STARKVILLE — The selection of Mississippi State was a matter of repeating history for the Liberty Bowl committee.
MSU’s decision Sunday to accept an invitation to play Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl enabled the committee to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 MSU team that made the program’s first trip to the Liberty Bowl.
“It’s very fitting that 50 years ago this year Mississippi State football played in the 1963 Liberty Bowl,” Liberty Bowl Executive Director Steve Ehrhart said.
The latest installment of the Liberty Bowl will feature a 6-6 MSU team against a 10-3 Rice team that won the Conference USA championship at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 31. ESPN will broadcast the game from Memphis, Tenn. Tickets will go on sale to the general public today at www.hailstate.com, the school’s athletic web site. Tickets will be on sale until Dec. 20.
Multiple sources close to the MSU football program confirmed to The Dispatch on Thursday that MSU anticipated returning to the Liberty Bowl for the first time since 2007.
Ehrhart officially invited MSU on Sunday night on a telephone call that MSU coach Dan Mullen listened to as he stood at the podium of the news conference.
“It’s a unbelievable honor for them to select you as a school,” Mullen said. “The one thing we can do is show everybody we’re a team worthy of being selected to great bowl games by bringing home crowds with us for the opportunity to go get our seventh win.”
On Thursday, Ehrhart declined to comment to The Dispatch about MSU’s chances of landing in the bowl. He said the bowl committee was still evaluating potential Southeastern Conference teams before the final announcements were made Sunday. Mullen said it was easy to agree to play in the Liberty Bowl given the attention the bowl representatives gave to the school. The Liberty Bowl is the seventh oldest bowl game in college football.
“I know that in my time here there hasn’t been a bowl game more committed to our program than the AutoZone Liberty Bowl,” Mullen said to Ehrhart on Sunday. “Nobody has followed us closer, and we’ve been looking forward to it and trying to make this happen for five years now to celebrate that 50th anniversary team.”
MSU defeated Central Florida 10-3 in 2007, the last time it played in the Liberty Bowl. MVP Derek Pegues had two interceptions in the victory.
MSU beat Memphis 59-14 in 2011 before an announced crowd of 33,990 in its last game at the Liberty Bowl Stadium.
MSU will begin bowl practice Friday after final exams are completed. Open practices to public won’t begin until Saturday morning.
Rice accepted its invitation Saturday after defeating Marshall 41-24 in the Conference USA championship game in Houston. Rice, which received votes in The Associated Press and USA Today poll, will play in its first Liberty Bowl after winning the league title for the first time since joining C-USA in 2005.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Taylor McHargue threw for 196 yards and a touchdown pass against Marshall. This season, McHargue became the third Owl to top 6,000 career yards in total offense.
“We know we are in for a tremendous challenge, but that’s what is exciting about the season we have had,” Rice coach David Bailiff said. “I know our players are excited to play a team from the SEC and ready to get to work as soon as we can.”
MSU won 28-14 on Oct. 11, 1975, in the only meeting between the school. This will be Rice’s second-consecutive bowl appearance, which matches the 1960 and 1961 teams as the only ones to accomplish that feat.
In 1963, MSU defeated North Carolina State 16-12 in the Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia, Pa.
“The AutoZone Liberty Bowl staff does a top-notch job running the Liberty Bowl, and we look forward returning to Memphis and playing Rice,” MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin said in a news release. “Our fans have a lot of passion, and we saw that in 2007 when we set the attendance record. I know they will take over the city of Memphis and enjoy all the events associated with the Liberty Bowl.”
After a 17-10 overtime victory against Ole Miss in the Battle for the Golden Egg, MSU began pre-selling tickets for the Liberty Bowl, the Advocare V100 Bowl in Shreveport, La., and the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
According to MSU officials, the school pre-sold 4,500 tickets of its pre-determined allotment for the 2013 Liberty Bowl, which was the most of the three.
“We know Bulldog Nation is energized and ready to follow their team to Memphis after the Bulldog’s thrilling overtime win in the Egg Bowl,” Ehrhart said. “We look forward to the Bulldogs and their fans ringing in the New Year on Beale Street.”
MSU has qualified for a bowl for the fourth-straight seasons for the first time in program history. MSU has won six or more games in four consecutive campaigns for the first time since 1997-2000.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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