Alas, one of the biggest uncertainties of conference realignment has been resolved. Yes, the Independence Bowl has figured out what to do with BYU's tie-in after the Cougars left their independence behind for the Big 12. In 2023 and 2025, instead of being forced to invite BYU if bowl-eligible, they will now take any bowl-eligible Big 12 team.
All parties win as the Big 12 gains a bowl tie-in and the Independence Bowl is nearly guaranteed a Power Five team in 2023 and 2025 as this year's matchup will pit a Big 12 team against a PAC-12 team and the 2025 game will pit a Big 12 team against a Conference USA team.
This is the best news for Conference USA as the conference now has a guaranteed bowl tie-in against a Power Five team. Not only does Conference USA not have an automatic bowl tie-in that pits them against a Power Five team, but they also have not played a Power Five team in a bowl since the 2019 Independence Bowl when Louisiana Tech beat Miami.
In fact, since 2014, Conference USA has only played a Power Five team in a bowl four times. Below are all of the instances of this:
- 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl: Louisiana Tech 35-Illinois 18
- 2015 Heart of Dallas Bowl: Washington 44-Southern Miss 31
- 2017 Independence Bowl: Florida State 42-Southern Miss 13
- 2019 Independence Bowl: Louisiana Tech 14-Miami 0
Chances like this for Conference USA to earn conference-defining wins at the end of the season are rare for the league. After this current bowl cycle ends at the conclusion of the 2025 season, these chances will likely be even fewer as the perception of the conference has declined significantly throughout this realignment cycle.
Conference USA has hardly been a contender for the New Year's Six over the past nine seasons, so bowls like the Independence Bowl are as close to the New Year's Six as it gets for the conference. Of the conference's 10 members, UTEP is the only member to have ever played a current Power Five team in a bowl, with the last Power Five bowl matchup coming in the 2004 Houston Bowl against Colorado. Before that, UTEP's last bowl matchup against a Power Five team was in the 1967 Sun Bowl against Ole Miss.
Long story short, the 2025 Independence Bowl is an opportunity to prove its relevance. The current Conference USA is a cast of schools deemed unworthy of a piece of other conferences' media rights pie and former FCS schools looking for a new beginning. The conference is hardly recognizable from its 2012 form, with UTEP being the only current member of the conference to be a member before 2013.
A bowl game against the Big 12 could do wonders to remind people that Conference USA is still a force to be reckoned with. BYU already helped put Conference USA on the national stage once in 2021 when UAB upset the #13-ranked Cougars in the 2021 Independence Bowl. Now in 2023, their Big 12 move may have helped give struggling Conference USA more exposure again.