It may not have been their first — or second or third — choice, but least the Kansas State Wildcats ended up with an intriguing postseason football matchup.
After they were passed up by three other Big 12 bowl partners, the Wildcats learned Sunday that they're headed to Memphis, Tennessee, to face No. 21-ranked Navy in the Dec. 31 Liberty Bowl. Kickoff is at 2:45 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally by ESPN.
The Wildcats went 8-4 during the regular season under first-year coach Chris Klieman and will face a 9-2 Navy team that still has one game remaining next Saturday against Army. The Midshipmen came in at No. 23 in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
"We're thrilled to be playing in such a prestigious game," Klieman said during a conference call Sunday night. "We told the guys about it after our practice today and they were thrilled to get an opportunity to go to Memphis and play a storied tradition school like the Naval Academy.
"I've got so much respect for Ken (Niumatalolo, Navy coach) and the job that he's done there, and we're thrilled to take our fans and take our football team and try to put up a great showing against a great team."
While K-State found itself at the bottom of the Big 12 bowl pecking order among the conference's six bowl eligible teams, there is plenty to like about the matchup with Navy.
Like the Wildcats, Navy is returning to the postseason after a disappointing 2018 season, and there are numerous other similarities.
K-State saw an eight-year postseason run come to an end last year after failing to qualify with a 5-7 record. Navy had an even more impressive turnaround, bouncing back from a 3-8 campaign.
Niumatalolo, whose Midshipmen had been to six straight bowls, said there was no big secret to his team's return to prominence this season.
"That's easy. It's been the leadership of our senior class, and (Klieman) will say this," he said. "When leadership comes from coaches, you can do good things.
"But when it comes from your players, those are when special things happen, and we had a senior class and senior team captains that they wanted to get things right and they paid the price."
Klieman likewise has credited his 27-member senior class for getting the Wildcats back on track.
"Ken hit it on the head, it's the senior leadership," Klieman said. "Those kids were really disappointed walking off the field last year in the last game of the season and finishing 5-7 and not having the opportunity to play in the postseason.
"It was a goal we had set out early on in the season and we had some tough times and the players had great resolve and they battled through those tough times. They believed in each other, they counted on each other and I was excited because I think we became a better football team as the season went along."
This will be the second Liberty Bowl appearance in four years for the Wildcats, who lost 45-23 to Arkansas at the end of the 2015 season. It will be the first meeting ever with Navy.
Navy last played in the game in 1981, but the Midshipmen are familiar with the city, playing in the American Athletic Conference with Memphis. In fact, one of their two losses — the other was to Notre Dame — came against the Tigers in Memphis.
There are several similarities between K-State and Navy despite the fact that the Wildcats come from a Power Five conference. Most notable is their devotion to running the football and controlling the clock.
The Midshipmen lead the nation in rushing out of their flexbone formation, averaging 360.8 yards a game on the ground and 33-plus minutes in time of possession. K-State is a bit more balanced, but ranks 38th in rushing at 189 yards and third in time of possession with 34-plus minutes.
Quarterback Malcolm Perry leads the Midshipmen in rushing with 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns on 6.3 yards per carry. He has completed 54.4 percent of his passes for 1,027 yards and scores three interceptions.
"You've just got to have great discipline defending the option and have to tackle exceptionally well," Klieman said of facing Perry.
Niumatalolo was reminded that K-State is the only team with a victory against one of the four College Football Playoff participants after beating Oklahoma.
"There's always the euphoria of making the bowl game," he said, "and then you see your opponent, and like, 'Oh, crap.'
"We know how good they are."
After Oklahoma qualified for the College Football Playoff and Baylor was slotted into the New Year's Six Sugar Bowl, K-State could have made an argument for going higher in the Big 12 pecking order. There was a four-way tie for third in the conference, leaving the Wildcats, Oklahoma State, Texas and Iowa State to fill the remaining slots.
The Alamo Bowl had first pick and chose Texas to face Utah, while the Camping World Bowl tabbed Iowa State against Notre Dame and the Texas Bowl grabbed Oklahoma State to take on former Big 12 foe Texas A&M.
K-State and Oklahoma State both were 8-4 overall in the regular season, with Texas and Iowa State at 7-5. The Wildcats clearly had the biggest victory among the four, handing Oklahoma its only loss, but they also went 1-2 against the other three third-place teams.
The bowl appearance will be the 22nd in school history the Wildcats. Their eight regular-season victories were the most ever for K-State under a first-year coach.