Bowl season is nearly upon us, and it’s time to dive into all of the games for the seven AAC teams who qualified for bowls. So, from the Myrtle Beach Bowl at the start of bowl season to Cincinnati’s trip to the College Football Playoff, let’s breakdown every AAC bowl game and the key storylines to follow in them.
Myrtle Beach Bowl (December 20th)
Tulsa (-8.5) vs. Old Dominion
Tulsa reached bowl eligibility in the eleventh hour, after a surprise win over an SMU team that was reeling from the departure of its head coach. Now, they’re going to be playing on the Surf Turf in Myrtle Beach against Old Dominion. After a long and difficult out of conference slate, this was a good turnaround job midseason by Tulsa and they’re being rewarded for it.
As for Old Dominion, they’re one of C-USA’s best feel good stories. After not playing in 2020, due to COVID-19, they started 2021 1-6. This is after going 1-11 in 2019 and going 4-8 the year before that. The Monarchs were an absolute mess. After a close win against Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion went on a run, winning five games straight to finish the season 6-6 and go to their first bowl game since the 2016 Bahamas Bowl.
Gasparilla Bowl (December 23rd)
UCF vs. Florida (-7)
UCF and Florida have bickered back and forth online, both between fans and administrators. This largely started when UCF won the Peach Bowl in 2017, and the discussion of scheduling started up. Why aren’t there tougher teams on their schedule? Well, a lot of teams don’t see any benefit in playing UCF, and then athletic director Danny White refused to schedule a 2-1 series. Florida wouldn’t schedule a home and home with UCF, so both sides accused the other of ducking them. New UCF AD Terry Mahajir has no such issues and they did manage to schedule a 2-1, but the Gasparilla Bowl will give them an early meeting.
The game is sold out, meaning it’s doing much better numbers attendance wise than Florida vs. USF did in Raymond James Stadium for a regular season game. On top of that, the Gators are moving on from Dan Mullen and this is a chance to see how they’re doing moving forward.
Plus, the Gasparilla Bowl is named after the Gasparilla Pirate Festival that takes place in Tampa every year. Ridiculous.
Hawai’i Bowl (December 24th)
Memphis (-6.5) vs. Hawaii
For many people, the Hawai’i Bowl on Christmas Eve is a tradition that beats watching any holiday movie. For others, it’s a chance to get stressed out watching Memphis try to focus for a bowl game on the Islands.
The biggest storyline in this game is going to be coming out of Hawaii. They are seeing a massive number of transfers out of the program and are struggling to recruit anyone. The players, on the whole, are ready to rebel against head coach Todd Graham, who is verbally abusive to the players and assistant coaches and has made the players feel like he’s using them as a stepping stone. He gets a bonus for making this game and another for winning it. The players have no interest in letting him make more money off them.
As for Memphis, it’s already been a frustrating year. They may have made a bowl game, but they were expecting to have a better season. Now, they go into the Hawai’i Bowl without defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre.
Military Bowl (December 27th)
ECU vs. Boston College (-3.5)
ECU is heading into their first bowl game since the 2014-15 Birmingham Bowl, where they lost to Florida 28-20. The last time they won a bowl game was the 2013 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, where they beat Ohio 37-20. So, while going to this game is exciting and a major accomplishment for ECU, winning it would be even better. This has been a fantastic turnaround job by Mike Houston and the Pirates deserve all the credit in the world.
As for Boston College, they’ll have Phil Jurkovec, who decided not to declare for the NFL Draft. The Eagles have been bad luck in bowl games lately, though. They skipped 2020 due to COVID-19, but the two bowl appearances prior to that the Eagles dealt with major weather issues, including having to cancel the 2018 First Responder Bowl.
Birmingham Bowl (December 28th)
Houston vs. Auburn (-3.5)
First and foremost, it’s insulting that Auburn is the favorite in this game. The Tigers are missing their starting quarterback and several other players to the transfer portal. Auburn has also lost four straight games on their way a record of 6-6. It was disappointing and it could have been worse. There are already growing complaints about first year head coach Bryan Harsin. A loss to a G5 school wouldn’t help his case, as he’s rumored for another PAC-12 job.
Meanwhile, for Houston, they’ve lost to the only Power 5 team on their schedule and they lost to Cincinnati, who will be the only ranked team at the end of the year on their schedule. So, this is a chance to prove that the Cougars were as good as their record by beating an SEC team.
Fenway Bowl (December 29th)
Virginia (-1.5) vs. SMU
SMU and Virginia will be meeting in the first ever Fenway Bowl. It’s an interesting choice to see how two Southern fanbases are going to travel to the North during the Winter. Fenway has hosted football before, including a Notre Dame Shamrock Series Game and a Harvard-Yale Game. So, even if the crowd doesn’t come in huge numbers, this should still have an iconic feel to it.
Both teams are also going through coaching changes. In a surprise, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall announced he would be stepping away to spend more time with his family. This will be his last game. Tony Elliott is the new Virginia head coach. Meanwhile, SMU lost Sonny Dykes to rival TCU. The new SMU coach Rhett Lashlee will be on the sidelines for SMU. So, this game is going to be full of new coach intrigue.
Cotton Bowl, College Football Playoff Semifinal (December 31st)
Alabama (-13.5) vs. Cincinnati
A quick two paragraphs on what Cincinnati making the College Football Playoff means definitely isn’t enough. It’s massive, and the storylines are going to be about what shot the Bearcats have to actually win. If they get blown out, which is common no matter what in the semifinals, it will be a stain on all G5 teams going forward. That isn’t fair, but it is how things are going to happen.
The truth is that if Tank Bigsby doesn’t run out of bounds, there is a good chance that Alabama has two losses and missed the College Football Playoff in its entirety. Cincinnati’s secondary and pass rush combine to match up well with what Alabama’s strengths are on offense. That could be more than enough.