Texas A&M’s COVID-related opt-out from the Gator Bowl has sent game organizers and Wake Forest athletic officials scrambling to find a replacement opponent for the Deacons to play in the New Year’s Eve game in Jacksonville, Florida.
According to Wake athletic director John Currie, at least five schools have expressed an interest in taking the Aggies’ place, giving him hope that the game can be played as scheduled.
“I’m an optimist by nature. But right now, based on the fact that there’s interest, I’m really encouraged,” Currie said during a conference call with the media Wednesday afternoon. “Certainly it’s complex and, ultimately, Greg McGarity as executive director of the Gator Bowl, it’s in his hands to figure out how that needs to work.”
In addition to McGarity and his committee, the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee and the Gator Bowl’s broadcast partner, ESPN, are also involved in the decision on how — or if — the game should proceed.
Because of the unique circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent spike in cases caused by its Omicron variant, the replacement team is not required to have a winning record. Just last year, the Gator Bowl featured a 4-6 Kentucky team against NC State.
Teams that have already played in a bowl game also have the option of obtaining a waiver that would allow them to play in a second postseason game.
Currie said that at least one such team has inquired about playing the Deacons in Jacksonville. According to a published report by USA Today, Northern Illinois — which lost to Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl last Saturday — is that team.
It is unlikely that Appalachian State, which lost to Western Kentucky in the Boca Raton Bowl on Saturday, is interested in playing again this year.
Among the 5-7 teams believed to be under consideration are Illinois, Rutgers and Texas. NJ.com is reporting that Rutgers is the frontrunner to be selected and would accept the bid if offered.
Although A&M didn’t officially announce its decision to pull out of the Gator Bowl until Wednesday — a move made necessary because of a combination of football injuries and positive COVID cases that left the Aggies with only 38 available scholarship players — the search to find a replacement team began at least 24 hours earlier.
“When we knew there was a chance Texas A&M would not be able to play, we were thinking about options and making calls,” Currie said. “Coach (Dave) Clawson and I, we know a lot of people and were able to put some lines in the water.
“Ultimately, once the public notice of this came out, I think it was pretty quick that there were some teams that were interested that reached out to us, to the Gator Bowl and Greg McGarity, and the ACC.”
While the search for an opponent goes on, Wake’s players and staff are taking extreme precautions to ensure they don’t get caught up in the wave of COVID cases currently sweeping throughout the sports world.
Clawson said that 72 of his players (or more than 90% of the roster) have already had booster vaccinations and that the team has instituted protocols requiring masks at team meetings and other group functions.
“Our players really want to play in it,” Clawson said. “We are doing everything we possibly can to keep our football team safe and healthy,” Clawson said. “For two reasons: No. 1, it’s the right thing to do. And No. 2, our guys want to compete again.”
While Currie said that the Deacons are “working like crazy” to find an opponent and McGarity added that he and his staff are “letting the process play out,” time is of the essence in filling the vacancy left by Texas A&M.
And not just because there’s less than two weeks until the game is scheduled to be played. Clawson and his leadership group have set Friday morning as the deadline for deciding whether or not to go ahead with the game.
“I had a meeting with the captains and basically said, ‘Do you still want to play in the bowl if we can find an opponent?’ And it was yes, but with a qualifier,” Clawson said. “They don’t want to be here during Christmas Day if there’s still uncertainty. We don’t want to be hanging around, lifting, practicing without a purpose if there’s not a relative certainty that we’re going to have the game.
“We wanted to give enough time (to see) if there was an opportunity to find an opponent, but if they’re not going to be playing in a bowl game our players want to spend the holidays with their families.”