Texas Tech will spend the 2017 postseason at the site of one of its biggest bowl successes — Birmingham, Alabama.
Tech (6-6) will play South Florida (9-2) in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 23 at historic Legion Field, where James Gray ran roughshod over Steve Spurrier and Duke in 1989. The kickoff time is 11 a.m., the eighth game this season the Red Raiders will play at that hour. The matchup came together Sunday afternoon.
South Florida went 6-2 in the American Athletic Conference, finishing second to Peach Bowl-bound Central Florida in the AAC East Division. UCF beat USF 49-42 on Nov. 24, the same day Tech closed the regular season with a 27-23 victory at Texas.
South Florida went 11-2 and beat South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl last season, but Bulls head coach Willie Taggart left for Oregon. The Bulls haven’t missed a beat in their first year under new coach Charlie Strong, who was fired at Texas after the 2016 season.
“They’re a very good opponent,” Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I’ve followed them closely, have a great deal of respect for Charlie Strong and the type of man he is, the type of coach he is, so I was excited to see the success he’s had.
“I’ve watched their team on several occasions. They’re very good all three phases.”
USF boasts a much-decorated quarterback in 2016 AAC offensive player of the year and Birmingham Bowl MVP Quinton Flowers, a 6-foot, 210-pound senior. Flowers has passed for 2,000-plus yards each of the past three seasons while rushing for 991 yards in 2015, 1,530 yards in 2016 and 972 yards this season. He has 40 career rushing touchdowns and 67 career passing touchdowns.
Flowers put up 605 yards total offense against UCF, putting him at 11,385 for his career, 46 short of the AAC record.
“He is a real dual-threat type guy,” Kingsbury said. “To be able to transition into the new offense like he did and still have the same type of success I thought was very impressive going into his senior year. He’s one of the best playmakers in America, so we’ll have our hands full trying to contain him.”
Tech and South Florida had one common opponent this season, the Red Raiders beating Houston 27-24 on Sept. 23 and the Bulls losing to the Cougars 28-24 on Oct. 28.
South Florida ranks No. 16 in the FBS in scoring offense, averaging 38 points per game and topping 30 points in all but two games this season.
USF’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach is Sterlin Gilbert, who came with Strong from Texas after overseeing the freshman year of Longhorns quarterback Shane Buechele. Gilbert was head coach at his alma mater, San Angelo Lake View, from 2008-10. In Tampa, he inherited a dynamic, experienced playmaker.
“I think he’s done a tremendous job with that quarterback,” Kingsbury said, “and adjusting to that young man’s skill set. They’ve been really good offensively, so that’s going to be a challenge for our defensive staff. Coaching against him last year, they’re going to have a feel for it somewhat, but he’s definitely tweaked some things with the quarterback he has.”
Legion Field, one of Bear Bryant’s old stomping grounds, is where Gray ran for 280 yards and Tech demolished Duke 49-21 in the 1989 All American Bowl. That was Spurrier’s last game to coach the Blue Devils before he moved on to Florida. Gray’s rushing output stood as a record for all bowls for more than a decade.
Kingsbury’s coached once at Legion Field, for Houston against UAB.
“It’s a legendary spot,” he said. “I think it’s a unique experience for our players to get to play in a stadium with that much history, so that’ll be fun. It’s a beautiful stadium, beautiful setup and I think our players will really enjoy that.”
Tech landed in the Birmingham Bowl after being the odd team out of bowls contracted with the Big 12. The chain of events started Saturday with Oklahoma’s 41-17 conquest of TCU in the Big 12 championship game. On Sunday, TCU dropped from last week’s No. 11 in the College Football Playoff committee ranking to No. 15 and out of New Year’s Six bowl consideration.
That narrowed the number of guaranteed bowl berths for the Big 12 from eight to seven, pushing each team down a slot. The Heart of Dallas Bowl, believed to be a likely destination for the Red Raiders, instead wound up with a choice of West Virginia or Tech. That game’s committee went with the Mountaineers (7-5, 5-4), who had a better overall record, were two games better in conference play and beat the Red Raiders head to head.
West Virginia will play Utah (6-6) on Dec. 26 in Dallas.
That left Tech as a replacement team for other conferences who lacked enough bowl-eligible teams to fulfill their tie-ins. The Red Raiders are filling the SEC spot in the Birmingham Bowl. It’s the first time since 2012 the SEC won’t have a team in the game.