Before the coronavirus pandemic forced most college football programs to tear up their 2020 schedules, Marshall had an interesting September slate.
The Thundering Herd were set to play rebuilding East Carolina and perennial Mid-American Conference contender Ohio on the road and face Pittsburgh and Boise State at home in Huntington, West Virginia. None of those games were played, but it appears Marshall has a team that could have won them all.
Marshall is one of five teams from outside the Power Five conferences that are unbeaten and ranked in the AP Top 25 this week. The Herd (7-0) share the No. 15 spot in the poll with one of those teams, Coastal Carolina (7-0), with the others No. 7 Cincinnati (7-0), No. 8 BYU (8-0) and No. 21 Liberty (8-0).
This roiled season, with far fewer nonconference games and 40% of major college football programs not kicking off until well into the fall, created an opportunity for these interlopers to climb the rankings as they pile up victories. It also cost them many of their toughest games, lowering the degree of difficulty in reaching those perfect records and providing fewer opportunities to prove skeptics wrong.
"I've played or coached on three national championship teams and been around a lot of really good football teams," Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. "On any given day, this team has the pieces in place to play with anyone in the country."
The College Football Playoff selection committee will weigh in Tuesday night for the first time this season. While polls produced by members of the media and coaches are good for bragging rights, the CFP rankings ultimately determine who gets to play in the season's biggest and most lucrative postseason games.
Traditionally, the committee has not shown quite as much love to teams from outside the Power Five, especially when the rankings are first revealed.
Since the four-team playoff was implemented in 2014, 16 teams from outside the Power Five have been placed in the committee's initial rankings, with an average ranking of 21.4. The AP Top 25 polls that coincide with the committee's season debut rankings have had 20 teams from outside the Power Five, with an average ranking of 19.5.
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco has been outspoken about what he believes is the committee's tendency to slight the best teams in his league, one of the Group of Five conferences.
"What I don't like is just because there's a (Power Five team) that has one loss, they seem to reflexively put them ahead of our undefeated teams," Aresco said. "I hope that doesn't happen."
Aresco also said he hopes the committee takes into account the number of games played when it ranks teams. Big Ten teams will have played no more than five games after this weekend, while the Pac-12 is on week three of its season — and struggling to get teams on the field amid the pandemic.
The highest-ranked champion from a Group of Five conference in the committee's final rankings on Dec. 20 is guaranteed a spot in a New Year's Six bowl. The AAC has taken that spot four times in six seasons with the playoff in place. Aresco hopes for more than that this time around, especially if the Bearcats stay unbeaten.
What are the reasonable expectations for the five unexpected unbeatens as the season winds down?
There is a legitimate path to the playoff, and it doesn't requires outlandish results. For example: No. 1 Alabama wins out in the Southeastern Conference. No. 2 Notre Dame beats Clemson (again) in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. No. 3 Ohio State breezes through the Big Ten. What becomes of the Bearcats if they lose an AAC game but still win the league? Can they fend off the possibility of an undefeated Coastal Carolina or Marshall for the G5's New Year's Six spot? Probably, but they better not lose more than once.
The Cougars are an independent and not eligible for the guaranteed spot that goes to the top-ranked Group of Five champion in the big bowls. They have to hope the committee ranks them high enough (top 12 should do it) to get them into one of the high-profile games. BYU has only one game left after this weekend but is looking for more to beef up a résumé short on rigor.
The Chanticleers, picked last in the Sun Belt, have been a fun story and a quality team. They have at least two major tests left: reigning conference champion Appalachian State this weekend and Liberty on Dec. 5. Who would have guessed the latter had a chance to be a battle of unbeatens when it was scheduled in August?
The Herd clawed back some of the value they lost from their original nonconference schedule when they booked — and beat — App State. And yet Marshall's best team since going 13-1 in 2014 is in danger of landing in a bowl game unbefitting its quality.
It took a while for former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze's second Flames team to catch fire with voters and the public because of a weak schedule early and a lack of dominance in the wins. Now the Flames have two victories against ACC teams and could add another at North Carolina State. An independent, the Flames have no path to the Group of Five's reserved spot in the New Year's Six, and even their best possible showing doesn't look like something that would especially impress the CFP committee.