HOUSTON - In some quarters, this year's Conference USA race is considered to be wide open. Today could provide an early indication on Marshall's readiness to run in the lead pack.
The Thundering Herd (1-2) opens its eighth C-USA league season against the Rice Owls, a team looking to rebound after a 4-8 season. Kickoff at 62-year-old Rice Stadium is 3:30 p.m. EDT, with the game airing on WCHS, Channel 8 in Charleston-Huntington.
Usually, the schedule offers an early conference game or two in the first four weeks. Marshall has played such C-USA games five times (2005, two in 2008, 2009, 2011) and has won four times.
Using that barometer, those early games haven't meant that much. In 2008, the Herd owned a 2-0 league record for nearly a month and then collapsed spectacularly, losing 35-10 to Rice along the way.
Last year's early 26-20 win over Southern Mississippi was critical in the grand scheme - the Herd needed that and five other wins to become bowl eligible, and most were pulled out in white-knuckle endings.
Such as that 24-20 win over Rice, pilfered after Vinny Curry's forearm separated Sam McGuffie from the ball on an apparent first-down run. The Herd recovered, scored the go-ahead touchdown and left the Owls to stew about it for 111/2 months.
And yes, they are stewing. There didn't seem to be a lot of "last year is only a point of reference" talk coming out of the small, prestigious private school.
"That was a frustrating game for me, all around," said quarterback Taylor McHargue, who left that game early with a concussion. "We gave it away, and had we won that game ... I think that propels us into getting two more wins and probably being a bowl team, as opposed to losing that game, having the wind taken out of our sails.
"It was something where we almost felt like we sent Marshall to a bowl game, in a lot of ways. Obviously there's a lot more that goes into it than that; there are five more games you have to win. But that was a frustrating loss, for sure."
Said receiver Vance McDonald: "We're going to have a chip on our shoulder. You talk about Marshall, you can't do anything but think about last year, how close we were. It gives us another edge this year, especially since we're playing at home."
Marshall players might do well to have such a chip against the entire state of Texas. The Herd has taken one trip to the Lone Star State every year since 2004, and none has gone well - zero wins, eight losses to five different schools, average margin of defeat nearly 19 points. The worst clubbing was last year, 63-28 by Houston.
As will be the case until further notice, Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato and his horde of pass catchers will be supplying one of the main plots. To illustrate how far Cato has come along: He threw for 506 yards in his first three college starts last year. After three games now, he averages 423.