At this rate, Marshall may have Mm 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 l-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."