PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 29: Demetris Murray #21 of the South Florida Bulls celebrates his rushing touchdown against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game on September 29, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
The Bulls need just one more win to gain bowl eligibility for the seventh year in a row. Where might they finish the 2011 season?
With just one more win in their last three games, the South Florida Bulls will be bowl-eligible for the seventh straight year. While it's too late for them to get into one of the big-ticket bowls now that they've lost four conference games, wherever they end up is better than not going bowling at all. So where might they go?
Let's start with the ground rules that will apply to every scenario in this list. The Big East will only get its champion into the BCS, and we're assuming Cincinnati will be that team. The Champs Sports Bowl, which normally takes the second pick from the conference, will most likely use their once-every-four-years option to pick Notre Dame, knocking the Big East's second choice down to the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. (This used to be the Meineke Car Care Bowl -- USF played in it last year.)
WIN ALL THREE GAMES, FINISH 8-4
If the Bulls win out, their only main competitor for the Belk Bowl would be West Virginia, who would also be 8-4, and who USF would have just beaten in the season finale. Rutgers seems destined for the Pinstripe Bowl, so the decision would come down to either the Mountaineers or Bulls. An obvious negative would be that USF just played there last season, and bowls usually don't like taking the same team two years in a row. West Virginia hasn't been to this game since 2008. Plus, their name recognition and large traveling fan base would be very appealing. As long as the Mountaineers beat Pittsburgh next week, they should end up in this game no matter what.
That almost certainly steers USF to the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham on January 7. Anyone who went to this game in 2006 can tell you that it's way down the list of desirable bowl destinations, but it does give the Bulls an extra week of practice time over the Belk Bowl, and in all likelihood they would get to play an SEC opponent. (The SEC should have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill this game, but if not, you're stuck playing an also-ran Sun Belt team like Western Kentucky or FIU, which would be very unfortunate.)
Assuming it's an SEC team, you'd play a relatively weak 6-6 SEC team in this game, like Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Mississippi State... or maybe Florida, although it seems very unlikely that the Gators would slip this far in the SEC's bowl hierarchy.
WIN TWO OF THREE GAMES, FINISH 7-5
See everything I just wrote about the BBVA Compass Bowl. I'd be really surprised if USF went anywhere else at 7-5, unless the loss was to Louisville and the Cardinals also finished 7-5.
WIN ONE OF THREE GAMES, FINISH 6-6
If this happens, the Bulls are pretty much stuck playing in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. Look, I know it's a local bowl and I should probably put a happy face on this, but this would be awful. USF fans would not be terribly interested in the game, even with it being played at Tropicana Field. It's one of the first bowls on the schedule, so the team wouldn't get very much extra practice time, which is one of the biggest benefits to playing in a bowl.
Also, you'd be expected to beat the Conference USA opponent who shows up. And it wouldn't even be a good C-USA team, it would be one that just barely got to the six-win mark. Someone like Marshall or East Carolina (story angle!) or maybe even UCF, which would be the absolute worst, because the Knights would care about this game approximately 500,000,000,000,000 times more than the Bulls would. To me, watching USF in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl would be like going to the dentist for a root canal. (Note: This is exactly how I felt watching the Bulls crush Memphis in this game in 2008.)
There's a small chance that a 6-6 USF team could be farmed out to a bowl that needs to fill a spot because the league they're tied into didn't have enough eligible teams. If that happened, the Bulls could be sent to any number of places -- hopefully one not too far away from Tampa so they could sell a few tickets. i liked the projection I saw on College Football News that sent USF to the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas against Purdue. But I only liked it because I can get to the Cotton Bowl stadium from my house in 30 minutes.
LOSE ALL THREE GAMES, FINISH 5-7
No bowl for you, one year! Skip Holtz gets to fend off unwarranted job security questions for the entire offseason, and Doug Woolard starts to squirm. Also we have to start watching USF basketball sooner, and no one wants that.