It’s the most wonderful time of the year! As I did in 2019, I will preview each of the 2020 Conference USA bowls as well as every other conference (plus the FBS Independents). Bowl games will likely look different this year. Many states have their own restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we will likely see even fewer fans than normal. Additionally, a number of bowl-eligible teams elected to opt-out of the post-season, so there will be fewer matchups this year.
Seven teams with losing records made bowls this year (four from the SEC; imagine that). This year, one team will be making its bowl debut. Plus, this season will feature ten first-time matchups. Strap in, it’s time for 29 bowl games!
2020 Conference USA Bowls Preview
Myrtle Beach Bowl (December 21, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
North Texas vs Appalachian State
North Texas bowl record: 2-7
Kicking off the 2020 Conference USA slate (not to mention all of the bowls) is the Myrtle Beach Bowl between North Texas and Appalachian State. At 4-5, the Mean Green are one of two CUSA teams with losing records playing in a bowl game. Against a good Appalachian State team, North Texas will have to be on their A-Game.
For half of the season, North Texas rotated quarterbacks. Statistically, Austin Aune is the more productive athlete with 1,650 yards and 13 touchdowns. According to LWOS’ Nick Manchester, North Texas is 1-4 when Aune is the leading passer. The other quarterback is Jason Bean with his 880 yards and 12 touchdowns. Conversely, the Mean Green are 3-1 when Beane leads the team in passing.
No matter the quarterback, senior receiver Jaelon Darden got his. Unfortunately for this offense, Darden chose to opt-out of the remainder of the season and will not suit up for this game. At 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns, he is heads-and-shoulders more productive than the next guy (Deonte Simpson, 517 yards, four touchdowns).
Where the offense thrives, the defense suffers. At 41.3 points per game allowed, there are only three units worse in the nation. They manage 515 yards per game on offense but allow 509.4 yards per game.
As stated in the Sun Belt preview, I’ll be rolling with Appalachian State. North Texas, while great on offense, can’t stop anyone on defense. It’ll likely be a fun matchup, but the Mountaineers should secure the victory. The 2020 Conference USA bowls record starts off 0-1.
New Orleans Bowl (December 23, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Georgia Southern vs Louisiana Tech
Georgia Southern bowl record: 2-1
Next up is another Conference USA vs Sun Belt matchup. Georgia Southern has never played Louisiana Tech in its history, so the Panthers will look to solidify themselves in history.
Southern is a good old fashioned running team. Their leading rusher and passer is senior quarterback Shai Werts. In total, he has amassed 1,575 yards and 17 touchdowns. It’s a true running offense. Contain Werts, you have to deal with J.D. King (635 yards, five touchdowns), Logan Wright (576 yards, four touchdowns), and Wesley Kennedy III (447 yards, six touchdowns).
Injuries have plagued this offense, however. Werts is dealing with a shoulder injury and is uncertain for this game. King has a knee injury and will not play. Kennedy will not play, but not due to injury. He has been indefinitely suspended due to an off-field incident. Not idea for the Panthers. Next man up.
Rashad Byrd, Derrick Canteen, and Reynard Ellis (opt-out) have led the Georgia Southern defense. As a unit, they have allowed 22.2 points per game as well as 333.5 yards per game. No elite, but they’re not pushovers.
Honestly, this game does not jump off the page. Tech isn’t that great of a team and neither is Southern without their offensive playmakers. I’m still rolling with the Panthers. Even a team of back-ups will be able to move the ball. That rushing attack is mean, so look for them to lean on the physicality and wear the Bulldogs out.
Montgomery Bowl (December 23, 7:00 p.m., ESPN/ESPN2)
FAU vs Memphis
Head-to-head: FAU 1-0 Memphis
FAU bowl record: 4-0
The third game (and first non-CUSA vs Sun Belt) features the Owls of Florida Atlantic and the Tigers of Memphis from the AAC. FAU is rocking a 5-3 overall record and is a rather frustrating team to watch.
Offensively, the Owls are anemic. At a meager 20 points per game, FAU ranks 112th out of 127. They are a run-first team, averaging 40.5 rushing attempts per game. The bell cow for the team is James Charles. With 76 attempts, Charles averages 4.6 yards per carry.
Interestingly enough, the player with the most rushing yards and highest YPC average is backup quarterback Javion Posey. The stats are a bit skewed, however, because he had a monster game against FIU.
Senior EDGE rusher Leighton McCarthy leads this Owl defense. He paves the way with 11.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. He will look to end his fantastic career on a high note. Overall this defense will be tested. While they do only give up an average of 326.4 yards, Memphis has a quarterback who can get that himself.
FAU is going to have a rough time. Of their eight games, they have not faced a team quite like Memphis. I expect the Tigers to roll in this one.
Camellia Bowl (December 25, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
Marshall vs Buffalo
Head-to-head: Marshall 8-0 Buffalo
Marshall bowl record: 12-3
If you love Group of Five football as I do, this is a welcome Christmas present. It’s just unfortunate that this fantastic matchup will be overshadowed by the NBA and NFL. Regardless, we have a matchup of former MAC foes in Marshall vs Buffalo. This could be the most riveting of the 2020 Conference USA bowls.
The Herd started off 2020 absolutely on fire. They won their first seven games and were looking forward to possibly crashing the NY6. Unfortunately, Rice came to town and upset them. Redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells is the leader of this offense. His 1,977 yards and 18 touchdowns have propelled his team through the year. He is a master distributor, considering Marshall has nine different players with a receiving touchdown.
