It’s the most wonderful time of the year! As we did in 2019 and 2020, let’s take a look at all 42 bowl games, plus the CFP National Championship Game. 18 matchups feature a first-ever meeting of programs.
With how insane the coaching carousel has been, plus the full utilization of the Transfer Portal, we will try to keep up with all of the moving parts and put footnotes for notable players leaving. So, without further ado, time for the 2021 Conference USA bowls preview!
2021 Conference USA Bowls Preview
Bahamas Bowl (December 17, 12:00 p.m., ESPN)
Middle Tennessee State vs Toledo
Middle Tennessee State bowl record: 2-6
Kicking off the 2021 Conference USA bowls slate, the Blue Raiders face off against the Rockets for the first time in history. This is their first bowl game since the 2018 New Orleans Bowl where they ran into Appalachian State and got rolled. At 6-6, it was tough sledding for MTSU where they failed to defeat the five bowl-eligible teams on their schedule.
To start the year, Chase Cunningham was the signal-caller. In eight games, Cunningham threw for 1,138 yards and 16 touchdowns against only three interceptions. Unfortunately, he was lost for the year due to a lower-body injury and MTSU had to turn to Nicholas Vattiato and Mike Diliello. Vattiato seems to be the future, considering he is a true freshman, so he’ll be one to watch out for in this game.
Overall, the Blue Raiders’ offense was not the best, averaging 235 yards through the air and 121 on the ground. Defensively, they are not too much better, but they have a few athletes who could find themselves playing on Sundays: DQ Thomas (15.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, 2 interceptions, 1 for a touchdown, 1 forced fumble), Jordan Ferguson (15.5 TFL, 7.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 defensive touchdown), and Reed Blankenship (10. TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles, 1 touchdown).
Those defensive studs are going to need to be their best to stop Toledo. Unfortunately for the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders, the Rockets may be too talented to stop and the Rockets will pull away for a victory.
Boca Raton Bowl (December 18, 11:00 a.m., ESPN)
Western Kentucky vs Appalachian State
Head-to-head: Western Kentucky 1-4 Appalachian State
Western Kentucky bowl record: 4-3
The first of four 2021 Sun Belt bowls on December 18th pits the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky against the Appalachian State Mountaineers. At 8-5, many will write off WKU as just another G5 team happy to be in a bowl. Don’t make that mistake. While the Hilltoppers dropped four in a row, they rattled off seven straight wins and came up just short in the CUSA Championship Game against UTSA.
If one were to ask who leads the nation in passing yards and touchdowns, Bailey Zappe would not be the first name mentioned. Despite that, he leads the way with 5,545 yards and 56 touchdowns. Last year, he quarterbacked FCS Houston Baptist. Not too shabby for his first season at the FBS level. He led the second-highest scoring offense in the nation to 43.1 points per game. It’s no wonder he was selected as first-team All-CUSA and named as the league MVP.
Passing for 5,545 yards, Zappe had a two-headed monster outside: Jerreth Sterns and Mitchell Tinsley. Sterns reeled in 137 receptions for a nation’s-best 1,718 yards and third-best 14 touchdowns. His counterpart, Tinsley, was right behind him with 80 catches, 1,299 yards, and 12 touchdowns. This offense is so prolific that every game came with at least three touchdowns through the air; five games with at least five!
Defensively, the Hilltoppers are not as dominant. They allow the 89th-worst points-per-game total with 28.7. When you have an offense as they do, you can feel confident in a shootout. Leading the way is fifth-year senior EDGE, DeAngelo Malone. The 2019 CUSA defensive player of the year continued his storied, underrated career finishing the regular season with 16.5 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, and a nation-leading four forced fumbles. He was named as the CUSA defensive player of the year yet again.
WKU is easily the most explosive offense on this 2021 Conference USA bowls slate. Appalachian State is a really good football team and has yet to lose a bowl game. That changes here. The Hilltoppers top the Mountaineers.
Transferring out: Beanie Bishop (Corner, first-team All-CUSA)
New Mexico Bowl (December 18, 2:15 p.m., ESPN)
UTEP vs Fresno State
Head-to-head: UTEP 3-8-1 Fresno State
UTEP bowl record: 5-9
The Miners of the University of Texas-El Paso take on the Fresno State Bulldogs in the second of the 2021 Conference USA bowls on December 18th. Jumping out to a 6-1 record, the hype was real. Unfortunately, UTEP dropped four of their last five, backing into the New Mexico Bowl.
