AutoZone Liberty Bowl back with the SEC

The AutoZone Liberty Bowl has been a Memphis tradition for more than 40 years. Now the bowl moves into another phase of its life as Conference USA and the Southeastern Conference link up in the postseason game. Ole Miss was the last SEC team to play in the Liberty Bowl, back in 1992 when the Rebels beat Air Force 13-0.

The AutoZone Liberty Bowl hasn't been affiliated with the Southeastern Conference in several years. Not since Ole Miss beat Air Force 13-0 in 1992 has an SEC team played in the Liberty Bowl.

Ole Miss has a long history with the Liberty since it moved to Memphis in the early 1960s after being played in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. The Rebels are 4-0 with wins over Auburn 13-7 in 1965, Virginia Tech 34-17 in 1968, Air Force 42-29 in 1989, and the Falcons again in that '92 game on a bitter cold New Year's Eve night.

Associate Executive Director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl Harold Graeter was at the SEC Media Days and said the Memphis classic is glad to be linked up once again with the SEC.

"When you look over the 48-year history of our bowl game, the SEC has been involved more than any other conference," said the former sports anchor for WMC-TV 5, the NBC affiliate in Memphis. "When we evaluated where we wanted to be at this time, we didn't have to look far. The SEC is where we wanted to be. It's a natural for us."

The AutoZone Liberty Bowl also takes either the Conference USA champion or gets the first pick from that conference. The stipulations are that there will be no rematches from the regular season. For example Ole Miss and Memphis this season would not play each other since they had done so in the regular season. And Mississippi State wouldn't play Tulane or UAB since the Bulldogs play both this fall.

Also no instate teams will be matched against each other. For example Southern Mississippi would never play Ole Miss or Mississippi State, UAB would not play Alabama or Auburn, Tulane wouldn't face LSU, Central Florida and Florida wouldn't square off.

The city of Memphis is a natural for the SEC.

"Our two biggest fan bases are Conference USA with the University of Memphis being located there, and the SEC," Graeter said. "There are a lot of large fan groups from a lot of SEC schools in the Memphis area. There is probably not a bigger market without an SEC school in a particular city that has more SEC fans than Memphis. Probably nine or ten SEC schools have a significant number of fans in Memphis."

The SEC replaced the Mountain West Conference's affiliation with the Liberty, although actually last season for one year the matchup was Conference USA vs. an at-large team. Tulsa of C-USA beat Fresno State of the Western Athletic Conference 31-24 in a thriller last year.

Announced attendance at the Liberty Bowl has remained high. For nine straight seasons the bowl has announced at least 50,000 fans in attendance. Two SEC teams, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, hold the records for largest crowds, both drawing more than 60,000 fans for their games in 1991 (MSU-Air Force) and 1989 (UM-Air Force).

Why did Air Force make so many appearances? That's when the Liberty linked with the service academies to send their Commander in Chief's Trophy champion to Memphis. Air Force won it four straight years, and in the final year of that five-year deal, the Liberty and the academies decided it had basically become the Air Force show and cancelled the pact.

The Liberty selects its SEC team after the BCS bowls, after the Capital One, Outback, AT&T Cotton, and Chick-Fil-A. The Liberty will pick simultaneously with Nashville but before Shreveport.

So now the Liberty is back right where it wants to be. The University of Memphis and Conference USA member schools can attend, and the SEC is back on board.

"We had talks with the SEC for a couple of years, and we were actually contacted by every conference about the possibility of being affiliated with our bowl," Graeter said. "But the natural place, the right place for us, is the SEC. Memphis isn't the same city as it was the last time an SEC team played in the Liberty Bowl (1992). Downtown is vibrant. Beale Street is hopping. And the state of Mississippi is important to us and our future as it has been our past. So this is all a really great situation for us and we're thrilled."

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