TAMPA — It wasn't terribly long ago when the dawn of November represented the approaching sunset of another USF football season. But this year, anxiety over the Bulls' bowl eligibility subsided long before the humidity did.
Fact is, loftier goals (division and conference titles) remain in play for USF (7-2, 4-1 American Athletic Conference) entering the regular season's final stretch. But who doesn't love speculating on where the Bulls will go bowling, especially during this bye-week breather?
Just remember: The conference champion from the Group of Five with the highest College Football Playoff ranking earns a spot in the Cotton Bowl. Additionally, the AAC has some loose pecking-order parameters in place, all in the interest of providing the most appealing matchups for the league, its TV partners and the bowl cities.
Geography is considered, repeat matchups are avoided when possible, and priority is given to the conference champ (if it doesn't qualify for the Cotton). Bearing that in mind, here's our projection — in ascending order — of USF's five likeliest bowl destinations.
5. Cotton Bowl (AT&T Stadium; Arlington, Texas; Jan. 2): Yes, the Cotton remains a conceivable destination for USF, but a litany of dominoes — and teams — have to fall. First, the Bulls must win out and hope Temple (which holds the tiebreaker edge over USF in the East Division) loses one of its last three games. Then, USF would have to win the AAC title game, root for Western Michigan to stumble in the MAC championship (if not before) and hope for some upheaval in the Mountain West (such as losses by Boise State, Wyoming).
4. Miami Beach Bowl (Marlins Park, Miami, Dec. 19): The AAC isn't crazy about return trips, but the Bulls traveled well to Miami last season (when they lost to Western Kentucky). Moreover, if Western Michigan stumbles down the stretch, a Bulls-Broncos matchup sounds like a dandy. If Houston regroups this month, the Cougars are also an option for Miami, and the conference might — might — prefer them for this contest.
3. Military Bowl (Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium; Annapolis, Md.; Dec. 27): Suppose the current standings hold true and it's Navy vs. Temple in the AAC title game. If Navy doesn't qualify for the Cotton, it's locked in to the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. And we're guessing Temple would prefer a December trip from Philly to Florida. That leaves Houston and USF on the board, and the AAC presumably would love to pit the Cougars against an SEC foe in the Birmingham Bowl, to which Houston fans likely would travel well. USF probably wouldn't travel as heartily to Annapolis, but it would be a bona fide bowl trip for the players, with a chance to knock off a Power Five foe (from the ACC). Then again, that opponent (Wake Forest? Syracuse rematch?) might not be terribly appealing, and the league might prefer a team in closer proximity to the venue (i.e. Temple, Memphis).
2. St. Petersburg Bowl (Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Dec. 26): Brace yourselves, Bulls fans: The one bowl scenario you love to dread could materialize. Seemingly every pundit in cyberspace projects the Bulls to land in their backyard. And while the site and time slot (11 a.m. the day after Christmas) are wholly unappealing, the game would have some attractiveness. USF would be facing an ACC opponent, giving the Bulls the chance to improve their street cred. If USF couldn't travel somewhere (and rest assured, this program wants to go on a trip), wouldn't a Bulls-Miami matchup serve as a cool consolation?
1. Birmingham Bowl (Legion Field; Birmingham, Ala.; Dec. 29): We've heard some bemoan a trip to Birmingham, but this destination seems ideal for the Bulls: The city has an underrated entertainment district (Five Points South), the game is staged in one of the South's football cathedrals (Legion Field) and the opponent hails from the SEC. We think geography could play against USF (the AAC and ESPN might prefer Houston here), but the significance of that criterion might lessen if the Bulls finish the regular season ranked.
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.