Offensively, the Miners did not move the needle. Scoring only 25.2 points per game, UTEP limped its way through, only scoring 30 or more three times. The bright spot on this offense is wide receiver Jacob Cowing and his 20 yards per reception. Cowing tallied 1,330 yards through the air, good for second in the CUSA and fifth in the nation. UTEP will look to get the redshirt sophomore going early and utilize his big-play ability.
Fourth-year sophomore (COVID eligibility rules are getting confusing) Praise Amaewhale leads the defensive unit with his 12.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, and three forced fumbles. The unit as a whole is about as middle-of-the-road as it can get, allowing 24.8 points and 339.4 yards per game. In five games against bowl-bound teams, the Miners went 1-4 and allowed 36.2 points per game.
Fresno State may not be the best Group of Five team bowl-bound, but they’ll prove to be too much for this Conference USA squad. On this busy day for the 2021 Conference USA bowls, the overall record falls to 1-2.
Independence Bowl (December 18, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
UAB vs BYU
UAB bowl record: 1-3
Home of quite honestly one of, if not the best mascot in the game, the UAB Blazers take on the 12th-ranked BYU Cougars. On paper, it seems UAB is a bit over-matched, thanks to a 3-3 record against bowl-bound teams, but it did lead eventual Conference USA champion UTSA up until three seconds to play. There’s fight in this team and its last two losses came by a combined nine points. This won’t be an easy bowl win for BYU.
UAB is a run-first team with sophomore DeWayne McBride and junior Jermaine Brown, Jr. McBride leads the way with his 1,185 yards and 12 touchdowns. His 6.7 yards per carry is best in the conference and has closed out the season scoring 11 of those touchdowns in the final six games. Brown’s season has been a bit more subdued, only rushing for 584 yards and seven touchdowns, but three of those came in a victorious effort against UTEP in the final week of the year.
Defensive lineman Antonio Moultrie garnered the respect of the coaches and media despite only fighting for 4.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. He was third on the team with 53 total tackles, so his presence is felt on every play.
UAB has had its ups and downs this year. As stated above, this seems like a mismatch on paper. In reality, it is. BYU is a very talented team and the program as a whole is on the rise. The Blazers, despite having a cooler mascot, drop this match and the 2021 Conference USA bowls mark falls to 1-3.
New Orleans Bowl (December 18, 9:30 p.m., ESPN)
Marshall vs Louisiana
Marshall bowl record: 12-4
The fourth and final of the 2021 Conference USA bowls to take place on this day pits the Thundering Herd of Marshall against the Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana. 2020 was kind of Marshall. 2021 was a bit more down-to-Earth. At 7-5, The Herd dropped five of its seven games against bowl-bound teams. In terms of G5 teams, the five they lost to were solid teams.
Defensively, the strength is the pass defense. Per game, Marshall allows only 199.3 yards through the air, led by Steven Gilmore’s three interceptions and seven passes defended. Behind him, Cory McCoy and Nazeeh Johnson forced a pair of interceptions themselves. The rush defense is a bit more porous, allowing more than 188 yards per game. On six occasions, the Herd allowed at least 200 yards. Naturally, Navy ran all over them to the tune of 337 yards.
At 34 points per game, Marshall ranks 27th in the nation. Led by Grant Wells, The Herd averaged 471 yards per game. Wells, himself, threw for 3.436 yards and 16 touchdowns with a completion rate of 67%. He did not have a single dominant receiver, as five receivers tally at least 23 receptions, 260 yards, and two touchdowns. Additionally, running back Rasheen Ali caught 44 passes for 329 yards and a touchdown to go with his 1,241 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. Ali is a redshirt freshman, so there’s plenty of great football ahead of him.
As is the case for a number of G5 vs G5 bowls, this one is one to watch. Louisiana, despite losing head coach Billy Napier to Florida, is a very good team. Marshall will have its hands full. Ali will get his shot to make the game his own, but the Cajuns will certainly be Ragin’ on this night.
