The Complete Bowl Game Rooting Guide
With two weeks left, how many teams can we get into postseason play?
There’s nothing minor about qualifying for a bowl game. At least, there shouldn’t be.
But as the college football discourse has shifted away from bowls and toward the playoff, the idea of winning at least 50 percent of your games and being rewarded for it with postseason play as a worthwhile goal for a season has faded. For some programs, that makes sense. The consistent playoff contenders probably shouldn’t be especially pleased with a trip to the Liberty Bowl, nor should the reliable conference title contenders throughout the sport.
However, throughout the rest of the sport – especially at the G5 level that we traffic in here – winning at least six games, going somewhere new to play someone new? That should be a pretty sweet deal! Not everyone is going to win a conference title or compete for the playoff, and if that isn’t looking likely to be in the cards for your team, getting one more game is an admirable and attainable goal for most of the teams in the sport.
For some programs, that is the case. Take Eastern Michigan-Western Michigan, which aired last night. EMU pulled off its third straight victory over the Mustangs and improved to 7-4 in front of a delighted crowd. The Eagles can move to 8-4 and topple both rivals in one season if they beat Central Michigan next week. They aren’t going to win the MAC, and they’re likely headed for an early bowl that draws little interest from the kingmakers in the sport’s media apparatus. And guess what?
That kicks ass. That’s a fantastic season for Chris Creighton – one that fans of the program will enjoy and remember for years. This is a team with four trips to a bowl game in its entire history, slated to head to a fifth in December, with a shot at producing just the fifth season in program history with four-or-fewer losses.
For plenty of schools around the sport at this level, that’s the nature of the beast. Bowl seasons and winning records are not promised. It’s really, really hard to win football games. Doing it as much, or even more, than you lose within one season is a feat that should be celebrated.
In that spirit, I’ve put together something of a bowl qualification rooting interest tracker, celebrating teams that made the cut this past weekend, pointing out those that look likely to do so this week, and unearthing teams that may punch their tickets a week from now at the final moment. Teams are organized alphabetically by conference within each segment.
Thanks to three straight wins, capped by an overtime thriller against Memphis, East Carolina is headed bowling for the first time since 2014, a year before it fired largely successful head coach Ruffin McNeill in hopes of chasing consistent AAC contention. Although Mike Houston is still a ways away from that dream, this has been a really strong year for the Pirates, especially with a brutal non-conference draw of Appalachian State, South Carolina, Marshall and an FCS foe.
Led by quarterback Holton Ahlers and a surprisingly strong rushing attack, ECU managed to upset Marshall and nearly did the same to South Carolina. In conference play, ECU has pretty much just done what was needed of it. It nearly upset a really good Houston team, was just as close on the road against UCF, and took care of business against four groups that it’s better than.
With Navy left on the slate before a date with Cincinnati, this is looking a lot like a 7-5 year, offering a whole lot to build on (even with the departure of Ahlers), especially with the benefit of bowl practice time.
Expectations have grown quite a bit larger than bowl eligibility thanks to five-straight wins in conference play that has WKU atop the East division and seemingly headed for a rematch with UTSA in the conference title game – unless the Roadrunners are upended by UAB this weekend. After a 1-4 start to the season (featuring three tight losses), this is a pretty damn good position to be in – though I think it’s going to get even better with FAU and Marshall on the slate next. Knock off the latter, and a loss to the former wouldn’t even hold the Hilltoppers out of the title game.
Win them both, and I think the “transplanting Houston Baptist’s entire offense” experiment has to be considered a rousing success.
Army hit six with a blowout of Bucknell and could be headed for another eight- or nine-win season, depending on what it does against Liberty in two weeks. UMass and Navy bookending that game should be wins, making another nice season for Jeff Monken and company – especially with the turmoil at quarterback all season. A better season could have been possible with better health in that spot, but there’s nothing wrong with 9-3 and a bowl.
Somewhat similar to ECU, there’s not likely any title contention here (CMU is stuck behind NIU) but the Chippewas did get to six a week ago with a big-time win over Kent State that Jim McElwain described as the best of his tenure. I agree. With a good chunk of that offense returning, this is a really great time to build up some momentum for a title run next season – and it could get a head start with wins over Ball State and EMU to end this regular season slate.
