Bowl season is here, and Army’s future conference home, the American, has an entertaining slate of six games. From match-ups against Power Five teams to games with in-state bragging rights, the AAC’s bowl slate has something for everyone.
Frisco Bowl, December 19: UTSA vs. Marshall
If you think this match-up looks familiar, you’re not wrong. Merely two years ago, Marshall (6-6, 3-5 in the Sun Belt-East) and UTSA (7-1, 8-4) were both in Conference USA. The Thundering Herd have since bolted for the Sun Belt while the Roadrunners went to the American. However, despite residing in the same conference for nine seasons, the two somehow played just three times, most recently in 2018.
For UTSA, who finished just a game away from the AAC Championship, this must be a disappointing cap to the season. The Roadrunners likely hoped for a higher quality opponent than this middling Marshall squad. Still, this contest might be close. Though the line is UTSA (-13), the Thundering Herd own a win over Military Bowl-bound Virginia Tech during the regular season.
Surprisingly, UTSA has remained relatively free of bowl opt-outs. Action Network’s Brett McMurphy reports that their only player in the Transfer Portal is AAC Defensive Player of the Year EDGE Trey Moore. AFF readers may remember Moore from the Army game. He finished the season with a whopping 14 sacks, and indeed, once he went out injured from the Army game, the Black Knights started running at will.
UTSA will surely miss Moore’s presence in the pass rush, but they’ve retained their two best offensive players. QB Frank Harris and 1000-yard WR Joshua Cephus will look to cap their remarkable careers with UTSA’s first bowl win in *5* tries.
That stat is incredible.
On defense, UTSA’s goal is clear. Stuff the box to stop RB Rasheen “The Greatest of All Time” Ali. Ali comes into this game with 1043 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. With Herd starting QB Caleb Fancher gone to Portal, Marshall will turn to a familiar name in QB Cole Pennington, son of famed Marshall and NY Jets QB Chad Pennington. Alas, the younger Pennington has zero touchdowns against 6 interceptions in 79 career passing attempts, making Ali the Herd’s key man on offense.
Boca Raton Bowl, December 21: USF vs. Syracuse
Who doesn’t get nostalgic thinking about the Big East? As a kid growing up in the Northeast in the mid-to-late 2000s, this match-up brings me back. What’s more, both teams come into this game 6-6, so we have that rarest of bowl match-ups, an evenly-matched Power Five vs. Group of Five game.
The Boca Raton Bowl gives fans one of the better quarterback match-ups of the postseason, especially with several quarterbacks opting out. We’ve given USF’s QB Byrum Brown quite a bit of much-deserved praise on this site. As a freshman, Brown became USF’s first 3000-yard passer, and he added 745 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, too! Though hindered by injury, ‘Cuse QB Garrett Shrader has also been electric at times, notching 195 rushing yards against Purdue early this season. Army fans may also remember Shrader burning them with a 21/26 passing performance back in September, too.
Despite Shrader’s injury woes, the Orange appeared to find one of the country’s most versatile weapons in TE Dan Villari around the middle of the season. Villari ran for 154 yards against Pitt at Yankee Stadium, a Syracuse record for a tight end. The following week, he went 14/14 passing against Georgia Tech.
This game might well become a shootout. USF has both scored and allowed 30 points/game this season. Moreover, both schools feature some of college football’s most exciting players. With that, the Boca Raton Bowl is arguably the most underrated match-up of this entire postseason.
First Responder Bowl, December 26: Rice vs. Texas State
Hardly any bowl match-up better caters to fans than the First Responder Bowl. This time, they’ll feature two schools located within 250 miles of Dallas. Yet somehow, Rice (6-6, 4-4) and Texas State (7-5, 4-4 in the Sun Belt-West) will meet for only the fifth time ever in this game and for the first time since 1987. Consequently, the First Responder Bowl should see its highest attendance since 2016, when Army and North Texas drew 39,117 fans.
To some, this game may represent a changing of the guard in the Group of Five. Long regarded as the top G5 conference, the American’s regression has been noticeable since the departure of Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF for the Power 5. Indeed, the conference produced just 6 bowl teams this year out of its 14 total teams. By comparison, the Sun Belt produced 12 bowl-eligible schools from the same number of schools. The AAC therefore has much to lose in this game, at least amongst the crowd that believes bowl games indicate conference strength.
Like USF-Syracuse, offense ought to take center stage in Dallas. Texas State features a balanced attack with 1200-yard rusher RB Mahdi Ishmael and 3200-yard passer QB TJ Finley. On the other side, former Rice QB J.T. Daniels’ medical retirement will force former backup-QB A.J. Padgett to start for Rice. Padgett, at least, has WR Luke McCaffery as a receiving target. McCaffery totaled 12 receiving touchdowns this year and will head to Frisco for the East-West Shrine Bowl in February. He should thrive against a Texas State pass defense that allowed an average of 257 pass yards/game this year.