Myrtle Beach Bowl (December 20, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
Old Dominion vs Tulsa
Old Dominion bowl record: 1-0
At 6-6, Old Dominion just barely made it. If it wasn’t for the extra bowl game, it’s possible that this team could have been left out. Regardless, the Monarchs won its final five games after starting the year 1-6. Oddly enough, 1-5 was the team’s record against bowl-bound teams. Overall, there really is no aspect of the team that stands out.
Running back Blake Watson has been a massive part of the Monarchs’ bowl eligibility. During the final five-game win streak, Watson ran for nearly 120 yards and a touchdown per game. He made the most of his first full season as the main back, finishing with 1,039 yards and eight touchdowns. If it weren’t for Lala Davis and Darriel Mack, Jr., each rushing for six touchdowns each, Watson could have earned more national spotlight.
All year, offenses have been able to move the ball against this Old Dominion defense. Only on two occasions were opponents held to below 100 rushing yards.
Honestly, Old Dominion hasn’t given any reason to believe that they will be able to pull off a win in this game against a decent Tulsa team. While this may be a battle of 6-6 teams, the Monarchs should fall here.
Frisco Bowl (December 21, 7:30 p.m., ESPN)
UTSA vs San Diego State
UTSA bowl record: 0-2
One of the most exciting and dominant teams you may not have heard of. The University of Texas-San Antonio was crowned the Conference USA Champion with its victory over Western Kentucky. At 12-1, UTSA only dropped a game against North Texas in the final week. A 4-0 non-conference start, two of which by only one score, kicked off the hype campaign. Still perplexed how this team lost to North Texas…
The offense averaged over 37 points per game, good for 12th in the nation. The combo of Frank Harris and Sincere McCormick is lethal. McCormick, a third-year running back ran for another near 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns. He wasn’t as efficient as last year, as his yards-per-carry mark fell by a full yard, but if he were to declare, he will hear his name called at the 2022 NFL Draft.
Harris, along with his 2,906 yards and 25 touchdowns through the air, ran for an additional 565 yards and six touchdowns off of 105 carries. He even recorded a touchdown catch! In terms of “domination,” Harris didn’t have a true favorite receiver. Either way, to go along with a pair of other receivers with at least 680 yards and six scores, Zakhari Franklin led the way. He continued his rise in production, going off for 938 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Roadrunners will be facing off against San Diego State, a formidable MWC team who is fresh off of an embarrassing loss in the MWC Championship. The 2021 Conference USA bowls record will improve with UTSA defeating SDSU here. It’ll be a good one because this UTSA rushing attack is going up against an elite run defense.
Frisco Football Classic (December 23, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
North Texas vs Miami (OH)
North Texas bowl record: 2-8
As was the case with Old Dominion, North Texas was fighting for its bowl eligibility for weeks. They started 1-6 (0-6 against FBS foes) with a five-game losing streak. Then finished with a five-game winning streak, none greater than its upset of UTSA in the final week.
Leading the way is senior running back Deandre Torrey. Off of 248 rush attempts, Torrey ran for 1,214 yards and 13 touchdowns. In the final five games, he and Ikaika Ragsdale willed the team to bowl-eligibility. The 2022 edition of the Mean Green will likely be led by Ragsdale, considering he’s only a redshirt freshman.
As a defense, the Mean Green forced a total of 17 fumbles. Leading the way up front are brothers Gabriel Murphy (10.6 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks) and Grayson Murphy (12.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks). Overall, this defense is pretty hit-and-miss. When it comes to rush defense, only four times did they hold an opponent to fewer than 100 yards. Plus, they allowed 314 yards on the ground to Missouri.
Miami (OH) is coming off of a failed defense of its 2020 MAC Championship. Neither one of these teams has been overly dominant. The Redhawks have a good quarterback with one really good receiver. This game feels like a coin flip, so let’s roll with Maimi (OH) in this one.
CUSA Looking to Build on Solid Year
Despite being projected to go 2-6 in bowls, Conference USA had a number of exciting teams this year. Between McCormick, Zappe, and Ali, this conference boasts a number of solid athletes about whom many may not think twice.
This is the first of 11 bowl previews. Up next, the MAC!