By GARY FAUBER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Fast forward one year, and Conference USA will look even more different than it has this season. More teams will be leaving, and others will be making their league debuts.
One thing that can be counted on is that this year’s league champion will still be around.
When Marshall beat East Carolina last Friday, and when Rice defeated Tulane the next day, thus winning their respective divisions, they assured that a team on its way to a new league will not leave with C-USA trophy in hand.
ECU and Tulane are both bound for the American Athletic Conference after this year is complete. While Tulane is enjoying arguably its best year in C-USA — the Green Wave accepted an invitation to play in the New Orleans Bowl against Louisiana-Lafayette — ECU has been among the best in the league for years and was a serious threat to win it all.
But the Thundering Herd and the Owls were able to keep it in the family, so to speak.
“To be honest with you, I think it’s great,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “It’s nice that whoever that defending champion will be, will be back next year. It’s a good thing and both teams will be back. Rice has a lot of young guys on their roster and we have a lot of young players on our roster, too. Hopefully, we’ll both have a great shot at being really good next year, too.”
Marshall (9-3) and Rice (9-3) will meet for the championship at noon Eastern time from Houston’s Rice Stadium on ESPN2. The Herd has been installed as an early 5-point favorite.
The teams have only met four times, with Marshall holding a 3-1 series edge, but all four have come since Marshall joined C-USA in 2005.
Last year, the Herd left Houston with a 54-51 win in double overtime. The teams combined for 1,240 yards on 182 plays.
So there is a familiarity on which the Herd can draw as it tries to win its first conference championship in 11 years.
“This is a different football team this year, but we were able to go on the road and beat them there a year ago,” Holliday said. “They’re an excellent football team. We’ve gone on the road and won three (games) this year, too. We’ve played well at other places as well.
“This is down to one game now. It’s a one-game deal and I know our guys are excited. We have to have a great week of preparation and I expect our guys to go and play extremely well. I believe they will.”
— E-mail: gfauber