It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Once again (and hopefully fully this time), we are going to preview each and every bowl game team by team, conference by conference. This year, there are 41 bowl games and the CFP National Championship on deck. There are 11 brand-new matchups with three programs making their bowl debuts. No bowl-eligible teams were left home. In fact, two technically ineligible FCS-to-FBS teams and a 5-7 team made it! When breaking the teams down, we will look at what certain players did.
The bowl opt-outs and transfers are too hectic to keep track of so we certainly apologize!
2023 Conference USA Preview
New Orleans Bowl (December 16, 2:15 P.M., ESPN)
Jacksonville State vs Louisiana
Bowl Record: 0-0
Welcome to the FBS level and welcome to bowl mania, Jacksonville State! After a solid 8-4 season, the Gamecocks were rewarded with a bowl after not enough teams qualified for bowls. Those eight wins are not the strongest in the nation considering Jacksonville State finished 2-3 against bowl-bound teams.
The Gamecocks offense was predicated on the rushing attack by quarterback Zion Webb and Malik Jackson. The pair combined for 1,498 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. Additionally, Webb accounted for 1,281 yards and five touchdowns through the air. By far, Jacksonville State’s best-receiving weapon was Perry Carter.
The Jacksonville State defense was very bend-don’t-break as they allowed nearly 362 yards per game but only 20 points. Edge rusher Chris Hardie was a menace this year, tallying 56 tackles, 16 TFLs, 8.5 sacks, and a 58-yard interception. He will be a name to keep an eye on moving forward.
Louisiana, Jacksonville State’s opponent, has not gone to many bowls. However, this is their 12th in 14 years. Of those 12, this is the eighth time the Ragin’ Cajuns have played in the New Orleans Bowl. This has been a good year and a good start for Jacksonville State but Louisiana gets the win here.
New Mexico Bowl (December 16, 5:45 P.M., ESPN)
New Mexico State vs Fresno State
Head-to-head: New Mexico State 1-18 Fresno State
Bowl Record: 4-0-1
One of the most interesting wins of the season was when New Mexico State traveled to Auburn on the annual SEC Cupcake Week and beat the Tigers, 31-10. After starting 2-3, the Aggies rattled off eight in a row. This was after traveling to Hawai’i and losing. They took advantage of the Hawai’i rule, hence the 14 games. They fell to Liberty in the CUSA Championship for the second time this year. Jerry Kill has himself a solid team that most overlooked in the preseason.
The leader both through the air and on the ground was Diego Pavia. In addition to his 2,915 yards and 26 touchdowns passing, he totaled 851 yards and six scores on the ground. He got hurt during the Liberty round two game but they are cautiously optimistic that they will suit up.
Defensively, the Aggies were not superb but they have a leader Keyshaun Elliot. The sophomore linebacker led the way with 101 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, five pass breakups, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. As a unit, New Mexico State allowed 385 yards per game. However, that’s a tad misleading. They allowed 1,238 yards in those two Liberty games. Against non-Liberty opponents, New Mexico State allowed 346 yards and 18.5 points per game.
The difference in this one (other than the fact that Fresno State isn’t Liberty) will be Pavia. This should be a prime opportunity to show the college football world that he’s one of the next up and should lead his Aggies to a win.
Famous Toastery Bowl (December 18, 2:30 P.M., ESPN)
Western Kentucky vs Old Dominion
Head-to-head: Western Kentucky 6-1 Old Dominion
Bowl Record: 6-3
It’s best to admit when wrong and WKU was a big swing-and-miss by me. The Hilltoppers were out preseason favorite to take Conference USA and ended up 7-5 and unable to take that high-flying offense to greater heights. Given, those five losses were to five very good, bowl-bound teams. South Florida was the lone bowl-eligible win WKU finished with.
If there is an offense out there that slings it around more than Western Kentucky, it’d be impressive. Austin Reed took a step back, “only” passing for 3,340 yards and 31 touchdowns. Those numbers are fantastic to most but considering he put up 4,746 and 40 last year, it was disappointing. When they suited up against Ohio State, Malachi Corley went in wanting to prove himself on the same field as future first-rounders. In that game, he did. Overall, he finished with 958 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s an underrated receiver and will be well worth the look if he elects to go to the NFL.
Old Dominion struggled a bit in the secondary this year. It’s perfect for Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers get the win in one of the best-named bowls in this year’s slate.
NY6 Fiesta Bowl (January 1, 1:00 P.M., ESPN)
Liberty vs Oregon
Bowl Record: 3-1
For the first time since the NY6 became a thing, Conference USA sends a team! Liberty has been one of the best and most dominant Group of 5 teams all year. The biggest gripe against Liberty and this spot was its strength of schedule. In the country, it’s the ninth weakest. Even then, they went 6-0 against bowl-bound teams.
One of the best players in the Group of 5 this year was Kaidon Salter. The dynamic, play-making quarterback threw for 2,750 yards and 31 touchdowns (only five interceptions) and actually added 1,064 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Both of those rushing totals were good for second in the FBS. Quinton Cooley led the way with his 1,322 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground while CJ Daniels added 988 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
This defense is opportunistic and forced turnovers, that’s for sure. In total, they picked off opposing quarterbacks 21 times and seven different players have at least two on the year.
It’s overwhelmingly likely that Oregon wins this game. Even if their top players opt out (like Bo Nix, should he choose to do so), Oregon’s talent should be enough. However, if they don’t come ready to play, this Liberty team can and will upset them on national television.
Often regarded as the FCS-to-FBS stepping stone, there is no respect. Of course, with only four bowl-bound teams, it seems a little disrespect is warranted. However, Liberty is doing what no other Conference USA team has done in its first year in the conference.
It’s a very top-heavy league but Conference USA is on its way to building up to being a legitimate threat. Tune into these games, there are only four. You’ll be surprised at the quality these teams bring to the table.
Main Image: Brian Bishop-USA TODAY Sports