Notes from around Sun Belt football, and how Saturday’s results impact UL’s opponent for the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl:
C-USA BACK IN PLAY: A couple of weeks ago, it didn’t appear that the Cajuns would square off with a Conference USA team in New Orleans, even though C-USA has been a traditional opponent for the Sun Belt representative and is contracted to put a team in the Crescent City.
C-USA didn’t figure to have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill its obligations – until this weekend, when Houston was upset by Southern Mississippi in the league title game, and the Liberty Bowl appeared headed toward an SEC-Big East matchup instead of hosting the C-USA winner.
Houston’s loss threw a lot of bowl plans into turmoil, but it could be good for the New Orleans Bowl. C-USA has five bowl-eligible teams, and without the Liberty Bowl the league has five bowl tie-ins. That could put SMU (7-5) or Marshall (6-6) in play in New Orleans.
Houston’s loss also changed the picture for San Diego State of the Mountain West Conference, which was rumored as a New Orleans Bowl possibility. Now, if neither TCU nor Boise State gets a BCS berth, those teams fill spots in the Las Vegas and Poinsettia Bowls (the latter already has Louisiana Tech), Air Force likely heads to Shreveport for the Independence Bowl and Wyoming gets the nod to the New Mexico Bowl since it figures to travel fans better than SDSU. That leaves the 7-4 Aztecs, who play late Saturday against Fresno State, in either New Orleans or in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.
The Big Ten Conference is still in play, since it has a glut of bowl-eligible teams (10). Two of the league’s four 6-6 teams will be at-large bowl teams – Illinois is rumored – and could be a possibility for New Orleans. A lot of that depends on whether Michigan earns an at-large BCS berth, but for N.O. Bowl reps any Big Ten team would be more desirable than a representative from the Mid-American Conference like Ohio was last year.
AT OLE MISS: UL coach Mark Hudspeth pulled his name from the Ole Miss coaching search last week, but there’s still a Sun Belt coach apparently at the top of the Rebels’ list. Arkansas State coach Hugh Freeze and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart were reported as the leading candidates Saturday by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
ASU athletic director Dean Lee refused permission for Ole Miss to talk to Freeze this week, until ASU finished its regular season Saturday with an easy victory over Sun Belt rival Troy.
FIU’S IN: Florida International got its bowl bid on Saturday, accepting a spot in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg as expected. FIU, which finished at 8-4 after rolling past in-state rival Florida Atlantic last Saturday, becomes the third Sun Belt team to get a bowl bid, after UL (New Orleans Bowl) and Arkansas State (GoDaddy.com Bowl) each got bids almost two weeks ago.
The Beef O’Brady’s Bowl is Dec. 20 at 8 p.m. (ESPN) at Tropicana Field and will be the second straight bowl outing for FIU. The Golden Panthers played in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit last year, beating Toledo 34-32, so this year’s bowl appearance is much closer to home for FIU.
The only question remaining on Sun Belt teams in the bowl picture is Western Kentucky, which is likely going to be one of the three bowl-eligible teams in the country that won’t be bowling. With Hawaii's Saturday night loss, a total of 73 teams nationally are bowl-eligible, with 70 slots available in the 35 bowl games. WKU's probably going to be one of the three left out, with the 7-5 Hilltoppers likely joining Ball State (6-6) and Western Michigan (7-5) of the MAC as the unlucky trio.
NEW AT FAU: Two different reports have Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini being introduced as the new head coach at Florida Atlantic on Monday. Pelini is the brother of Nebraska head coach and former LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini.
Howard Schnellenberger, who came out of retirement to start the FAU program, retired after the Owls’ season-ending 26-0 home loss to UL Monroe Saturday. FAU finished 1-11 this year, avoiding being the nation’s only winless FBS team with a victory over UAB one week ago.