, not even when it went
13-0 in '99. That's not likely to change, because although the
MAC is competitive with other conferences on the field, there's a
sizable gap in other areas. The league's average attendance in
2002 was just 17,537, ahead of only the Sun Belt among I-A
conferences. MAC teams don't have the TV appeal or the ticket
base to attract serious interest from the BCS. "There's a lot of
money involved in those BCS bowls," Pruett says. "It would be a
pretty big stretch to expect them to turn loose of that and offer
a bid to a team outside the BCS conferences."

Joining a BCS conference is a more viable option. In fact, the
MAC's raised profile could backfire by making it a tempting
target for a raid by a league like the Big East, which loses
Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC next season. Big East
commissioner Mike Tranghese has been tight-lipped about his
conference's search for new members, saying only that the league
has specific teams in mind to fill its slots but isn't ready to
identify them. Teams from the Atlantic-10 and Conference USA are
considered more likely to draw the Big East's interest.

"If the Big East came knocking, we'd have to listen," Pruett
says. "But we don't have big dreams about moving to a bigger
conference. Marshall's goal is to prove that it can compete with
the top teams in leagues like the SEC and ACC. We're just trying
to keep raising the bar." --Phil Taylor

COLOR PHOTO: CHARLIE RIEDEL/AP (MARSHALL) MARSHALL MATTERS The Herd regularly knocks off BCS teams likeK-State but is cut out of the title picture. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (TOLEDO) RANKED, THEN FILED Toledo (top) outran Big East power Pitt, andNorthern Illinois outmuscled the SEC's Alabama. COLOR PHOTO: MIKE KITTRELL, MOBILE REGISTER/AP [See caption above]