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Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman (4) celebrates a touchdown against Texas A&M during an NCAA college football game in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, Pool)

Despite disappointing results on the field during the 2020 college football season, the Tennessee Volunteers continually displayed one of the better records among Southeastern Conference programs when it came to combating positive COVID-19 tests.

That run came to an end Monday afternoon, when the Vols were forced to pull out of their AutoZone Liberty Bowl matchup with West Virginia on New Year's Eve due to multiple positive tests among both players and coaches, including head coach Jeremy Pruitt. The Tennessee-West Virginia pairing had been announced Sunday.

"Earlier today, I was informed by our medical staff that I have tested positive for COVID-19, and I immediately began isolating at home," Pruitt said through a release. "I am experiencing mild symptoms but doing fine. We are obviously disappointed that we will not be able to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but the health and safety of our student-athletes will always remain our top priority.

"I am especially proud of our team and medical staff in safely navigating through a unique season where we played all 10 of our regular-season games."

Army, which had a 9-2 regular season, will replace the Vols as West Virginia's opponent.

Tennessee was forced to cancel its season after receiving Sunday's COVID-19 test results, which revealed an increase in positive cases among players and coaches, as well as a subsequent rise in contact tracing concerns. The decision to pull out of the Liberty Bowl was made in consultation with health officials, the league office and the bowl itself.

The Vols, who went 3-7 for their first three-win regular season as an SEC member, became the third league team that will sit out this postseason. LSU finished 5-5 but self-imposed a postseason ban due to NCAA rules violations, while Vanderbilt did not receive an invitation following the first winless season (0-9) in Commodores history.

Pruitt expressed his confidence about a fourth season in Knoxville following Saturday's 34-13 loss to No. 5 Texas A&M in Neyland Stadium. In Sunday's release announcing the Liberty Bowl matchup, Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer described the contest against the Mountaineers as a "tremendous development opportunity for our team and should serve as a primer to spring practice for Coach Pruitt and our returners."

Tennessee's losing season was its eighth in the last 13 years, with the Vols having compiled a 78-82 record since the start of Fulmer's final season as coach in 2008.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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