With a mere three weeks remaining in the regular season for NCAA football, the picture of which teams are going to play in a bowl game–and which games they’re headed for–is becoming much clearer. Some teams still have some work to do to reach the necessary six wins–or five, if a team’s players went to class–but their dreams are still very much alive.
In the state of Kentucky, all three FBS-affiliated colleges are either already bowl eligible (Louisville and Kentucky) or can still make it there (Western Kentucky). Here’s a look at where they might be headed to play in the postseason.
Although a season that began with College Football Playoff aspirations hasn’t gone quite as planned, the Cardinals have at least locked themselves into bowl-eligibility with a decisive win against Virginia last week. That gives them two weeks to improve their conference standing, starting with their ACC finale at Syracuse this week–a Cardinal win here would knock the Orange out of bowl contention–and wrapping up next week in Lexington against their archrivals at UK.
Getting caught in the middle of the ACC pack means that Louisville’s bowl location will depend solely on where they finish. The good news is that whoever wins the likely ACC Championship Game matchup between Clemson and Miami will certainly find themselves in the Playoff, with the loser taking the ACC’s guaranteed spot in the Orange Bowl in Miami. That leaves as many as 10 other open bowl spots for a conference that won’t have more than eight other six-win teams, not counting the Tigers and Hurricanes. The bad news is that tiebreaker scenarios don’t help U of L; they’re currently tied with Wake Forest and only a game ahead of Boston College, and they’ve already lost to both of those teams. So it would benefit the Cards greatly to not take their locked-in status for granted, when they should be focused on closing out the year with two more wins.
If Louisville does win out, their recent history in bowls could be a relevant factor in deciding their postseason fate. Rarely do schools get invited to attend the same bowl in consecutive years–which could keep U of L out of this year’s Citrus Bowl in Orlando, and possibly the Music City Bowl in Nashville as well–although the presence of a high-profile star like Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson could throw that philosophy right out the window. Given the Cards’ previous history with the Belk Bowl, which could see them square off against a potent SEC foe like Auburn, LSU, or Mississippi State, that’s where a seven or eight-win Louisville team seems headed for. If they sit at six wins, they’ll get dropped down to a less prominent game, depending on the available matchup; if the Indiana Hoosiers become bowl eligible–especially in a strictly B1G/ACC matchup like the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit–it’s easy to see these two regional rivals getting paired together.
Despite the best efforts of seemingly the entire state of Mississippi, Kentucky football has seven wins and a guaranteed bowl game. But when you’re an SEC school, and as many as 11 teams from your conference could be bowl eligible by the time all is said and done, every win counts.
The SEC Championship Game is already set in stone, with Alabama set to face off against Georgia. The winner would have to find a very creative way not to get invited to the CFP, and the loser will be seemingly destined for a New Year’s Six spot in either the Orange or Peach Bowl; if the loser is Georgia, it’d be a safe bet that the Bulldogs wind up with a virtual home game at the Peach Bowl, since it’s held in Atlanta. That means that unless a second team gets a New Year’s Six invite–Auburn perhaps–every SEC bowl team will get squeezed in by order of finish. For Kentucky, that might mean that seven wins isn’t enough to get them the postseason matchup they really want.
The Wildcats will need as much skill and effort as they can muster for their last two matchups of the year, a roadtrip to Georgia and a homestand against Jackson and U of L. Win those two games, and all of a sudden the Cats have themselves the possibility of a primetime bowl bid, likely sending them to a city in Tennessee for either the Music City Bowl (in Nashville) or the Liberty Bowl (in Memphis). In theory, UK could still wind up in one of those games by winning one of their last two games, since their only recent bowl appearance saw them in last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville. If they stay at seven wins, however, they’re probably off to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, LA, or perhaps the Belk Bowl; UK and U of L have never played each other twice in the same season, but that game could offer the chance for exactly that to happen, depending on the circumstances.
Although non-Power Five conference schools tend to get such minimal credit for sustaining success in football, the Hilltoppers deserve a lot of praise for enduring constant coaching changes and still finding ways to win. After losing Willie Taggart to South Florida and Jeff Brohm to Purdue, it would have been easy for WKU to fade back into irrelevance, but instead they find themselves only one win short of their fourth consecutive bowl bid; not bad for a school that hasn’t even been in FBS for a full decade yet.
That one win won’t come easily, with C-USA powerhouses Middle Tennessee State (at home) and Florida International (on the road) still remaining on the schedule, but WKU’s high-octane offense always seems to find a way to get the job done. Still, even assuming that they do get that sixth win, the strength of the conference might get used against the Toppers for once. Six Conference USA teams are already bowl-eligible, and as many as five more–including WKU–could join the party, depending on how things shake out. Where that becomes an issue is that only seven bowls have a direct tie-in to C-USA, with the Frisco Bowl serving as an unofficial eighth spot; one of its bids is an at-large. That means that up to three teams could be relying on other conferences to run out of bowl-eligible teams–the Big 12, MAC, or Sun Belt seem like the most likely possibilities–in order to continue playing into the postseason; none of the teams in C-USA have won enough games or scheduled enough Power Five opponents to have a realistic shot at cracking into the NY6.
Having FIU left on the schedule provides an excellent chance for Western to grab a huge tiebreaker advantage. Winning out moves the Toppers ahead of FIU in the conference standings, allowing them to finish no lower than sixth overall and removing the need to sweat the sheer volume of potential C-USA bowl bids. Last year saw WKU playing in the Boca Raton Bowl in Florida, so they’d probably be headed elsewhere this year; either the Bahamas Bowl or the Gasparilla Bowl in St. Petersburg, FL. If they only win one game–especially if that one win is this weekend against MTSU–they’re stuck in that group that will be waiting with baited breath for the bowl announcements; barring reassignment due to another conference running out of eligible teams, a six-win WKU team is probably going to either the New Orleans Bowl–the first postseason game of the year–or the New Mexico Bowl.
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