With up to four bowl-eligible teams likely sitting at home during the postseason, Southern Miss athletic director Jon Gilbert realizes that his football team has a somewhat narrow window to receive a bowl bid.
The Golden Eagles finished the regular season Saturday with a 39-7 victory over UTEP to improve to 6-5, clinching bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season.
Conference USA features six primary bowl tie-ins and seven bowl-eligible teams. Of those squads, USM is the only one that doesn’t have seven wins or more, putting the team at the bottom of the pecking order.
Florida International has already filled one C-USA spot when it accepted an invitation Sunday to the Dec. 21 Bahamas Bowl.
USM likely won’t find out if it is bound for a bowl until Sunday when ESPN announces match-ups for the full schedule.
Gilbert told the Sun Herald on Monday that he has been in the process of reaching out to pitch USM as a bowl candidate.
“Most likely, we’re going to have 82 bowl-eligible teams for 78 spots,” he said. “I started right after our game in El Paso making the appropriate calls and conveying not only our interest, but our worth as being a bowl participant.
“We’re working with the conference office and ESPN. Presently, Conference USA has six tie-ins for seven teams. The way C-USA bylaws read, the seven-win teams go before a six-win team.”
Gilbert has been relaying a list of talking points that he believes makes USM an attractive option for a bowl game.
“No. 1, we do have a winning record. We are 6-5,” Gilbert said. “We’re fifth in the country in total defense. We’ve got a quarterback (Jack Abraham) that’s first in the country in completion percentage (73.1). We’re seventh in the nation in rushing defense and 15th in passing yards allowed. We not only have some valuable attributes, but we are also finishing on a strong note. We beat Marshall. We went into overtime with a team that’s playing in the title game (UAB). If that game goes a different way, we’re playing Saturday. We finished strong so I do think there are a lot positives.
“The main attribute is that the Southern Miss brand is very strong. People across the country recognize that. We’re bowl-eligible for the fourth consecutive season and in 22 of the last 25 years. Those are all very positive things that I am on the phone communicating to the appropriate people.”
Along with the upbeat talking points, Gilbert acknowledges that there are no certainties.
“The reality is that we are not guaranteed a bowl spot,” he said. “We are hopeful that a secondary bowl agreement will open up where one of the leagues are not able to fulfill all of their requirements, or one of the teams plays up in one of the upper tier bowls. That would open up a secondary contract or ESPN moves teams around to create an opening in one of their bowls.”
C-USA features secondary tie-ins with the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the Frisco Bowl in Frisco, Texas.
The best-case scenario for USM at the moment is for UCF to beat Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game. The AAC has seven bowl-eligible teams and seven tie-ins. If the Knights win and earn a major bowl bid, that could open a spot for a C-USA team in either the Independence or Frisco.
As Gilbert mentioned, there’s also a chance that ESPN could swap tie-ins with another bowl to open up a spot. This happened last year when Middle Tennessee landed a bid initially intended for the Mid-American Conference in the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.
C-USA’s six primary bowl tie-ins are:
▪ Dec. 15 – New Mexico Bowl
▪ Dec. 15 – New Orleans Bowl
▪ Dec. 18 – Boca Raton Bowl
▪ Dec. 20 – *Gasparilla Bowl (Tampa)
▪ Dec. 21 – Bahamas Bowl
▪ Dec. 22 – Hawaii Bowl
▪ Dec. 26 – *First Responder Bowl (Dallas)
*Conference USA is in an agreement to send one team to either the Gasparilla Bowl or the First Responder Bowl. C-USA is not expected to send teams to both games.