Who would Bulls face in St. Pete Bowl?
Of course, there are still three Bulls games to be played, but all signs point to USF being a match for the inaugural St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field on Dec. 20.
There are other unlikely scenarios, both to the good and bad extremes -- the Bulls have not been mathematically eliminated from the Big East's BCS berth, strange as that seems, and the Bulls wouldn't be guaranteed a trip to St. Pete if they lost their three remaining games. Even though USF would be ideal for the new bowl from an attendance standpoint, the bowl can't select a 6-6 team if there's a 7-win team still available, which could still happen.
My question, then, is this: Who would the Bulls likely play in St. Petersburg? Again, it's complicated. Conference USA has a contract with St. Pete, but the conference has six bowl affiliations and might not have six bowl-eligible teams. The C-USA champ goes to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, and the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala., gets its pick of the rest of the league.
After that, there are four bowls -- the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, the Texas Bowl in Houston, the New Orleans Bowl and the St. Petersburg Bowl -- with no predetermined order aside from logical geography preferences to help the bowls and teams for optimal attendance.
Three C-USA teams are already bowl-eligible -- Tulsa is a heavy favorite to win the league with a 5-0 conference record and average margin of 27.2 points in those wins. East Carolina and Rice are also bowl-eligible, and I'd think East Carolina (with wins against Virginia Tech and West Virginia) is ahead of Rice, which has yet to beat a team with a winning record. That leaves five teams trying to fill the last three spots. I'll put them in order of likelihood to get to six wins:
Memphis (5-5): Remaining opponents are UCF and Tulane, both 2-7, so it'd be a massive collapse for the Tigers not to be bowl-eligible. Count them in as the fourth bowl team.
Houston (5-4): Despite winning four of five, the Cougars will probably fall to Tulsa on Saturday. A win against UTEP (4-5) would get them to six, or a crosstown win at Rice on Nov. 29. That'd give C-USA five bowl teams.
UTEP (4-5): Will beat 1-9 SMU this week, but will need a road win at Houston or East Carolina -- they've allowed at least 34 points in all their losses, but can score, as seen by 58-point outburst against UCF. Probably a little less than 50-50 to get to six wins.
Marshall (4-5): Needs to beat UCF this week, then get an upset, either at Rice or against Tulsa. I'm guessing they're 5-7 and just missing the boat.
Southern Miss (4-6): Since a five-game losing streak, they've won two straight and actually played some defense, holding UAB and UCF to a combined 20 points. If they can beat East Carolina at home this week, they'd have to just avoid a letdown in the last game against SMU.
If C-USA doesn't have six bowl teams, it's hard to say which bowl they pass on. The Texas Bowl (Dec. 30) and Armed Forces Bowl (Dec. 31) are more visible post-Christmas bowls, and Rice and Houston would have solid in-state crowds for those games. If Memphis or Southern Miss is deemed a regional match for New Orleans, that could leave out St. Pete, whose best bet might be to see East Carolina drop a game or two (helping another team get bowl-eligible) and fall into their lap.
And if C-USA can't provide a team, St. Pete's backup plan is the Sun Belt, which sends its champ to New Orleans for the league's only sure bowl tie-in. The winner of Troy vs. Louisiana Lafayette should win the league, so that game's loser could be a contingency team for St. Pete. The other options? Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State and Florida International are all 4-5 and possibilities.
The best scenario for St. Pete would seem to be East Carolina, though again, it seems entirely possible that Conference USA can't fulfill its contract and the bowl opens with a Sun Belt team -- Florida Atlantic would probably ideal from that group. Thoughts? Predictions?