Junior running back Brenden Knox is a stud on the ground, but he faltered a bit on the biggest stage in the CUSA Championship game. To be fair, just about everyone on the team faltered in that game.
The defense is the Marshall money-maker. They are the number one scoring defense, stifling opponents to the tune of 12.6 points per game. Even in a shortened season in the CUSA, that is legitimately impressive. My only concern was that performance in the final game.
Considering how high-powered the Buffalo offense is, those concerns could be justified. Buffalo has a phenomenal rushing attack. Marshall has an elite rush defense. Something will have to break. Unfortunately for the Herd, they will be baptized in the greatness that is Jaret Patterson, assuming he plays. Buffalo wins regardless.
Gasparilla Bowl (December 26, 12:00 p.m., ABC)
UAB vs South Carolina
Head-to-head: UAB 0-3 South Carolina
UAB bowl record: 1-3
Editor’s note: The Gasparilla Bowl was canceled. South Carolina pulled out of the matchup Tuesday before the game. UAB, the Conference-USA Champion’s, season is over.
Congratulations to UAB for winning the Conference USA Championship! Your reward? The Gasparilla bowl against a 2-8 South Carolina team. Disgraceful.
Against a very good Marshall team, the UAB offense ate. Redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Johnston III threw for 252 yards and two touchdowns. His favorite receiver on the night was Trea Shropshire, though Myron Mitchell still leads the team in receiving.
This offense is about as balanced as you can get, averaging 201 yards passing and 200 rushing. The main reason for that is senior Spencer Brown. Brown, a four-year starter, took a step back in 2019 but improved in 2020. It would certainly be a welcome end to his Blazers career if he can help take down an SEC team.
The defense is a great compliment to the offense. They only allow 21.4 points per game, just two points fewer than South Carolina scores.
Every year, a Group of Five team is disrespected with their matchup. Last year, it was Cincinnati. This year, it’s UAB (though you could make an argument for Tulsa). South Carolina fired its head coach mid-season and only has two wins against two bad teams. UAB wants to prove itself and will win this one.
First Responder Bowl (December 26, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
UTSA vs Lousiana
UTSA bowl record: 0-1
The penultimate game of the 2020 Conference USA bowls slate features the Roadrunners of UTSA facing off against the Ragin Cajuns of Louisiana. UTSA had quite a difficult non-conference schedule and subsequently dropped games against ten-win BYU and nine-win Army. Aside from those two games, they posted a respectable 7-2 record. Don’t sleep on this team.
Statistically, this is a run-first team. Leading the way is sophomore Sincere McCormick. In their 11 games, McCormick was responsible for 11 touchdowns off of 1,345 yards. It’s not often a 1,300+ yard rusher who is the workhorse averages 6.0 yards per carry, but here we are. Meep meep.
Don’t think that UTSA is one-dimensional, however. Quarterback Frank Harris accounted for 1,422 passing yards and ten touchdowns. He has two receivers over 500 yards in Joshua Cephus and Zakhari Franklin. This offense will likely return nine starters in 2021. Watch out.
This defense is susceptible of getting gashed. When they faced good offenses in BYU or Middle Tennessee State (really?), they got lit up. Louisiana has a great offense.
As I wrote in the Sun Belt preview, UL-Lafayette will take this game. Their offense is just too good to contain. UTSA has a ridiculous offense as well, so it very well may be a shootout. First one to 60 wins!
LendingTree Bowl (December 26, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Western Kentucky vs Georgia State
Head-to-head: WKU 2-0 GA State
Western Kentucky bowl record: 4-2
The final game of the 2020 Conference USA bowls slate features yet another CUSA vs Sun Belt matchup. This time, the Hilltoppers take on the Panthers. At 5-6, WKU is the second CUSA team with a losing record to make a bowl game. Three of their losses are non-conference, so will they be able to get one here?
The Western Kentucky offense is not very good. They rank 115th in the nation with only 18.8 points per game. In order to lead this offense, WKU utilized the transfer portal and secured Tyrrell Pigrome from Maryland. He accounted for 1,435 yards and nine touchdowns with no interceptions. Overall, this passing attack has been less-than-ideal, averaging only 164 yards per game as a team.
The rushing attack is just as bad. Their leading rusher is junior cornerback-turned-running back Gaej Walker. Walker, a second-year starter, took a step back in 2020 with only 614 yards and two scores. Sure, fewer games will do that, but he averaged only 55.8 yards this year as compared to 92.9 in 2019.
The Hilltoppers allow on average 44 more yards than they earn. This is not a winning formula. Their worst games came from the non-conference games against strong offensive teams like BYU and Liberty. They struggle against prolific offenses and will likely struggle in this one, too.
This is low-key a decent matchup. Neither WKU nor Georgia State shut people down, so the offenses may be able to work. The Hilltoppers will be topped in this game, however. I don’t trust this anemic offense enough to overcome whatever situations its defense puts it in.
Tune In To The 2020 Conference USA Bowls!
The Group of Five has plenty of solid teams. Unfortunately, there are not many opportunities for them to show what they can do against their Power Five peers. UAB has a chance to get a crucial win, even if they are playing a bottom-of-the-barrel SEC team. As mentioned above, look out for UTSA in 2021. Their non-conference slate is at Illinois, vs Lamar, and at Memphis. They’ll have the dogs to run with just about anyone.