Marshall has rolled through its schedule this season in impressive fashion, winning eight games by an average of nearly 30 points and scoring the third-most points in the country.
National respect has proven much harder to obtain.
No. 23 Marshall (8-0, 4-0 Conference USA) is one of three remaining undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision – along with No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 2 Florida State – yet wasn’t even listed in the top 25 in the latest edition of the College Football Playoff rankings released on Tuesday.
”Undefeated is undefeated,” Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato said. ”That’s a hard thing to do in any sport against any competition.”
The College Football Playoff committee apparently doesn’t agree.
The main problem is Marshall’s schedule, especially in a weakened Conference USA. Victories over programs like Old Dominion and Florida International have been greeted with a collective yawn, and there are no high-quality opponents on the horizon to change the soft-schedule narrative.
The Thundering Herd travel to face Southern Mississippi (3-6, 1-4) on Saturday.
Mississippi State, the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, will be playing a few hours down the road in Starkville, hosting UT Martin. It will probably be the closest Marshall gets to a chance at knocking off one of college football’s titans all season.
Even so, Marshall coach Doc Holliday insists the program’s apparent glass ceiling isn’t frustrating.
”We just worry about what we can control,” Holliday said. ”And the one thing we can control is becoming a better football team. All those teams that won championships, they got better every week as a football team. We try to eliminate the noise and become a better team.
”If you start worrying about what other people think, your goals can go out the window really fast.”
Holliday, who is in his fifth season at Marshall, has managed to keep his team focused even against lesser opponents. Marshall faced a rare deficit two weeks ago, down 16-14 to Florida Atlantic at halftime, but roared back with 21 unanswered points in the second half for a 35-16 victory.
It all starts with Cato, a 6-foot-1 senior from Miami who has thrown for 2,130 yards, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s also run for 255 yards and five touchdowns.
Holliday said Cato is typical of Marshall’s overhauled roster since he arrived in 2009. He says he obviously looks for talented players during recruiting, but equally as important are ”guys with big hearts who love football.”
The coach believes Cato fits that description perfectly.
”It’s his competitive nature,” Holliday said. ”He loves to play the game and competes in practice on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the same way he plays on Saturdays. That’s what makes him special. Intangibles are so critical when you’re a quarterback.”
The offense isn’t all about Cato.
Devon Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 243-pound junior, has run for 1,203 yards, which ranks seventh in the country. He’s also averaging 8.8 yards per carry.
After three decent seasons, the 57-year-old Holliday has built Marshall into a C-USA power the past two years. The Herd finished with a 10-4 record last season, beating Maryland in the Military Bowl.
This year, they haven’t been seriously challenged.
Holliday, who was a longtime assistant and played at West Virginia, also worked as an assistant coach at Florida under Urban Meyer for three seasons alongside current Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen.
During those three seasons, Florida won one national championship.
”You knew he’d be a good coach,” Mullen said. ”He’s a great recruiter and a great rapport with his players. Really good motivator. You could just tell that when he was a head coach, he would have that presence.”
Mullen said Marshall’s playoff predicament might be a by-product of a new system.
”I still think everybody’s trying to figure out how the selection committee picks everything – what their criteria are for everything,” Mullen said. ”I certainly have no complaints at this point how they’re selecting teams, I like what they’re doing so far, but there’s a lot of football to be played.”
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