Every Time The Sun Belt Nearly Played a Power Five Team in A Bowl

The Sun Belt will play a Power Five team in a bowl for the first time ever on Saturday. Before this, the Sun Belt nearly matched up with the Power Five in bowls multiple times.

Troy will become the first Sun Belt team to face a Power Five team in a bowl on Saturday.
Source: AP Photo by Christine T. Nguyen

Saturday is a momentous occasion for the Sun Belt. For the first time in the league's 23-year history, one of its schools will end the season in a bowl against a Power Five school. Troy looks to cap another championship season with a win over 7-5 Duke in the Birmingham Bowl. The transformation of the Sun Belt from a misfit conference with only one bowl tie-in to arguably the deepest Group of Five leagues is one of college football's most magnificent stories. While this is uncharted territory for the Sun Belt, they have nearly played Power Five teams on multiple occasions.

2008: PapaJohns.com Bowl (Birmingham, AL)

The Sun Belt nearly played its first Power Five bowl team within a decade of its football life. Before the 2008 season, the Independence and PapaJohns.com Bowls agreed to backup tie-ins with the Sun Belt. This backup agreement was a landmark occasion for the Sun Belt, which still had only one bowl tie-in, sending its champion to the New Orleans Bowl.

Come November, all three bowls had to resort to their Sun Belt tie-in. The SEC and Big 12 could not fulfill their obligations to the Independence Bowl, and the SEC could not send a team to the PapaJohns.com Bowl.

The most-anticipated landing spot for the Sun Belt would have been the PapaJohns.com Bowl. Big East stalwart Rutgers earned a berth in the Magic City bowl two years after nearly winning the Big East. 6-6 Sun Belt schools, Louisiana and Arkansas State, awaited hearing their names called for either bowl.

However, the Sun Belt appeared in neither bowl. Under unclear circumstances, the Independence and PapaJohns.com Bowls both broke their contracts. The Independence Bowl opted for Northern Illinois to face local favorite Louisiana Tech, while the PapaJohns.com Bowl invited NC State to play Rutgers. According to a report by the Lafayette Daily Advertiser, the Sun Belt's legal counsel claimed the contract's wording was "not strong enough to guarantee a spot in either bowl for teams with 6-6 records." Thus, Arkansas State and Louisiana stayed home for bowl season.

(Check out the YouTube video I made on the scenario here.)

2015 Liberty Bowl (Memphis, TN)

Hardly any Sun Belt fans knew the conference had a backup tie-in during the mid-2010s. It took some digging to find this, but buried in a February 2016 CBSSports.com article concerned about the state of bowl season is this quote:

"Kevin Crass, chairman of the War Memorial Stadium Commission, said Little Rock had a TV contract and agreements with the Sun Belt and American Athletic Conference last year. But he said he grew concerned when a Liberty Bowl official called in a panic because the Sun Belt was the Liberty’s backup conference if it needed a bowl-eligible team."

The exact timeline that the Sun Belt had a backup Liberty Bowl tie-in is uncertain, but one can estimate the agreement lasted from 2014-2016, given Memphis' 2017 Liberty Bowl appearance. In 2015, Kansas State appeared in the Liberty Bowl with a 6-6 record. They needed a win in their regular-season finale against West Virginia to reach eligibility. Due to having a high Academic Progress Rating, they would have a bowl spot anyway due to the lack of eligible teams.

If the Wildcats finished 5-7, their participation would have come down to a team vote. The Sun Belt could have sent one of its four bowl-eligible teams, Arkansas State, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, or Georgia State, to Memphis to face 7-5 Arkansas if Kansas State went 5-7 and voted against participating in a bowl. Would Kansas State have voted against playing in a bowl if they finished 5-7? Maybe. In the words of Kanye West, "I guess we'll never know."

2020 Peach Bowl (Atlanta, GA)

This scenario where the Sun Belt nearly played a Power Five team involves no backup tie-in drama. Instead, the Sun Belt needed a team ranked ahead of them to lose. After beating BYU, Coastal Carolina stood at #12 in the penultimate College Football Playoff rankings, while Louisiana stood at #19. Cincinnati was the frontrunner for the Group of Five New Year's Six spot at #9. A Cincinnati loss to #23 Tulsa in the AAC Championship Game would have likely catapulted the Sun Belt conference champion into the New Year's Six.

Unfortunately, Cincinnati beat Tulsa, averting any final rankings drama or history-making appearance in the New Year's Six for the Sun Belt. Cincinnati faced Georgia in the 2021 Peach Bowl. Louisiana settled for a game against 7-4 UTSA in the First Responder Bowl, while Coastal Carolina played 10-1 Liberty in a blockbuster Cure Bowl.

The Sun Belt has waited their whole lives for this moment. Never has a matchup against a 7-5 ACC school seemed more monumental. There were multiple close calls over the years, but the Sun Belt will finally prove itself in college football's postseason against a Power Five school.