With the addition of the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl, not only does Conference USA get another post-season place for one of its teams to land, but it gets a second bowl out of its geographic area to go along with the New Mexico Bowl.
There’s no set pecking order for Conference USA teams and their now seven bowl ties, so it all comes down to geography and attractiveness of matchups.
Let’s start off with the assumption that Florida International or Florida Atlantic would likely be locks for the Miami Beach or the St. Petersburg bowls if they’re available, and let’s also assume that Louisiana Tech would make the most sense for the New Orleans Bowl. Rice or UTEP would be a natural for the Heart of Dallas Bowl, but one of those two could make more sense geographically than some of the other options. Figure WKU and Marshall will likely stay closer to home in one of the conference’s Florida bowls – Miami Beach or St. Petersburg – or even the Bahamas, but the New Mexico Bowl might be attractive to one of the two depending on the opponent from the Mountain West.
Also factor in that two of the better options – North Texas and UTSA – probably won’t be bowl eligible.
Got all of that? Let’s try to make this easier.
Which five teams are the most likely options to get the invite to the Arizona Bowl?
The Miners might be the best of all options considering El Paso is just 300 miles from Tucson. However, it’s also just 270 miles from Albuquerque, making it a potentially attractive choice for the New Mexico Bowl. With the nasty non-conference games against Arkansas and Texas Tech on the road, the Miners should be able to come up with four more wins with UTSA, Florida Atlantic, Old Dominion and North Texas still on the schedule. Win three of those, come up with an upset somewhere else, and they’re in the bowl pool.
2. Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders are likely going to have to rally a bit to become bowl eligible with road games at WKU and Louisiana Tech before getting a week off, and then getting Marshall at home, but if they can beat FIU at home and take down Florida Atlantic, North Texas and UTSA over the last three weeks, they’ll be in – assuming they don’t already take care of business along the way against some of the league’s big boys. They might be a fit for the Bahamas Bowl depending on where Marshall and WKU end up, but by the end of the year they could be a terrific option for Arizona.
3. Southern Miss
If the Golden Eagles aren’t going to the New Orleans Bowl, they could be the odd team out for a few of the other bowl slots depending on record. A lot might depend on the game against UTEP on Halloween – the winner of that might be higher up in the overall Conference USA matchup board, but with road games at Marshall, Rice and Louisiana Tech, it could still be a bit of a fight for USM to get more than six wins.
It’s been a bit of a rocky start for the Owls with rough games at Texas and Baylor, but they’re still good enough to potentially win the Conference USA title with Louisiana Tech and WKU at home. If they don’t end up in either the Heart of Dallas or New Mexico, they’re far more likely to travel west to Tucson than to either of the Florida bowls or to the Bahamas.
5. Louisiana Tech
Again, the Bulldogs are too perfect a fit to not end up in New Orleans – especially if it’s against Louisiana-Lafayette from the Sun Belt. However, the program spent more than its share of time in the WAC before finding a better geographic home.