- The University of Tennessee has announced that they won’t play in the Liberty Bowl against West Virginia due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the program.
- Tennessee finished 3-7 this year but due to special COVID-19 qualification rules was still bowl eligible.
- The Vols are the 23rd team to opt out of a bowl appearance.
Bad news for the University of Tennessee turned out to be good news for Army. Despite a 3-7 record, the Vols were scheduled to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against the 5-4 West Virginia Mountaineers on December 31. That was until UT received Sunday’s COVID-19 test results which indicated ‘an increase in positive cases among student athletes and staff and subsequent contact tracing’. Obviously, they’re going to be mum on the details but one of the positive tests was turned in by head coach Jeremy Pruitt. As a result of the outbreak, Tennessee will ‘pause team activities’ and call it a season.
And now the good news–with Tennessee unable to play their spot will be filled by 9-2 Army. Army was a tough team to pass up after they got screwed over the first time around and in the process the AutoZone Liberty Bowl organizers get a much more competitive football game. Also props to West Virginia–unlike a number of teams they didn’t whine about having to face the Army option offense on short preparation time.
Back to Army in a moment but first let’s review the situation in Knoxville. On Monday morning, the UT Athletic Department dropped a lot of big news at once via a press release: multiple COVID-19 tests, pausing team activities, no bowl game and the season is over. Here’s the statement where they summarize all of the above much more succinctly than I did:
“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 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.”
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt is one of the staff members to test positive and he had this statement:
“Earlier today, I was informed by our medical staff that I have tested positive for COVID-19, and I immediately began isolating at home. I am experiencing mild symptoms but doing fine. We are obviously disappointed that we will not be able to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but the health and safety of our student-athletes will always remain our top priority. I am especially proud of our team and medical staff in safely navigating through a unique season where we played all 10 of our regular-season games.”
The last statement we heard from Pruitt was after Saturday’s 34-13 season ending loss to Texas A&M:
“I get it, 3-7 is not where we want to be, right? But there’s one thing I can say. I can lay my head down on my pillow every night and know that I’ve done everything I could possibly do to make sure that we protected everybody in our program. When looking for a competitive edge, there’s lots of things we didn’t know about. If we were going to have a COVID season again, I’d probably be a little more prepared to handle it. But I get the business. I understand it.”
Obviously, at 3-7 few will shed any tears over UT’s absence from the Liberty Bowl. Based on my research today, that looks to include Vols supporters. I totally get that–I’m actually embarrassed that my alma mater, the University of South Carolina is heading to a bowl game despite a 2-8 record.
Tennessee’s exit gives Army the chance to slide into the Vols’ spot in the Liberty Bowl. Army finished the season 9-2 and yet found themselves without a bowl game. Enter head coach Jeff Monken, who has seen his stock shoot up in Tesla-like fashion following these classic comments to the media:
“We had guys in tears. We pulled off the biggest wins of these seniors’ career, they just won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy back, that’s going to be their legacy, and they’re looking forward to playing in a bowl game one time together, before they go off in the United States Army, and we’re sitting here telling them, ‘Sorry, guys, you can’t play.'”
“You can talk about a playoff system and people bitching about they’re not a top-four team, ‘Oh, we should be in.’ All we want is a bowl game. All we want is a chance to play.”
Monken also took a shot at teams that didn’t want anything to do with Army due to their tricky option offense:
“The bottom line is there were enough people who kept saying, ‘No, we don’t want to play Army, we don’t want to play Army. And I’m sure they don’t want to have one week to get ready for the option [offense] or whatever, but our players, we’ve got guys on our team that wouldn’t be invited as walk-ons to the teams we’re getting ready to play. We’ve got guys from California, they didn’t have a Pac-12 walk-on offer, and they are starting for us.”
Monken dropped plenty of classic quotes including a more in-depth promo on the Pac-12 but none better than this ‘any time, any place’ blast:
“If we got a Dec. 31 bowl game, if you call us on the 29th, we’ll have those guys flying there on the 30th. What I’m hoping is some of these bowl games, when they hear enough of this about Army, they’re going to say, ‘You know what? If somebody cancels, we’re going to take Army. We’re going to be the knight in shining armor and we’re going to look like a hero taking this team.’
After Army found a spot in the Liberty Bowl Coach Monken expressed his gratitude in no less quotable fashion:
“They were desperate for an opportunity to play one more time. I was just humbled that people would think that much of our team and our young men to be advocates for them. Our players can’t advocate for themselves. They got to just take what’s offered. To have people that believe in them and think so highly of this institution and this program, really it’s humbling.”
I’m far from a ‘rah rah’ military guy but how do you not love Monken and his Army team? Based on his performance with the media over the past 48 hours and the amazing quotes he spewed out seemingly at will he might have missed his calling as a general. The fact that he had to go all George Patton on the sports media to get Army into a bowl makes me all the more ashamed that the University of South Carolina is playing in one with their 2-8 record. I almost hope that Army shows up in Tampa on December 26 and kicks the Gamecocks’ football team’s ass on principle even though they’re not scheduled to play.