Upon finding out that the game would be played between teams from the SEC and Big 12 Conference, bowl officials started looking through past Liberty Bowls and realized that WVU was the one team it really wanted to bring to Memphis. The Mountaineers played in the 1964 Liberty Bowl in Atlantic City's Convention Hall - it was the first major bowl game to be played indoors.
"We're a lot about tradition, history and patriotism," said Steve Ehrhart, executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl Sunday night during a conference call. "When we saw that 50 years ago that historic game was played, we started looking at West Virginia back in the summer and said, 'Wouldn't that be something to be connected with them 50 years later?'"
The Mountaineers will be taking on an unfamiliar foe in Texas A&M. Despite having two rich football traditions, West Virginia has never played the Aggies in football - another aspect of the matchup that made this game an attractive one for the bowl game. After many expected to see Tennessee play in the Liberty Bowl with Texas A&M facing Texas in the Texas Bowl, A&M was placed in the Liberty against the Mountaineers with a chance to make some history of their own in the game.
"It's a huge opportunity for our team to win a bowl game in four consecutive seasons, which is something we've never done in 119 seasons of football at Texas A&M," said Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin in a release. "I'm excited for our team to get a chance to experience Memphis, and I'm sure it will be a popular destination for our fans."
During the conference call between Ehrhart and the athletic directors at both schools, WVU AD Oliver Luck echoed that sentiment, believing that the game should be one that Mountaineer fans will be able to come out in full force for.
"We’re delighted to go to Memphis. It’s a beautiful city and within driving distance for a lot of our fan base," Luck said.
"Historically, we've traveled pretty well. I don't think it will be like the number we saw for the game against Alabama in the Georgia Dome where I think we sold our full 25,000-ticket allotment. Memphis is probably a closer drive for a good portion of the state, so I do think you'll see plenty of Mountaineer traffic in Memphis."
Although the two schools have never played one another, there is plenty of familiarity between the two programs. West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen was Sumlin's offensive coordinator at the University of Houston, while Aggie offensive coordinator Jake Spavital followed Holgorsen to be a graduate assistant at both Houston and Oklahoma State before spending two seasons as the Mountaineers' quarterbacks coach.
“Kevin and Dana go back a long way, and they’re very similar in the way they coach,” Luck said. “I know they have a great relationship, and beyond preparing for the game they’ll enjoy whatever opportunity they have to be together.”
Texas A&M finished 7-5 and 3-5 in SEC play this season.
The Aggies were led by freshman quarterback Kyle Allen, who threw for more than 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns this season since taking over the starting job.
The bowl game will be the end of an interesting up-and-down campaign for the Mountaineers who bounced back from last year's 4-8 finish with a 7-5 season this year.
“We faced a very challenging schedule this season with five Top 12 teams, and playing a tough opponent like Texas A&M in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl will be yet another challenge this year,” Holgorsen said in a release. “We had a good season, and getting to play in a bowl game is a great way to reward our players, especially our seniors. We will prepare hard for this bowl game and try to finish this season on a strong note.”
“It was an interesting year, but we’ve seen a lot of improvement,” Luck added. “I think any neutral observer would look and see that. I’m proud of the job that our coaches and players have done in a tough conference with a brutal schedule.”