MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Just a day after accepting a bid to play in the Liberty Bowl and face WVU, the Volunteers opted out of the game Monday due to COVID-19 issues within the program.
It didn’t take long for the Mountaineers to have a new opponent, however. Army, which was not selected for another bowl game after the Independence Bowl was canceled despite having 9-2 record, will take the place of the Volunteers.
“The opponent might have changed, but that’s it,” WVU athletic director Shane Lyons said. “As I said before, the Mountaineers are looking forward to playing in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and coming to Memphis. Our team deserves to be in a bowl and so does the 9-2 Army squad. While we are disappointed that Tennessee couldn’t be in the game, Army needed a bowl and an opponent, and the Mountaineers are glad to solve the problem. Even though the two teams have not played since 1961, we are honored to face the Black Knights in a tradition rich bowl game.”
Army made it clear it would play anyone and would take the place of a team that had to drop out of its bowl game with COVID-19 problems. Tennessee was the first to do so, and the Black Knights jumped on the opportunity. WVU (5-4, 4-4 Big 12) and the Liberty Bowl had to agree, which both did Monday night.
The Mountaineers are 1-2 all-time against the Black Knights — 7-6 Army in 1941, 19-0 Army in 1946 and 7-3 WVU in 1961.
“I have great respect for the Army football tradition and the sacrifice the Cadets make daily for our country,” WVU coach Neal Brown said. “Coach (Jeff) Monken and his staff have done a terrific job at West Point with 43 wins in the last five years. We started the day preparing for one opponent and will end it preparing for another but that’s how crazy 2020 has been.”
For Tennessee, head coach Jeremy Pruitt and several players tested positive for COVID-19 during Sunday’s round of SEC-required testing. More tests on Monday confirmed the positive cases.
“After receiving Sunday’s COVID-19 test results, the University of Tennessee football program has paused all team activities and will be unable to compete in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl,” the school said in a statement. “The test results revealed an increase in positive cases among student-athletes and staff and subsequent contact tracing. The decision was made in consultation with health officials, the Southeastern Conference and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The student-athletes and staff affected are taking the appropriate safety measures in accordance with University, CDC and local health department guidelines. The University of Tennessee extends its sincere appreciation to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the city of Memphis and is disappointed it will not be able to fulfill its commitment on New Year’s Eve.”
Teams across the country have opted out of bowl season, but Tennessee (3-7) is the first to do so after accepting a bid. Over 10 bowls have also been canceled due t the pandemic.
The Liberty Bowl between the Mountaineers and Black Knights will begin at 4 p.m. Dec. 31 on ESPN.