What if Conference USA Let Its Champions Choose Their Bowls Again?
From 2014-2019, Conference USA let their champions choose their bowl games. With new membership, lets predict which bowl each C-USA school would choose.
During the 2014-2019 bowl cycle, Conference USA had a unique approach to its bowl lineup in how it let its champions choose their bowl destination. This added an extra incentive to win the conference as teams could choose to play close to home like FAU in 2017 and 2019 or use the bowl as a sort of vacation like Western Kentucky and Marshall did from 2014-2016. Below is a list of the bowl destination that each Conference USA Champion chose from 2014 to 2019.
- 2014: Marshall: Boca Raton Bowl
- 2015: Western Kentucky: Miami Beach Bowl
- 2016: Western Kentucky: Boca Raton Bowl
- 2017: Florida Atlantic: Boca Raton Bowl
- 2018: UAB: Boca Raton Bowl
- 2019: FAU: Boca Raton Bowl
Amazingly, UAB was the only C-USA West team to win the conference from 2014-2019, and even they chose to bowl in Boca Raton, more for the access to Miami-area recruits than for vacation purposes. Now, with Conference USA receiving a makeover after this current realignment cycle, it's time to revisit this fun era of Conference USA football. So let's predict which bowl each Conference USA school would choose if they won the conference and got to choose their destination.
Florida International: Bahamas Bowl
his one was a tough choice for me to predict as I wanted to pick the Boca Raton Bowl but settled on the Bahamas Bowl because despite being an international trip, it is a fairly easy trip with Miami being less than 200 miles from the Bahamas. Because ESPN puppeteers the matchups for this game as they do with several of Conference USA's other bowl games, they could easily pair FIU with the MAC champion or a MAC championship game participant if FIU wins the conference and chooses the Bahamas.
The only downside is FIU has appeared in the Bahamas Bowl twice, with both appearances coming since 2017, but it's hard to get tired of going to the Bahamas in December, right?
Jacksonville State: Birmingham Bowl
This one was another easy one as it was really between the Birmingham Bowl and the Camellia Bowl. The Gamecocks have played at the Cramton Bowl four times since 2017, so Gamecocks fans are probably weary of Montgomery. A game in the Birmingham Bowl is a defacto home game with Jacksonville being an hour away from the Magic City and there is a chance the Gamecocks could play a Power Five team since the Birmingham Bowl is in the second tier of the ACC and SEC's bowl selection order.
Kennesaw State: Birmingham Bowl
Just like Jacksonville State, Birmingham seems like the best option for Kennesaw State as the Magic City is two hours away from Atlanta, an easy trip for Kennesaw State, and for all the same reasons, this game is attractive to Kennesaw State apply here. The Camellia Bowl is also a very solid option as Montgomery is also about two hours away from Atlanta with the added bonus of a reduced ticket allotment compared to the Birmingham Bowl as the Cramton Bowl seats over 20,000 less than Birmingham's Protective Stadium. The tiebreaker is the possibility of a Kennesaw State-Georgia Tech clash in the Birmingham Bowl, something the Camellia Bowl cannot provide.
Liberty: Hawaii Bowl
This one was a bit of a wild card. Initially, I thought Liberty would pick one of the ESPN-owned bowls in Florida (Cure and Boca Raton), but Liberty's large student base, especially online students and astronomical athletic budget make me think that the Flames would gladly choose a trip to Hawaii if given the choice after winning C-USA. Not only would it be a reward for fans and the players, but the Flames get a stand-alone TV appearance on Christmas Eve in one of the most recognizable TV slots of bowl season.
With a reduced ticket demand thanks to a reduced venue, going to the Hawaii Bowl is a little more attractive than it was when the game was at Aloha Stadium. Liberty clearly has the money and fans across the country so a trip to Hawaii would not be the financial burden it is for other programs in C-USA.
Louisiana Tech: New Orleans Bowl/Independence Bowl (2025)
This one was probably the easiest decision on the list. Louisiana Tech is a huge draw for the New Orleans Bowl and Independence Bowl, which is only a Conference USA tie-in once more in this current bowl cycle, in 2025. Louisiana Tech has appeared in the New Orleans Bowl twice, as the Big Easy is a five hour-drive from Ruston. The New Orleans Bowl also has allure due to it being in one of America's most iconic stadiums, the Louisiana Superdome.
