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Memphis bound: Navy will face Kansas State in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl

The Navy Midshipmen have been selected to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and will take on the 8-4 Kansas State Wildcats.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Midshipmen are going to Memphis.

On Sunday, the College Football Playoff committee ranked Navy at No. 23 and the Mids were invited to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, where they will face Kansas State on Dec. 31. The game will be played at 3:45 p.m. ET on ESPN.

The Navy Midshipmen have had one of the biggest turnaround seasons in all of college football. At this time last year, the Midshipmen were heading into the annual Army-Navy game with a 3-9 record and were missing the bowl season for the first time since 2011.

This year, Navy is almost in the complete opposite position as they were last season. Ken Niumatalolo’s squad is 9-2, shared the AAC West division title with Memphis, and has been bowl-eligible since their seventh game of the year. Additionally, Navy has a chance to improve to 10 wins with another regular season game left to play against Army on Dec. 14th.

And beating Army and Kansas State would give the Mids 11 wins, their most since 2015 — their first year in the AAC.

Kansas State will enter the Liberty Bowl with an 8-4 record and at third place in the Big 12. The Wildcats’ key win this season was when they ruined the Oklahoma Sooners’ perfect season, winning 48-41. Furthermore, Kansas State is coming off a solid 27-17 victory over then-No. 23 Iowa State.

The Midshipmen have played in the Liberty Bowl once before in 1981. George Welsh was the head coach for Navy and they played the No. 15 Ohio State Buckeyes. The Mids put up a solid fight, but came up short, 31-28.

Navy playing a Big 12 opponent has significant future implications for the program as well as the American Athletic Conference as a whole. As the AAC hopes to push its way into the “Power 6” discussion, and gain legitimacy as a top conference, it’s essential that they win their games against Power 5 opponents. The Midshipmen have a tall task as they represent the conference.

The Process

One of the teams that plays in the Cotton Bowl every year is the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion. This year, that team is the No. 17 Memphis Tigers, and they will play No. 10 Penn State. Memphis beat Cincinnati, 29-24, in the AAC Conference Championship Game, and beat out Boise State and Appalachian State for this spot. Because Memphis is representing the AAC in the Cotton Bowl, that opened up a spot for another AAC team to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl this year.

There was a legitimate chance that Navy was going to play in the Military Bowl in Annapolis, but, from a player’s perspective, the vast majority of the Midshipmen wanted to play in the Liberty Bowl. Most of the players will be closer to their hometowns, for many of them are from Tennessee and the general area (14 Navy players are from Tennessee, 11 are from Alabama, two are from Arkansas, two are from Mississippi, two are from Missouri and 16 are from Georgia).

Additionally, playing at home in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, and sticking around the Naval Academy and the Washington D. C. area, is the last thing these Midshipmen wanted to do after a long fall semester. The players have been in Annapolis, at the very least, for the last five months for the football season. Getting out of the local area is refreshing and exciting. Additionally, the bowl-game payout from the Liberty Bowl is substantially more than many other bowl games. The Liberty Bowl payout is reportedly at $2.4 million for each participating team.

“It looks like we may have a shot at the Liberty Bowl and that’s a big one for the American because of the payout and playing a Big 12 opponent,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told The Capital earlier this week.

However, the local fans would have been pleased to be able to see their favorite team play in their home stadium. Navy would have undoubtedly sold-out their share of the tickets for the Military Bowl. Furthermore, the Midshipmen have had great success in recent years playing in the Military Bowl. In 2015, Navy who was ranked at No. 21 at the time, defeated Pittsburgh 44-28. Two years later, the Midshipmen blew out Virginia, 49-7.

This year’s Military Bowl will feature Temple and the North Carolina Tar Heels.

For now, the Midshipmen will focus on beating the Army Black Knights in the 120th Army-Navy Game.