Coming into Rivalry Week, many conference title game berths are still up for grabs, especially in Conference USA.
In the midst of these division races, another storyline is also playing out.
With the SEC falling well short of hitting all of their bowl tie-ins, especially with the chance of multiple teams in the CFP, Conference USA will likely send a team to the Independence Bowl. Here are a few of the top candidates:
Louisiana Tech makes the most sense as they are only an hour away from Shreveport. However, there is a strong possibility the conference places them in the First Responder Bowl, which they have not played in since 2014 or the New Orleans Bowl, which they have not appeared in since 2015.
There’s also the possibility that Tech wins the conference and chooses either of those bowls themselves, but this isn’t the most likely scenario since it requires a UAB loss to 4-7 North Texas along with a win just to clinch a division title. The New Orleans Bowl seems like the most attractive matchup, especially if 12-1 Appalachian State gains a berth.
However, a short trip to Shreveport and a chance to play an ACC team could coax the conference to send a nine-win Louisiana Tech squad to the Independence Bowl, a place the Bulldogs haven’t been since 2008.
UAB remains an option coming out of the West. With Birmingham only seven hours away, the Blazers are an attractive regional option. Yet, if they win the conference, it seems likely they would choose either the New Orleans Bowl or the Boca Raton Bowl, especially if Appalachian State lands in New Orleans or UCF lands in Boca.
Another possibility that would take the Blazers out of the Independence Bowl is ESPN pulling strings to get the Blazers to play at home in the Birmingham Bowl, which the SEC will also not be able to fill. This is pretty likely given ESPN’s shuffling of bowl spots in the past to make more attractive matchups.
Southern Miss is a good geographical option, with Shreveport only being about five hours away from Hattiesburg. However, the Eagles appeared in the bowl two years ago, so they likely will invite UAB or Lousiana Tech instead.
Florida International is less likely than the previous two schools to get the nod, but they have a good case to land in Shreveport. The Panthers have received a good amount of exposure for their win over Miami at Marlins Park.
On the heels of that win alone, maybe the Panthers have impressed the Independence Bowl enough to land them a spot in Shreveport to go 2-0 against the ACC. This scenario seems highly unlikely due to geography, and FIU likely searching for an at-large bid from another conference, especially with a 6-6 finish.
I didn’t bother to mention Marshall, Western Kentucky, Charlotte, or Florida Atlantic, because these teams did not make much sense in terms of geography, or had a signature win the magnitude of FIU’s.
There also is the possibility that the American sends a team to Shreveport instead, but with Temple playing in the bowl last year, that is unlikely.
As the rivalry week plays out, the Independence Bowl slot is a story line to watch.