HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- In its third year of Division I-A, Marshall has found out the hard way that an undefeated season and No. 11 ranking are outweighed by playing in the Mid-American Conference.
The Thundering Herd (11-0) face being shut out of a bowl if they lose to Western Michigan (7-4) tonight (8 p.m., ESPN2) in the MAC championship game.
The winner gets an automatic berth to the Motor City Bowl Dec. 27 against BYU. Since the MAC has no other bowl tie-in, the runner-up's season will be over.
"To lose to any team after having the season like we've had this year would be devastating," Marshall linebacker Andre O'Neal said.
To quarterback Chad Pennington, winning the league title is more important than going to a bowl.
"We're trying to win our ring," he said. "I'm not worried about the bowl we're going to. I want to win a MAC championship. I think our whole team feels that way."
Scouts from higher-profile bowls have flocked all season to watch Marshall in case their games didn't have enough qualifiers from tie-in conferences. Yet things have fallen into place for those bowls. So, there are no at-large bowl berths left.
Therefore, Marshall could stay home at 11-1, while Clemson (6-5) -- which lost to the Thundering Herd this year -- is headed to the Peach Bowl, and Syracuse (6-5), which lost to Rutgers (1-10), is going to the Music City Bowl.
If it wants to look for blame, Marshall only has to look within.
The Thundering Herd is the only Top 25 team that hasn't played a ranked opponent.
Its schedule against the likes of Big East lightweight Temple, winless Buffalo and Division I-AA Liberty made it less of a bowl attraction.
Then there's the mediocre MAC's presence among the major conferences.
"We use a lack of respect for our conference and for our team" as motivation, linebacker John Grace said. "We haven't gained any notoriety. Others are feeling that we don't have the talent to be ranked high up. We play for championships around here. That's the way we want to portray ourselves. We have to prepare for championships every week."