Navy's remarkable bounce-back season will culminate with one of the biggest bowls the program has ever attended.
On Sunday afternoon, Navy received an invitation to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl where it will meet Kansas State of the Big 12 Conference.
The Liberty Bowl, played in the stadium of the same name in Memphis, Tennessee, was founded in 1959 and ranks right behind the "New Year's Six Bowls" in terms of prestige. Liberty Bowl executive director Steve Ehrhart had his choice of three American Athletic Conference schools -- Cincinnati (10-3) and SMU (10-2) were the others -- and wanted Navy (9-2).
Navy is filling the slot normally reserved for a school from the Southeastern Conference. Athletic director Chet Gladchuk called it "quite a coup" for the Midshipmen.
"To have a bowl with such a storied tradition and significant national stature want Navy speaks volumes," Gladchuk said. "As they say in Navy, the ship has come in. It's certainly a great day for Navy football."
With LSU selected for the College Football Playoff and Florida chosen for the Orange Bowl, the SEC did not have a school available for the Liberty Bowl after placing its other bowl-eligible teams elsewhere.
Ehrhart forged an agreement with the American Athletic Conference for just such a contingency. Cincinnati was the AAC runner-up but had played at the Liberty Bowl against Memphis two weekends in a row.
Navy's reputation as a national program with a history of selling a large amount of tickets for bowl games no doubt helped its cause. The Midshipmen have participated in the Liberty Bowl before, losing to Ohio State 31-28 in 1981.
"We're honored to have the United States Naval Academy participate in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl," Ehrhart said in a statement.
"Our bowl was founded on the principles of freedom, liberty and patriotism and the Midshipmen live those principles every day," Ehrhart added. "It has been 38 years since Navy played in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in 1981 and now, we are so proud to welcome Navy back."
This marks the 15th postseason appearance in the span of 17 years for Navy, which moved up one spot to No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings on Sunday. The Midshipmen have won four of the last five bowls in which they played.
Naturally, head coach Ken Niumatalolo was reluctant to talk about the Liberty Bowl with the annual showdown against archrival Army still to be played next Saturday.
"Our players are extremely excited to be invited to a bowl as prestigious as the Liberty Bowl and to have the opportunity to play such a great opponent like Kansas State," Niumatalolo said in a statement. "Going to a bowl game is always one of our top goals, but right now our only focus is to get goal number one and that is to beat Army and win back the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy."
From 2003 through 2015, when Navy was still operating as an independent, Gladchuk used his vast connections in collegiate athletics to secure contracts with various bowls. During that time, Gladchuk and Ehrhart engaged in many discussions about the possibility of having Navy play in the Liberty Bowl.
"I couldn't be more pleased and grateful to the Liberty Bowl committee for inviting us to the seventh oldest college bowl game and one of the most patriotic bowl games in America," Gladchuk said. "My deepest and sincere appreciation to my good friend Steve Ehrhardt. We talked about this possibility for two decades and I'm ecstatic that the stars have finally aligned for Navy to visit this amazing city and bowl game again."
Gladchuk called the greater Memphis region a "military community" and noted past participants have raved about the overall experience. That is because Ehrhart and the rest of the Liberty Bowl organizers are "first-class in every respect" in terms of hosting, Gladchuk said.
"It's a week-long festival with all sorts of activities and events. The entire city comes alive with the way it embraces the visiting teams," Gladchuk said. "We look forward to embracing the community and accentuating our military influence by bringing together our alumni, midshipmen, enlisted personnel and veterans in a manner that exudes patriotism and enthusiasm in the Navy and Marine Corps family."
Kansas State (8-4) will provide perhaps the toughest challenge Navy has faced in the postseason during the current triple-option era. Kansas State handed fourth-ranked Oklahoma its lone loss, capturing a 48-41 shootout at Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Oct. 26.
Oklahoma (12-1) went on to win the Big 12 Conference championship and will No. 1 LSU in the Peach Bowl that serves as semifinals for the College Football Playoff. All four of the Wildcats' losses came within the conference to Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas and West Virginia.
Kansas State, under the direction of first-year head coach Chris Klieman, is averaging 30.7 points per game with standout quarterback Skylar Thompson passing for 2,191 yards and 12 touchdowns.
This marks the second time during the current triple-option era, which began in 2001, that Navy has met a Big 12 opponent in the postseason. Navy stunned heavily-favored Missouri 35-13 in the 2009 Texas Bowl. The Tigers have since moved into the SEC.
Gladchuk said the Naval Academy Athletic Association had already laid the groundwork for selling tickets to the Liberty Bowl was prepared to pull the trigger as soon as the official word came on Sunday afternoon.
"We had been anticipating the Liberty Bowl for about a week, so we were prepared," he said.
Getting one team into a New Year's Six Bowl and having another receive a special invitation to the Liberty Bowl is a financial boon for the American Athletic Conference. The Cotton Bowl is likely to pay each participant in excess of $4 million, while the Liberty Bowl payout is $2.1 million per school.
All postseason revenue generated from bowl participation is collected by the American Athletic Conference then dispersed to all member schools based off a ranking formula.
This article is written by Bill Wagner from The Capital, Annapolis, Md. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.