As diehard college football fans wait for the release of the bowl schedule, the Independence Bowl made a small ripple in the college football landscape by adjusting its bowl tie-in. Originally tied in with BYU, who played in the 2021 edition of the bowl, for the 2023 and 2025 seasons, the Independence Bowl changed the tie-in to a Big 12 tie-in due to BYU joining the conference after 12 seasons as an independent.
The bowl matchup now pits the PAC-12 against the Big 12, which is a minor development for both conferences, but it is huge news for one Group of Five conference. Last week, I covered how the change is great news for Conference USA which has an automatic tie-in to the 2025 game, but it has the potential to be nearly groundbreaking for the Sun Belt.
Last season, the Sun Belt was quick-thinking and reached an agreement with the Independence Bowl to be its backup conference if one of the bowl’s primary conferences/teams could not fill its slot. As a result, Louisiana represented the conference for the first time against Houston in the 2022 Independence Bowl.
Now, for the remaining three years of the bowl cycle, the Sun Belt has a chance to play a Power Conference team in a bowl game for the first time, if one of the Independence Bowl’s primary tie-ins goes unfilled. That’s right in 22 football seasons, the Sun Belt has never played a Power Conference team in a bowl game. This is the result of the conference boasting only one or two bowl tie-ins up to 2013 and then gradually growing to the five tie-ins they own today.
The Sun Belt has come close to playing Power Five/Power Six (during the BCS era) teams in bowls twice. The first time was in 2008 when the conference had a backup tie-in to the Papajohns.com Bowl at Birmingham’s Legion Field.
While Rutgers qualified for the bowl out of the Big East, the SEC did not have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill its slot. However, mysteriously, the bowl chose NC State out of the ACC instead of bowl-eligible Louisiana or Arkansas State. (I made a video about this on my YouTube channel which you can watch here.)
The last time the Sun Belt would come close to playing a Power Five team in a bowl was in 2020 when undefeated Coastal Carolina needed a loss by Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference title game to qualify for the New Year’s Six, but unfortunately, the Bearcats prevailed on a last-second field goal to earn a spot in the Peach Bowl against Georgia.
As I have said before, bowl games are not the main determinant of conference strength, but solid bowl wins do much to aid conferences’ publicity. A win against a Power Five conference in a bowl would culminate one of the greatest conference transformations college football has ever seen. A Power Five bowl win also helps the conference in recruiting and continues to close the ever-narrowing gap between them and the American Athletic and Mountain West Conferences.
Both the American Athletic and Mountain West can boast bowl matchups against Power Five teams, with the American Athletic also representing the Group of Five in the New Year’s Six for the past six seasons. An Independence Bowl against a Power Five opponent would be a step towards the Sun Belt having a bowl game that rivals the Military and Los Angeles Bowls that the AAC and Mountain West play in.
Although the minor shift in the Independence Bowl’s tie-ins may seem small, they have a chance to be another milestone in the Sun Belt’s rapid ascent to becoming the preeminent Group of Five conference. The 2023-2025 Independence Bowls could be history over 20 years in the making.