With wins in four of their last five games, the Redhawks of Miami have emerged as one of the MAC’s better groups once again. Chuck Martin’s teams are never particularly interesting, but they get to six wins, they do what they’re supposed to do (for the most part) and they’re headed to another bowl this winter after toppling Bowling Green yesterday to grab No. 6. They have Kent State next week, with a shot at the East crown on the line regardless of what the Golden Flashes do this week against Akron (I have a guess).
I’ve been very mean to Toledo this season, deservedly so, but the Rockets are 6-5, so they’re getting included. They beat Ohio last night to reach eligibility and should improve to 7-5 next week against Akron. This is one of the most talented teams in the league, and it lost to literally every good team on its schedule. It’s not my job to square those two facts, so I’m going to congratulate Jason Candle on getting to another bowl game and move on before I attack him.
Despite all the hand-wringing at the beginning of the season after a 3-4 start, Boise State has won three straight, the defense is absolutely rolling under Andy Avalos, and the Broncos are going to have a shot at upsetting a top 25 team to end the season with San Diego State on the docket. An 8-4 season isn’t exactly a dream at Boise State, but it’s still well within reach, and after the start this group had, that’s pretty great.
Could Be In This Week
It hasn’t been a fun year for Memphis. Ryan Silverfield’s second season at the helm has been marred by inconsistency. The Tigers upset SMU and nearly did the same to UTSA, one week removed from a win over Mississippi State, but they also lost to Temple and Tulsa back-to-back and have only a pair of conference wins. Quarterback Seth Henigan has flashed plenty of brilliance, but he’s also very obviously a freshman, and that’s proven difficult to overcome in tight games. The offense is no longer good enough to cover for a bad defense, leaving Memphis near the bottom of the league, unable to keep up with the best of the best.
Despite that, it does still have a shot at bowl eligibility, though I would guess it comes a week from now, rather than this Friday when the Tigers head to Houston. Tulane at home to end the season should be winnable and should keep Memphis’ seven-year bowl streak alive – the longest in program history.
The 49ers looked like something of a lock a few weeks ago, and were even in contention for the C-USA race, but inconsistency has set Will Healy’s squad back into the hunt for bowl contention as a top priority. Last week’s matchup against Louisiana Tech looked like a great opportunity and the 49ers missed on it, but Marshall and Old Dominion remain on the schedule, and with Chris Reynolds running the show at quarterback, I think Charlotte should get at least one of those.
Another one-time contender in the C-USA that has since fallen on hard times, FAU has dropped two straight and needs to beat one of WKU and Middle Tennessee State to get to a bowl game. The defense is absolutely good enough for bowl eligibility and probably even conference title contention, but this Willie Taggart offense has been so inconsistent in such weird ways all season. One game, the blocking falls apart. The next, the blocking is fine, but N’Kosi Perry can’t throw. When everything works together this is a legitimately solid group, but we’ve seen that so little this season that it’s very difficult to bank on.
Middle Tennessee State
Speaking of the Blue Raiders, somehow, MTSU is 5-5 this season. It’s had about four quarterbacks, the offense has somehow played fairly well in spite of that, and most importantly, Middle Tennessee just hasn’t blown any dumb ones. It’s beaten the bad teams on its schedule and lost to the good ones, with one hinge win over Marshall to get to five. Old Dominion and FAU remain on the schedule, and I think that there’s a pretty good chance MTSU gets one of them, creating one of the quietest bowl seasons in the C-USA. Weird team.
Despite never having anything resembling a strong unit on either side of the ball, this Ball State team just seems to win football games, and sits at 5-5 with winnable games against CMU and Buffalo left on the schedule to nab a sixth. With a 1-3 start on the slate to bounce back from, it’s been a pretty impressive stretch from the Cardinals, even if it seems like their whole thing is taped together.
It’s been an odd season for Kent State. Considered one of the better offenses in the country coming into the season, the Flashes have at times shown that brilliance, but looked in other spots, dropping some really strange games including to Central Michigan last week. The MAC East title is still within their reach though, as is the sixth win if they can do what must be done against Akron this weekend, setting up that date with Miami (Ohio) in Kent. Should be a blast.
