The Birmingham Bowl has more interesting storylines than one might originally think. First off, it’s the first time in the bowl’s history (2006 start), that a Big 12 team is competing. Meantime, South Florida will be making its fourth appearance in this bowl game, the most any team ever has. Also, USF head coach Charlie Strong faces a very familiar Big 12 opponent in the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Strong, of course, was the Texas head coach from 2014-16, where he went 2-1 against the Red Raiders.
The Red Raiders are still thanking their lucky stars to be bowl eligible this season. It took a meltdown, combined with bad play-calling in the final minutes by Texas, for the Red Raiders to outscore the Longhorns 14-3 in the fourth quarter and pull off a 27-23 win to finish 6-6 on the season.
Meantime, while bowl season was never really in doubt for the Bulls (9-2), this season did fall short of some expectations, as many predicted USF to go undefeated in the American Athletic Conference (AAC). Instead, they had the tough luck of the UCF Knights being in their division in the AAC East, who became the Group of 5 darlings in 2017.
Birmingham Bowl: Texas Tech vs. South Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 23 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Legion Field (Birmingham, Ala.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: South Florida -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Texas Tech offensive line vs. USF front seven
USF had the best scoring defense in the American Athletic Conference by a wide margin, holding teams to just 13.5 points per game, well below the second-best defensive team in the conference (Temple, 27.7 ppg).
The Bulls also had an AAC-best 33 sacks in 11 games and are led by Hector Bruce, Mike Love and Greg Reaves on the defensive line. Texas Tech’s offensive line was a weak spot during the season. Freshman guard Jack Anderson earned freshman All-American status from ESPN.com, but the rest of the line struggled protecting Nic Shimonek and establishing a solid running game (4.0 yards per carry). Now the Red Raiders have to try and establish the run against a USF defense that gave up a conference-best (and 22nd in the FBS) 126 rushing yards per game.
2. Quinton Flowers limiting mistakes
The key for South Florida’s dynamic, dual-threat quarterback will be to not let Texas Tech take advantage of any possible mistakes. The Red Raiders finished tied for the best turnover margin in the Big 12 at plus-11 and also led the conference with 27 takeaways. Flowers only threw six interceptions this season, which is a good start, and USF was plus-10 in turnover margin, good for third in the conference. The Bulls also only had 11 turnovers, which is the second fewest in the AAC. The Bulls needs to protect the ball, because Texas Tech is able to mask a mediocre defense, at best, by using timely turnovers to its advantage. That’s been the Red Raiders’ bread and butter all season.
Meanwhile, Flowers will be playing in his final game, looking to put a cap on an outstanding career. Flowers, who was named second-team All-AAC this season, already holds 27 career school records, and could add to that total by the time this game is over. With 181 passing yards against Texas Tech, he also will become just the fourth player in FBS history with 8,000 career passing yards and 3,500 rushing.
3. The red zone
Something to keep an eye on is that Texas Tech, despite its offensive prowess, has the worst red zone offense in the Big 12. The Red Raiders have scored on 38 of 56 trips, only a 67.9 percent clip, which is nearly 10 percent below the second-worst mark in the conference (Baylor, 77.5). Tech couldn’t hit field goals (8-of-16) when it got close and had a Big 12-worst four turnovers in the red zone as well. Interestingly, as good as South Florida was on the defensive side, the Bulls were the third worst red zone defense in the AAC. The silver lining: USF only allowed teams 25 trips to the red zone, by far the fewest in the conference. So when teams got to the red zone against the Bulls, they had success, but it was getting there that was the hardest part.
Motivation is always a key factor for these mid-level bowl games. I don’t think that will be an issue for South Florida. Quinton Flowers is playing his final game of his college career and Charlie Strong is trying to build a program. Meantime, Texas Tech barely got into a bowl game and head coach Kliff Kingsbury is looking to head into the offseason with some momentum, which is something his program desperately needs.
But it’s the USF defense that will prove to do enough against a Texas Tech offense that has looked good in the box score, but also has been sporadic throughout the season. The Bulls cap off a 10-2 season and send an impressive group of seniors out on a high note.
Prediction: South Florida 38, Texas Tech 35
— Written by Pete Mundo, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network as well as owner and operator of HeartlandCollegeSports.com, a site for Big 12 fans. Mundo also is a college football analyst for Sports Illustrated’s SI Now and a sports anchor at CBS Sports Radio. He can be found on Twitter @PeteMundo. Follow Heartland College Sports on Twitter @Heartland_CS.