Every team in college football begins the season with a common goal, winning a national championship. However, before that is possible, winning the conference championship is a must. In every conference in the nation, one key win or loss can make the difference of playing the first weekend in December or having an extended period to scheme for a bowl game.
For Marshall, the Herd has three key games in 2016 that could make or break its hopes of returning to the Conference USA Championship game since winning its first title in 2014.
Here is a preview of those three matchups.
Marshall at Southern Miss: October 29
Regardless of what’s happened in Hattiesburg over the past few seasons, its safe to say the Golden Eagles are back and ready to return to one of the power teams in C-USA. Southern Miss leads this series 6-5, but has lost five in a row, including falling 31-10 last season in Huntington as the Herd’s defense pummeled Eagles’ quarterback Nick Mullens into one of his worst games of the season. The last time the Herd lost to the Golden Eagles came in 2010, a 41-16 lopsided affair in Hattiesburg. Over the past four meetings, Marshall has outscored Southern Miss 213-64, including hanging 60+ in 2013 and ‘14. Playing at the “Rock” certainly will be a challenge, but making it six in a row won't be impossible.
Marshall vs Middle Tennessee State: November 12
Although this will be only the sixth time the teams will meet, there is no love lost in this rivalry, especially with the Raiders stealing away their only two wins in the series in Murfreesboro in thrilling fashion. MTSU secured a triple-overtime win after blocking a would be game-tying field goal attempt last season. The Raiders only other win came on a game-winning pass as time expired in 2013. The other three contests have been shellackings in Huntington. Regardless of what Coach Stockstill brings to the table this season, the Blue Raiders have struggled mightily in Huntington. While they have one of the hottest quarterbacks in the conference, winning in the Joan is not something that happens when teams face off against Doc Holliday on his home field.
Marshall vs Western Kentucky: November 26
If ever there was a rivalry game, this contest is all that and a bag of chips. When the Hilltoppers rolled into Huntington in 2014 to face off with the then undefeated Herd, they refused to be intimidated, even to the point that flags were flying 45 minutes before kickoff. Jeff Brohm and Brandon Doughty had a masterful game plan that worked to perfection in the first half. The Tops couldn't have played much better in that first 30 minutes. Likewise, Marshall couldn't have played any worse, yet still found a way to force overtime. With what might be known as the most expensive two-point conversion in sports, the Hilltoppers pulled off the monumental 67-66 win while handing the Herd its first and only loss. What came next was instant hatred between the fanbases and programs. If ever there was a game that pitted two teams that simply don’t like the other, its this affair. WKU has dashed the Herd’s master plans over the past two seasons and with this game being the final regular season game, the Tops will have a shot to do it once again.
While a loss in any of the above three games won’t 100 percent dash the hopes of the Herd playing or hosting the C-USA Championship game, there is one that stands out more than the other.
The new kid on the block has become the gnat at the Marshall barbecue and will not go away no matter how hard the Herd tries. WKU knocked Marshall out of the Access Bowl bid conversation in 2014 and defeated the Herd for the C-USA East Division title in the final game of the regular season last year. If the Herd plans on playing Dec. 3, regardless of the venue, it has to find a way to knock of the Hilltoppers.
To quote the great Ric Flair, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man!”
In this rivalry, WKU is the man and Marshall has to find a way to win this game if it wants to chase down another conference title. Circle Nov. 26 on your calendar. It will be a blood-bath in Huntington.