Yesterday, the back-end of the bowl schedule came out with much controversy all around. One party that benefitted was Conference USA. Between bowls announced before Championship Saturday and yesterday, the conference placed 7 teams in bowls, meaning a quarter of the bowl season will feature C-USA teams. No day this bowl season is bigger for the conference than Boxing Day.
The Rare ABC Air
ABC will broadcast two of Conference USA’s bowls this year, the Gasparilla and the First Responder Bowl, on December 26th, which is huge, but rare territory for the conference. Since 2005, here are the conference’s appearances on network TV:
- 2011- Southern Miss 49 @ Houston 28 (Conference USA Title Game), ABC
- 2012- Southern Miss 20 @ Nebraska 49, ABC
- 2017- UTEP 7 @ Oklahoma 56, FOX
- 2018- FAU 14 @ Oklahoma 63, FOX
- 2019- FAU 21 @ Ohio State 45, FOX
- 2019- Boca Raton Bowl: FAU 52 SMU 28, ABC
The two appearances on Boxing Day alone will make up a quarter of the conference’s network TV appearances since 2005. The two programs showcased, UAB and UTSA, have never appeared on network TV. Even bigger than the network TV lights are the non-conference victories the conference can add to their slate to end an underachieving 2020.
Righting Non-Conference Wrongs
To say the least, non-conference play was nearly disastrous for Conference USA. Throughout the season, non-conference play was limited but C-USA still struggled. The conference went 7-19 in non-conference play, going 0-5 against the Power Five and 0-8 against the independent trio of Army, Liberty, and BYU. Seven of these 19 losses were by 21 points or more.
While Marshall notched a signature win for the conference against 8-3 App State, the next strongest win for the conference was a victory over 5-6 Troy. The combined record of the out-of-conference teams they beat was a putrid 18-41, and sans the App State win, it drops to a 10-38 record. Among wins for the conference were two wins over 0-4 UMass, and wins over 0-10 ULM and 1-11 Texas State.
Sticking it to the Power Five
In front of UAB and UTSA are two opponents that can boost the non-conference resume for the conference. At noon ET, UAB faces South Carolina in the Gasparilla to start the ABC doubleheader. While the sample size was small, the struggles of C-USA were clear.
In five games against Power Five schools, the conference went 0-5, losing by an average score of 46-13. The closest game was a 35-21 loss by Western Kentucky to Louisville and even the worst of the Power Five, like 2-8 Duke who beat Charlotte 53-19, shined against Conference USA.
While UAB does not face a quality Power Five opponent in 2-8 South Carolina, a win makes some progress in disposing misconceptions of the conference. Perhaps in no bowl season before has the Group of Five had to fight for respect, after the CFP committee disrespected Cincinnati, Louisiana, Coastal Carolina, and San Jose State in their final rankings. A win against the Gamecocks is not just a statement for the conference but for the Group of Five.
UAB could use a win against the SEC desperately as well. The Blazers have lost 25 straight to Power Five teams since beating Mississippi State in 2004 and are 4-47 against Power Conference teams and 2-25 against the SEC.
On top of this, they are 0-3 against the Gamecocks, with the closest loss being a 13-point loss in 2008. Despite the record, a win over South Carolina in Tampa could be a signature win for the Blazers. UTSA also has a chance for a signature win on December 26th and possibly a much bigger one.
Facing the Cajuns
In a strange twist of events, UTSA actually upgraded their opponent after the Frisco Bowl fell through. They now face one of 2020’s best stories in #16 Louisiana, a team that went 9-1, with a win over Fiesta Bowl-bound Iowa State and earned an AP ranking for the first time since 1943.
The conference got a huge win in September with a win over then-#23 App State. However, that win and Old Dominion’s win over Virginia Tech have been the only wins over ranked non-conference opponents since 2010. Furthermore, UTSA is 0-5 against ranked schools, including a loss to #15 BYU this year.
By beating Louisiana, UTSA can prove C-USA’s depth to the college football world. From Marshall’s run in the polls this year, to UAB’s dominant victory over the Herd in the C-USA title game, the conference has shown parity throughout the season. A win by the Roadrunners shows the conference is more than just a couple of schools running the show.
So What Can C-USA Gain?
As we’ve seen in the recent New Year’s Six race, the odds are stacked against the Group of Five for fair treatment and recognition. No Group of Five has it worse than Conference USA. Save for Marshall’s 2014 run, where they were the backup option to Boise State, the Conference has hardly sniffed the New Year’s Six or even the polls. Western Kentucky in 2015, UAB in 2018, and Marshall this year are the only C-USA teams to reach any poll in the Playoff era.
All the stars align this Saturday for C-USA. The big stage of ABC. The opponents. This is a great chance for the conference to gain some ground on the American and Mountain West in the Group of Five race for recognition. Conference USA can end this wild season on a high note with a story of redemption for one of the least-appreciated conferences in FBS.
***Huge thanks to mattsarzsports.net for the huge wealth of TV broadcast data!