Whether for in-state bragging rights or straight conference bragging rights, much is at stake at (G)erry World late this month.
Military Bowl, December 27th: Virginia Tech vs. Tulane
Winning 11 games gets Power Five schools a New Year’s Six bid. Group of Five schools that fall short of the New Year’s Six receive prove-it games against middling Power Five schools. Tulane’s appearance in the Military Bowl is a perfect example. It’s also a no-win situation for the AAC. In the eyes of casual fans, Tulane (11-2, 7-1 in AAC play) should win this game handily given the teams’ record disparity. However, that’s hardly a given, and a loss will only serve as confirmation bias for the Group of Five’s many detractors.
Despite having less than ten meetings and none since 1989, this match-up has significant historical context. Before the formation of Conference USA, these two schools very nearly shared a proposed 16-team Metro Conference, a precursor to the modern Super Conference. That concept is worth a read.
Freshman phenom RB Makhi Hughes looks to take center stage and outdo his previous Power Five output of 92 yards against Ole Miss. Unfortunately, the Green Wave has five starters in the Transfer Portal, making their starting lineup something of a mystery. Amongst the missing starters are WR Chris Brazzell and TE Alex Bauman, who’ve combined for 77 receptions. This will likely increase Hughes’ workload. Alas, Virginia Tech is a bad team to have a problem with receiver depth. The Hokies allowed just 173 passing yards/game this season. Worse, Head Coach Willie Fritz’s departure adds yet another obstacle for a Green Wave team looking to end on a better note than their conference championship loss to SMU.
Last year, the Green Wave got their 12th win on one of college football’s biggest stages, the Cotton Bowl. The goal remains the same this season, but the stage is smaller. However, a win will build some much-needed momentum after Tulane’s coaching change.
Fenway Bowl, December 28: SMU vs. Boston College
SMU (11-2, 8-0) looked like it would receive the Group of Five New Year’s Six. Then the committee surprised us by taking 13-0 Liberty out of Conference USA. Like Tulane, the Mustangs’ consolation prize is a date with a middling ACC school, Boston College. To make matters worse, this is a match-up that college football fans will see a lot in the coming years. Next year, SMU begins its tenure in the ACC.
College football fans usually associate SMU’s recent success with offense. However, the Mustangs’ true strength has been their suffocating defense. The ‘Stangs allowed an average of just 17 points/game and 111 rushing yards. Their front seven’s performance will be the key to victory up in Boston. BC averaged nearly 200 rushing yards/game this season. As Army fans will no doubt remember, QB Thomas Castellanos leads the Eagles ground game. He ran for over 1000 non-sack rushing yards this year. The Mustangs have yet to face a dual threat quarterback of his caliber.
Though not hurt by the Portal like Tulane, the Mustangs must deal with an injury to their star quarterback, Preston Stone. Backup QB Kevin Jennings performed admirably in the AAC Championship, putting up 266 yards of total offense. The Mustangs’ one-two running back punch of Jaylan Knighton (720 yards) and LJ Johnson Jr. (544 yards) must thrive against a Boston College defense that allowed nearly 200 rushing yards/game if SMU wants to win this one.
Like the Military Bowl, SMU must survive its Power Five prove-it bowl to preserve the AAC’s reputation among casual college football fans. This is doubly true considering that these teams will be conference opponents a year from now.
2 weeks away. pic.twitter.com/3A9mDj9NEc— Wasabi Fenway Bowl (@FenwayBowl) December 14, 2023
Liberty Bowl, December 29: Memphis vs. Iowa State
The AAC’s bowl finale might improve the conference’s reputation the most nationally. In a rematch of the 2017 Liberty Bowl, Memphis (9-3, 6-2) welcomes Iowa State (7-5, 6-3) in just the Tigers’ second appearance in their hometown bowl.
Until late this season, Iowa State was in contention to play in the Big 12 Championship. They are very good, especially on defense. However, an unstoppable force will meet an immovable object in this match-up. Memphis’s offense averages 39 points and 301 pass yards per game. QB Seth Henigan (3516 pass yards) and RB Blake Morgan (1045 rush yards) lead an extremely talented, balanced Tigers’ attack. But Iowa State’s defense will be their most daunting test to date. The Cyclones allow just 22 points/game and have 16 interceptions this season. DB Jeremiah Cooper leads this playmaking defense with 5 of those interceptions.
Despite defense being the Cyclones’ strength, they should be able to match scores with Memphis, too. In their season finale against Kansas State, Iowa State beat the Wildcats 42-35 with an otherworldly average 14 yards/offensive play. The Cyclones gained 488 yards on just 35 plays and scored a touchdown once every six plays!
The AAC’s best non-conference win this year came against a new Power Five school in former AAC-standout Houston. Memphis can therefore improve the conference’s resume significantly with a win against a member of the Big 12’s old guard in Iowa State.
Enjoy the bowl games this season and study up, friends. We’ll see a lot of these teams in just eight short months.