NCAA Bowl Projections, Part Six: Conference USA
We reach the true halfway point of the Bowl Projection Series with the conference that had early dreams of crashing the BCS: Conference USA.
While C-USA doesn’t get much love, it has maintained two or three very good teams every year and has pulled some upsets—most notably East Carolina’s hot start against Virginia Tech and West Virginia in 2008.
Ironically enough, the Pirates are also one of only four teams to defeat Boise State in the last four years (for trivia purposes, the others are TCU, Hawaii and Washington).
This year, Houston had early hopes of being a BCS Buster, but a loss to UTEP quelled that rebellion. Other happenings saw East Carolina have another solid season, SMU become bowl-eligible for the first time since receiving the “Death Penalty”, and Rice go from 10-2 upstart to 2-10 also-ran.
C-USA has five bowl tie-ins (plus two contingency slots) and six eligible teams, so the only mystery is really whether or not Marshall will go bowling at 6-6.
The conference championship game is the only one remaining, so this is the final list of teams from C-USA going bowling:
Houston (10-2, West Division Champion)
East Carolina (9-3, East Division Champion)
Southern Mississippi (7-5)
Here, in order of selection, are C-USA's automatic bids:
#1: Liberty Bowl
#2: Hawai’I Bowl
#3: Armed Forces Bowl
#4: St. Petersburg Bowl
#5: New Orleans Bowl
#6: EagleBank Bowl*
#7: Texas Bowl*
The Liberty Bowl has first pick, but does not necessarily have to take the C-USA Champion.
In the contingency department, the EagleBank Bowl can take a C-USA team if Army does not gain eligibility, while the Texas Bowl takes a C-USA team if either Navy is ineligible or the Big 12 fails to have enough qualifiers.
The latter won’t happen (Navy is eligible, the Big 12 can fill its slot, and there isn’t even a C-USA team to put there).
The former could, but the EagleBank Bowl will have to wait until all 7-5 or better teams are gone to take Marshall.
Projections and Synopsis
#1: Liberty Bowl – East Carolina
#2: Hawai’I Bowl – SMU
#3: Armed Forces Bowl – Houston
#4: St. Petersburg Bowl – UCF
#5: New Orleans Bowl – Southern Mississippi
#6: EagleBank Bowl – Marshall
Whether they win the C-USA Title Game or not, East Carolina is likely to go to the Liberty Bowl. The Pirates were there last year and played well, and with the SEC projected to send explosive Arkansas, the Liberty will match defensive-minded East Carolina over another high-octane team in Houston.
With the second pick, Hawai’I will take SMU. Why? June Jones, the former coach of the Warriors, is now the Mustangs’ boss. Jones’ return will be a draw, as he is highly revered on the islands.
That leaves the Armed Forces Bowl a huge gift, as they get their hometown team in Houston—who could be 11-2 and the C-USA Champion, no less.
Watching Houston’s ridiculous offense against Air Force’s option offense could be the most fun of the lower bowls.
The St. Petersburg Bowl will then figuratively cream their shorts to get UCF—especially if they also get South Florida to create an I-4 War. Even if they don’t, the Golden Knights will bring the house if they only have to travel 80 miles or so down the road.
The New Orleans Bowl has the last definite pick, and will take a Southern Miss team that will only have to travel a couple hundred miles to the Bayou.
For the last slot…in short, I say Marshall is in.
I project that Army won’t beat Navy and thus not gain eligibility, so the EagleBank contingency will be open. Even with the rules that all 7-5 teams must go before 6-6 teams, this will be one of the last couple of spots filled anyway.
So because of the previously established contingency, Marshall gets that nod. It makes sense too, as Huntington, W.V. is only 400 miles or so from D.C., so they’ll likely bring a crowd.