San Jose State
San Jose State bounced back so well from a rough start to the season, but this one doesn't feel especially likely. Fresno State is the last chance for the Spartans, and it’s going to take quite the defensive performance to pull that off – especially without much to lean on offensively. That overtime loss to San Diego State in October looms very large.
Pretty much the exact opposite from Boise State, Wyoming opened the season 4-0 and has completely fallen off a cliff, losing five of its last six. With Hawaii still on the schedule, a bowl should still be in the cards, but a win over Utah State this weekend seems unlikely, meaning a pretty disappointing 6-6 for Craig Bohl, given the start he had to the season.
The first of three in the Sun Belt, Georgia State has seen as strong a return to form as anyone else in this list. After entering the season with high expectations, GSU crumbled early under the direction of Cornelius Brown IV at quarterback. It wasn’t until it shifted to Darren Grainger in that role that it started to pick up some steam, and now with a win over one of Arkansas State or Troy, the Panthers are bowl bound. With how well this offense is playing for Grainger, I would bet they get both.
The loss to Troy to open November is really going to hurt here. South Alabama, which has one of the league’s best defenses, is going to really need to stand tall in these last two games to earn a 13th matchup because Tennessee and Coastal Carolina are on the docket next. That’s a tall task, even for a Kane Wommack team that I really like. The latter is a whole lot more realistic now that Grayson McCall is out, but this might be an encouraging 5-7 season that could have been a lot more with a healthy Jake Bentley.
Georgia State’s success is bad news for the Trojans, because that means that they need to beat one of GSU or Appalachian State. I like new quarterback Gunnar Watson – a lot – but I’d like a whole lot more with a new coach.
Needs A Little Help
Alright, so Tulsa is a bit of a weird one. The Golden Hurricane are 4-6 with tight losses to literally almost every good team on the schedule. Tulsa came up five points short of Oklahoma State, was within a touchdown of Ohio State in the fourth quarter, and came up one yard short of the chance to send Cincinnati to overtime. It has one blowout loss (to Houston) and two stinkers against UC Davis and Navy.
But, wins against the bottom of the AAC (and Arkansas State, which is IN HELL) have kept the Hurricane alive for at least another week. A win over Temple at home this weekend seems likely, setting Tulsa up for a road trip to SMU with eligibility on the line. This is not the SMU that it was a few weeks ago before Sonny Dykes stopped paying attention to the road, but it’s still going to require quite the effort from Phillip Montgomery’s group.
To make things even more interesting, Montgomery has been included on quite a few hot seat lists. In an active cycle (meaning lots of competition), does Tulsa decide to keep him around if he makes a bowl push? I would have to think so.
Hey, do remember when, at 1-6, Seth Littrell was a dead man walking at North Texas.
Well, he probably still is, but the Mean Green have won three straight, just upset UTEP and have another winnable one against an FIU team that has an actual dead man at head coach, leaving a season-ending matchup with… UTSA to get to six wins. I, uh, don’t see it.
Well hello there, Monarchs. In Ricky Rahne’s first year at the helm, a year removed from the entire team sitting out the COVID season, ODU seems to have something cooking right now with third-year freshman (lmao) quarterback Hayden Wolff. He lost his first game as a starter against Western Kentucky, but he’s led Old Dominion to three straight over Louisiana Tech and the Florida duo. In those games, he’s 66-of-109 passing (60.6 percent) for 240.3 yards per game, with four touchdowns to a pair of interceptions.
With the help of the three best defensive performances of the season, that’s been enough to push Rahne’s squad fully into the bowl conversation. With a pair of bowl hopefuls left on the schedule in MTSU and Charlotte, getting to six wins is no easy task, but it’s absolutely not impossible either. That would be a coup for the former Penn State offensive coordinator, who desperately needs to find some early success to help carve out some room for recruiting in a suddenly crowded competition for coastal G5 recruits.
Two straight losses have made this one way harder than it probably needed to be, but the Bulls do still have a shot if they can beat NIU and Ball State to end out the season. So, probably not.
These guys stink, and they’re not winning the two games needed to get to bowl eligibility. Hire a real coach.
Three straight losses, two straight to the bottom-feeders of the Sun Belt. LSU and Louisiana left on the schedule. I’m going to keep it real with you chief.