After some shuffling in recent weeks, it seems that the seven-team field of bowl teams in Conference USA is coming into focus.
Saturday's UTEP-Old Dominion game amounted to a postseason elimination contest and it was the Monarchs coming out on top, 31-21, in Norfolk, Va. ODU (5-5, 3-3) will be a heavy underdog when it travels to Southern Miss (7-3, 5-1) Saturday, but it's in good shape to clinch a bowl bid with a win at home over FAU (2-8, 2-5) in the season finale on Nov. 28.
UTEP is now 4-6 and unlikely to qualify for a bowl bid with Louisiana Tech (7-3, 5-1) coming to El Paso on Saturday.
Rice's postseason position has suddenly become precarious after being embarrassed, 65-10, in Saturday's homecoming game against USM. The Owls (4-6, 2-4) should beat their next two opponents, UTSA and Charlotte, but nothing seems guaranteed as badly as they played against USM.
Here are my Week 12 bowl projections for Conference USA:
Gildan New Mexico Bowl – Middle Tennessee vs. New Mexico – 1 p.m., Dec. 19 (ESPN)
With New Mexico (6-4) appearing to be the likely Mountain West team in this game, attracting a nice crowd in Albuquerque won't be a problem. That means New Mexico Bowl officials can simply pick up the best team available and that will likely be an MTSU team (5-5, 4-2) that should be 7-5 at the end of the regular season.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl – Southern Miss vs. Arkansas State – 8 p.m., Dec. 19 (ESPN)
Former USM offensive coordinator Blake Anderson has done a fine job in his second season as head coach at Arkansas State. The Red Wolves are 7-3 with a 6-0 mark in the Sun Belt. USM could see its bowl options expand if it wins at Louisiana Tech on Nov. 28. The Heart of Dallas Bowl would probably be the Golden Eagles' most likely destination with a win at La. Tech. The Dec. 26 Independence Bowl may also be in the market for a team that could draw a decent crowd to Shreveport. For now, USM stays put in New Orleans.
Miami Beach Bowl – Western Kentucky vs. Temple – 1:30 p.m., Dec. 21 (ESPN)
The Hilltoppers (8-2, 6-0) may as well reserve their hotel rooms in Miami at this point. This game seems like a good fit, but the opponent is still a little fuzzy. South Florida (6-4) makes some sense here and that would provide the storyline of USF coach Willie Taggart playing against his former program. Temple (8-2) could also land in Hawaii, but Miami gives Temple a shot for more exposure in a talent rich area.
Popeyes Bahamas Bowl – Old Dominion vs. Ohio – 11 a.m., Dec. 24 (ESPN)
Old Dominion has never been bowling, but it appears that's about to change. After going 6-6 last year in a season when they weren't eligible for a bowl, the Monarchs should receive a nice trip to the Bahamas with the same record.
St. Petersburg Bowl - Marshall vs. Cincinnati - 10 a.m., Dec. 26th (ESPN)
I had Memphis here last week, but I'm betting it eventually decides that the Dec. 30 Birmingham Bowl against an SEC team will be more attractive. If it's up to me, I'm picking St. Petersburg over Birmingham in December.
Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl - Louisiana Tech vs. Washington - 1:20 p.m., Dec. 26 (ESPN)
Kansas State (3-6) may be the only Big 12 team that can fulfill the league's tie-in here, but I'm betting the Wildcats lose to West Virginia in the season finale. It's anybody's guess on who the opponent might be for the C-USA team, but Washington (4-6) may be a free agent in need of a postseason home. If the HOD Bowl is stuck with a MAC team, the New Orleans Bowl and Independence Bowl will look more attractive. The Independence Bowl does have a conditional tie-in with C-USA, but the conference would make an effort to fill its current slate of seven bowl games.
Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl - Nevada vs. Rice - Dec. 29 (ASN)
Rice (4-6, 2-4) is not a very attractive bowl team with how it's played in the second half of the season. I'm betting the Owls do get to six wins and the new game in Tuscon will be stuck with them.