Mid-Majors in the BCS Era: 1999 Marshall Thundering Herd

In its second season, the BCS faced a challenge from an unbeaten Marshall team that had recently transitioned from the I-AA ranks.

The Marshall Thundering Herd was one of just three undefeated teams remaining in the country as they prepared for the 1999 MAC championship game. The other two teams, Big East champion Virginia Tech and ACC champion Florida State, had already wrapped up 11-0 regular seasons to claim their leagues’ automatic invitations in the BCS. The Thundering Herd, sitting at 11th in both the AP and coaches’ polls prior to their rematch against Western Michigan, had to win their league title just to earn the MAC’s only guaranteed bowl berth.

“Unless the Bowl Championship Series computers experience an early Y2K problem, No. 2 Virginia Tech (11-0) will indeed play top-ranked Florida State (11-0) for the national title on Jan. 4 in the Sugar Bowl,” columnist Mike Kern published in the Philadelphia Daily News on December 2, three days before the final BCS rankings would be released for the 1999 season. “Good thing, too, because the first time a one-loss team, in this instance No. 3 Nebraska, nudges out an unbeaten because eight math majors say so, the system has a major-league PR glitch. With apologies to Marshall, the Mid-American Conference does not compute.”

Florida State, which had lost to Tennessee in Arizona for the championship the previous season, was assured of one place in the national championship. Meanwhile, Marshall was forced to survive one final test just to reach the postseason at all. And even Virginia Tech’s spot in New Orleans was hardly assured, as it appeared through the final weeks of the season that Nebraska might edge the Hokies for the spot opposite the Seminoles.

Despite losing to Texas on October 23 in Austin, the Cornhuskers could potentially wipe out that blemish in a rematch with the Longhorns in the Big 12 championship game. There was plenty of speculation that the computers might evaluate Nebraska’s schedule favorably enough to provide a decisive bump in the BCS standings past the Hokies. After the Huskers dominated the rematch over Texas 22-6 for the conference title, the scrutiny of Virginia Tech’s schedule increased. Kern continued in his December 2 column:

Is Virginia Tech better than Nebraska? I don’t know. Heck, the Hokies might not be better than Wisconsin or Florida. That’s not the point. It’s popular to knock them, because they opened with Division I-AA James Madison. Or because they play in the Big Least. The last time I looked, the Atlantic Coast Conference wasn’t exactly the NFC Central. Ditto the Big 12. Like it or not, the Hokies play in one of the six major conferences. They did everything they were supposed to do.

Ultimately Nebraska failed to close the gap with its Big 12 championship, finishing 1.3 points behind Virginia Tech in the final BCS standings. The loss in the first Texas matchup doomed the Cornhuskers — that year’s incarnation of the BCS formula added a full point to a team’s final BCS score for each defeat. Had they won in Austin in October, Nebraska would have certainly been ranked ahead of Virginia Tech (and possibly Florida State) by the humans.

Instead Nebraska was relegated to a Fiesta Bowl consolation match against Tennessee, and the Hokies claimed the right to play Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. “I’d been telling them all the time, ‘Take care of business, and we’ll be in the big game,’” Frank Beamer said after the BCS confirmed his team’s place in the title game. “I’m just glad it worked out, and that I wasn’t telling them a story.”

Snubbed by the polls throughout the season, and without any means of convincing computers of his team’s legitimacy, Marshall head coach Bob Pruett knew that even if his team took care of business in its final game they would be nowhere near the big game in New Orleans.