Liberty Bowl provides homecoming for Memphis-based Tigers

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Missouri football fans planning to travel with the Tigers this holiday season received welcome news Sunday: Their team will play in the Liberty Bowl against former Big 12 rival Oklahoma State on New Year's Eve in Memphis, Tennessee.

It was the nearest possible destination to Columbia among the Pool of Six games to which Missouri could have been assigned. The drive to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is about 400 miles and five and a half hours long.

"We really need to have a great showing," athletics director Jim Sterk said Sunday. "It's important for the bowls to see that Mizzou shows up for the postseason. That's part of the (thought process) as bowls make decisions on who they'd like to see."

The game represents a homecoming for Memphis-based players Johnathon Johnson, Tyler Badie and Aubrey Miller Jr. Johnson has attended the Liberty Bowl multiple times, citing Arkansas' 45-23 win over Kansas State on Jan. 2, 2016, as the most memorable. Badie went to Iowa State's 21-20 victory over Memphis last season, noting that the hometown fans helped provide a fun atmosphere.

"It's definitely going to stand out a little bit more knowing that we're from home," the freshman running back said. "We're playing in front of more of our family, more of our friends, more of our people."

Badie and Johnson are both excited to show their teammates around the city, including some restaurant stops for world-famous Memphis barbecue. Johnson's favorite spot is Central BBQ. He mentioned pulled pork as a standout, as did Badie, who also mentioned the ribs. Badie said his favorite restaurants are Gus Fried Chicken and Ching's Hot Wings.

Head coach Barry Odom, who served as defensive coordinator at Memphis for three years, had a different answer to the question of the the city's best barbecue.

"I was going to say it's in Kansas City, but you said 'in Memphis,'" the coach said. "I'm learning to answer that the right way."

As soon as he learned of the bid, Johnson called his mom, who screamed with excitement when he told her the news. She hasn't been able to watch her son play since Missouri's homecoming game. His phone buzzed with ticket requests throughout his meeting with the media. He's expecting a contingent of 30 to 40 friends and family members.

Badie's dad, on the other hand, was a little disappointed with the location. He had hoped for a Florida bowl game to serve as a little vacation while watching his son. Redshirt senior Paul Adams is from the Nashville, Tennessee, area, but he is expecting around 35 people to show up and support him for the game, too.

"It's New Year's Eve, so some people probably want to stay home in Nashville to party it up and whatnot," the offensive lineman said. "But hopefully, if they love me enough, this will guilt them into it."

Many of the Tigers' seniors have talked about this as a final chance to solidify the foundation they've been looking to build during Barry Odom's tenure, a foundation that finally took shape during an 8-4 regular season. They want to end on a higher note than they did last year with a loss to Texas in the Texas Bowl.

"We put so much into this program," Adams said. "I think leaving 0-1 in our last game ... would be a terrible taste in our mouths for, like, I guess ever. Your last game as a Missouri Tiger and you go 0-1. So we're gonna make sure that doesn't happen."

One of those seniors, however, is even more focused on something else: the extra time he gets to spend with his teammates.

"I could care less about all the last game," quarterback Drew Lock said. "Let's go out with a bang. ... I'm just happy to be around my best friends a little while longer."

Supervising editor is Eric Lee.

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