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Mountaineers to play Tennessee in AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Mineral Daily News-Tribune
WVU coach Neal Brown is shown celebrating a victory.

By Chapin Jewell

Tribune Correspondent

MORGANTOWN - If you’re a WVU Mountaineer football fan, your plans are set for New Year’s Eve.  While deciding whether or not to stay up to see the ball drop at midnight, thus seeing the dreadful 2020 out the door, may be high on your list, what about the rest of the day?

Well, officials with the AutoZone Liberty Bowl have provided you with a nugget of entertainment at 3:00 in the afternoon as Wet Virginia will be taking on Tennessee to end the season.

Despite almost being border states, with only a sliver of Virginia separating the two, this will mark only the second time in history that West Virginia and Tennessee will square off on the gridiron.  And it hasn’t been that long since their first contest, a mere two years in fact.

In the first ever meeting between the two schools on Sep. 1, 2018, in a game played at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, West Virginia opened with Tennessee, and soundly defeated the Volunteers 40-14.  In sweltering 89 degree heat, in front of a crowd of 66,793, Will Grier dissected the Volunteer defense with 429 yards passing and five touchdowns, the most ever allowed by a Tennessee team.

While the two have little history with each other, neither is a stranger to the Liberty Bowl.  This marks West Virginia’s third trip.  In the 1964 Liberty Bowl, West Virginia lost to Utah 32-6 in the Atlantic City Convention Center, the first ever college bowl game played indoors.  The Mountaineers then lost to Texas A & M 45-37 in the 2014 Liberty Bowl played in Memphis, the site of this year’s game.

The Mountaineers have an overall record in bowl games of 15 wins and 22 losses and are seeking to get their first Liberty Bowl win in three tries.

By contrast, Tennessee has appeared in and won all three of their Liberty Bowl games, though it has been 34 years since they’ve appeared in the game.  The Vols defeated Arkansas in 1971, Maryland in 1974, and Minnesota in 1986.

Tennessee has appeared in 54 bowl games total and compiled an overall record of 30-24 in those contests.

According to a media release by Steve Ehrhart, Executive Director of the 62nd AutoZone Liberty Bowl, “We’re very familiar with both West Virginia and Tennessee.  After more than three decades, we’re looking forward to hosting the Tennessee Volunteers and their great fans once again.  We’re proud to have West Virginia’s Neal Brown coach his first bowl game with the Mountaineers in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.”

They have announced that there will be limited fans in attendance for the game and of course that all health and safety protocols will be followed.

WVU Athletic Director Shane Lyons points to the challenge of playing an SEC opponent, and is excited the seniors get to play one more game, “I think the AutoZone Liberty Bowl will provide a great matchup for the college football bowl season, and we have a big challenge ahead of us in playing a tradition-rich SEC program in Tennessee.  I am really happy for our seniors and our entire program to be able to play one more game.  We showed great improvement this year and we are excited about our future.

Tennessee Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer, former head football coach for the Volunteers, is excited to be playing a bowl game in their home state, “I’m thrilled about our football program’s opportunity to compete in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against a great opponent like West Virginia.  It’s an opportunity for us to connect with our many fans throughout West Tennessee and expand upon the rich historical links between the Memphis area and UT.  We have so much Tennessee family in and around Memphis, especially our Medical School and fantastic alumni.

For West Virginia, it’s a chance to improve upon their existing 5-4 record, one that includes an undefeated 5-0 record at home.  Of course, that also means the Mountaineers are 0-4 on the season in road contest, though this will technically be a neutral site, aside from being played in Tennessee’s home state.

In six years as a head coach, four at Troy and two at West Virginia, Neal Brown has compiled an overall record of 45-27, 35-16 at Troy, and 10-11 thus far at WVU.  Perhaps most impressively on Brown’s resume, however, is his 3-0 perfect record in bowl games, all at Troy.  

“I am excited for our program, especially for our seniors, We have handled the adversity of the season well, and we are looking forward to playing in this bowl game.  The AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the city of Memphis have a long and storied tradition of hosting postseason games, and this gives our fans a chance to travel on New Year’s Eve to a bowl destination in a city with great hospitality,” Brown stated.

For Tennessee, it’s chance to put some sort of positive mark on a less than desirable season.  The Volunteers, of course while playing in the tough SEC, have compiled a less than .500 overall record of 3-7.  All three of those wins have come in conference play against South Carolina, Missouri, and Vanderbilt.

In three years as the head coach at Tennessee, Jeremy Pruitt has compiled an overall record of 16-19, with only one winning season.  In that 2019 campaign, however, Pruitt and the Volunteers did score a 23-22 Gator Bowl win over Indiana in Jacksonville, Florida.  Therefore Pruitt, like Brown, is undefeated in bowl games as well.

“We look forward to the opportunity of playing a bowl game in our home state.  Since we returned to campus this summer, I am proud of our team in how they have navigated through the challenges presented during this unique season.  They get another chance to take the field against a very good opponent in West Virginia.  We know Memphis is a special place for Vol fans, and we look forward to seeing them on New Year’s Eve,” Pruitt stated.

For West Virginia, currently standing with a record of 5-4, it’s important to finish the season with a winning record of 6-4, not just with an even record of 5-5.  While “Trust[ing] the Climb,” it was easier for Mountaineer fans to swallow a losing season in Brown’s inaugural campaign, especially considering the hand he was dealt with a bare cupboard.  It’s much easier to continue to trust when you win more than you lose.  A bowl win against an SEC opponent helps as well.