Last week, the Sun Belt and the Independence Bowl announced a partnership to provide a team in the event the bowl's primary conference's/schools fail to fill a slot. This could come into effect this year as Army, who is tied into the bowl, has a 3-5 record and needs to either win all four of their remaining games or go 6-6 and hope there are not enough bowl-eligible schools since they have two FCS wins.
Even though a current Sun Belt school has only appeared in the bowl four times, the Sun Belt's schools have an intriguing history with the bowl. The first connection goes back to 1975 when Arkansas State went 11-0 and won the Southland Conference, yet was snubbed of a bowl due to a weak schedule, and even failed to make the final AP Poll.
As a result, the Southland Conference created the Independence Bowl to place their champion. Interestingly enough, Arkansas State has never appeared in the bowl game and likely will not this year with a 2-7 record as of this writing.
Despite the connection between the Sun Belt and the Independence Bowl, a Sun Belt school did not reach the Independence Bowl until 2012, when Louisiana-Monroe went 7-5 and took advantage of the ACC and SEC failing to have enough bowl-eligible schools. That ULM team famously beat Arkansas and nearly beat both Auburn and Baylor.
Louisiana Tech would have been their opponent, but instead pursued opportunities in the Liberty and Heart of Dallas Bowls. When those fell through due to Northern Illinois making a BCS Bowl, the Independence Bowl invited 8-4 Ohio instead and the Bobcats beat the Warhawks 45-14.
While this was the only appearance in the Independence Bowl by a school that was a Sun Belt member at the time they played, Southern Mississippi played three times while being an independent and a member of Conference USA. In 1980, Southern Miss went 8-3 with wins over Mississippi State and Ole Miss and earned their first bowl bid since the 1958 Tangerine Bowl. Despite being outgained by 150 yards, the Eagles beat 10-1 Southland champion McNeese State 16-14.
In 1988, Southern Miss won a conference championship…sort of, to earn a spot in the Independence Bowl. In August of 1988, the Independence Bowl created the "Independence Bowl Football Association" consisting of Tulsa, Memphis, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, and Southern Mississippi, with the school with the best record receiving an invite to the Independence Bowl. (My favorite football YouTuber, JaguarGator8 made a video talking about it, which you can view here).
Southern Miss earned the bid, going 9-2 with wins over 8-3 Louisville and Mississippi State and losses only to #10 Florida State and #9 Auburn. The Eagles capped their season with a 38-18 win over 10-2 UTEP.
It would be nearly 30 years before Southern Miss returned to Shreveport for the Independence Bowl. In 2017, the SEC did not have enough bowl-eligible schools, so the Independence Bowl used their backup tie-in with Conference USA to pit the 8-4 Eagles against 6-6 Florida State. The Eagles could not recover from a 23-6 halftime deficit and lost 42-13.
With an intriguing history among some of its members and plenty of solid bowl-eligible teams near Shreveport, the Independence Bowl and the Sun Belt are a great match. The bowl should be in good hands if it ever needs to use this secondary tie-in.
(Did you know that Omar also hosts a college football podcast with his best friend and cohort Jackson Danner? He drops episodes every Wednesday along with special discussions weekly. Check out his Spotify and YouTube channels!)