Could the Thundering Herd be the Group of 5’s next CFP team?

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports /

Marshall football was one of the Group of 5’s better teams last year, but could 2023 see the Thundering Herd outdo itself to the point of hitting playoff status?

Every college football season, there’s a few teams from the Group of 5 that turn some heads by catching a dose or two of momentum. However, it rarely leads to anything nationally relevant.

At the absolute most, we can expect a story to end like 2022 Tulane’s (with an upset in a big-name bowl), but even those instances fall into a heavy minority because of there still being so much that has to go right. With that said, anything beyond that is virtually unheard of, with 2021 Cincinnati currently being the only smaller-level team to be given a “true shot” at a national title in the playoff era.

While that fact could be interpreted as discouraging, it makes guessing which GO5 team will be next to break the glass ceiling all the more intriguing of a process (at least for this year, as the CFP bracket will be expanding from four to 12 in 2024). The only problem is that I don’t feel it’s as intriguing this time around simply due to the favorite for 2023 appearing rather clear-cut: the Marshall Thundering Herd.

Coming off a 9-4 year and having just one losing season to its name since 2012, Marshall football is far from the strangest name to hear in this kind of discussion. However, that doesn’t mean folks will accept its title without hesitation—nor should they.

Sure, having a nine in your win column is fine and dandy, but that wouldn’t get you any CFP attention as a member of the Power 5, much less the Group of 5. Not only that, but several other “little-guy” schools finished last season with a higher win count than the Thundering Herd (which has lost multiple playmakers since then, most notably 1,500-yard running back Khalan Laborn). All of this makes the question of what makes Marshall football so special a must-ask.

Said question is actually quite easy to answer, with there being just two factors to address. The first one is that all teams suffer a loss of talent to at least some degree, and the other GO5 hopefuls are no exception. The second is even more crucial, though, and that is the rare appeal that comes with the Herd’s upcoming schedule.

Marshall Thundering Herd
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports /

What stands out about Marshall Football’s 2023 schedule?

There’s a lot to unpack here, but in short, Marshall’s 2023 slate strikes the perfect balance of formidability and manageability. Just like any other respectable array of opponents, it earns such praise not only through whom the Thundering Herd meets, but also where it meets.

When covering formidability, the Herd’s calendar is in no way an easy one to survive (especially by GO5 standards). In total, it faces six FBS opponents that either won 8+ games in 2022, play in the Power 5, or both—that’s brutal. For the sake of comparison, let’s check how many teams on some other noteworthy GO5 slates match those descriptions.

As previously established, there are several teams at Marshall’s level that finished with more wins last year. Those teams are Air Force (10), Boise State (10), Fresno State (10), Ohio (10), South Alabama (10), UTSA (11), Troy (12), and Tulane (12). Looking at all of their schedules could take a minute, but it’d be unethical for me to pretend that we can’t get even more thorough than that.

Beyond those powerhouses, there were several more GO5 squads that tied Marshall in wins: Coastal Carolina, Eastern Michigan, Toledo, and Western Kentucky. If nine wins were enough to get me looking Marshall’s way, it’s only fair to rope these guys in for hitting the same target.

*Please note that 9-2 Jacksonville State was not included in the list above due to it having played in the FCS last season. However, the Gamecocks will be considered in the upcoming statistics, as they are set to be members of Conference USA this fall.*

Upon breaking down each school’s schedules, South Alabama’s and Western Kentucky’s came the closest to Marshall football in regards to formidability, as theirs include five opponents that meet the aforementioned criteria. But if that’s the case, where do things go so wrong that Marshall’s is left still holding such a visible edge? Let’s look at USA’s first.

The Jags have a pretty tough stretch ahead of them, but what puts them behind the Thundering Herd is just how important of a game they’re missing. When it comes to the CFP selection process, one of the top boxes that smaller programs need to check is making sure they have multiple Power 5-level foes lined up. While Marshall football has two (Virginia Tech, at NC State), USA only has one (at OK State).

In a 12-team playoff, the Jags would deserve more hype with a schedule like theirs, but all that has me thinking is “maybe next year.” Yet it could be worse, as USA could be staring down a barrel as bad as WKU’s.

The Hilltoppers are not only lacking a second P5 game of their own, but they went the extra mile by scheduling a road trip to Ohio State. The Buckeyes are much stronger than the Hokies, Wolfpack, and Cowboys, but they’re a little too strong. Remember how I mentioned “manageability?” This is why it’s also important.

Think about it: What’s more likely—Marshall beating a terrible VT squad at home and stunning an 8-5 NC State in Raleigh, or Western Kentucky taking down a playoff-caliber OSU in Columbus? Especially when considering the Wolfpack’s tendency to needlessly struggle with smaller competition, I’m going to have to lean on the side of the former.

Next. Big Ten football power rankings: Post-spring 2023 edition. dark

Again, the Group of 5’s chances of CFP representation are frighteningly small for this season, and a handful of potential doesn’t change that. But, especially when held in the same light as its fellow underdogs, Marshall has a playoff window that is undoubtedly open the widest.