The Bulldogs would likely receive one of the Sun Belt's best teams, due to both tradition and the Sun Belt's procedures. If Louisiana Tech wins the conference in 2025, the Independence Bowl would be the hands-down choice for the Bulldogs with Shreveport being an hour away. The opponent would be BYU for now, but it remains to be seen if BYU would still appear given they are no longer independent. If BYU is not the opponent, then the Sun Belt would face Conference USA creating an opportunity for a Pelican State showdown with Louisiana.
Middle Tennessee: Boca Raton Bowl
Conference USA's eastern teams have been fixtures in the Boca Raton Bowl since its inception in 2014, so Middle Tennessee would likely choose the bowl as well if they win the conference. The bowl is a manageable vacation for Blue Raiders fans and it gives the program an opportunity to recruit Miami talent, which would be a huge boost for the program in years they do not visit FIU. Surprisingly, Middle Tennessee has not yet appeared in the Boca Raton Bowl, so Blue Raiders fans will not have "been there, done that" fatigue with this bowl.
New Mexico State: New Mexico Bowl
This one was a no-brainer as New Mexico State has never appeared in the New Mexico Bowl. Strangely enough, the bowl passed on the Aggies and instead opted for SMU and BYU last season. Not only is Las Cruces three hours from Albuquerque, but NMSU has plenty of alumni in the Albuquerque area. Additionally, the Aggies would love an opportunity to gain bragging rights over a Mountain West school after years of being shunned by the conference.
Sam Houston State: First Responder Bowl/Armed Forces Bowl
If the Bearkats were to choose its bowl destination after winning Conference USA, they could not go wrong with any of the three bowls in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that ESPN owns. However, the First Responder and Armed Forces Bowls edge the Frisco Bowl for one reason, the chance to play a Big 12 school.
Despite the Frisco Bowl invoking good memories of the 2021 Spring season title run for Sam Houston State fans, there is no way for the Bearkats to play a Power Five team in Frisco. Either the First Responder Bowl or the Armed Forces Bowl will receive the seventh selection of Big 12 teams after the College Football Playoff is filled.
With the Big 12 expanding to 12 teams, the conference will likely easily fill that slot for the rest of the bowl cycle. This makes a short trip to the DFW a chance to return with a program-defining win for the Bearkats, one that would be even sweeter if it comes against one of the Big 12's Lone Star State schools.
UTEP: First Responder/Armed Forces Bowl
I nearly penciled UTEP for the New Mexico Bowl but two things stopped me. The first was UTEP's frequent appearances in the New Mexico Bowl. The Miners' last three bowl appearances have been in the New Mexico Bowl and the last time the Miners appeared in a bowl other than the New Mexico Bowl was in 2005 when they played in Mobile's GMAC Bowl. Second, UTEP's aspirations when they first joined Conference USA play a role in this selection.
UTEP is surprisingly Conference USA's most-tenured member by eight years, joining in 2005 after over three decades in the WAC. Throughout UTEP's time in the conference, the Conference has had multiple tie-ins with bowls against Power conferences, including the Fort Worth Bowl, Liberty Bowl, and even St. Petersburg Bowl.
Since Conference USA's membership changes beginning in 2013, the conference has seen a steady decline in the amount of bowl matchups against the Power Five. Bowl tie-ins like this may have been a strong contributing factor to why UTEP joined Conference USA and maybe they still value bowl games against Power Five teams over easy bowl trips to the New Mexico Bowl.
Western Kentucky: Boca Raton Bowl
Fun fact, Western Kentucky is the only school left in Conference USA that has won the conference in football before. So, they were the only school that had past experience choosing their bowl destination as conference champion. As a result, I predict Western Kentucky would once again choose to play in Boca Raton as they did in 2016 and 2021. The ability to recruit Miami is such a valuable commodity for C-USA's eastern schools and the trip to South Florida seems to be one that Hilltoppers fans like to make.
In the end, with how beneficial a lot of these bowl pairings are, maybe Conference USA should consider letting its champions choose its bowls again.