Rutgers selected to play Wake Forest in Gator Bowl

The Scarlet Knights will replace Texas A&M in the New Year's Eve game after the Aggies opted out because of COVID-19 issues

A sign outside TIAA Bank Stadium announces the Gator Bowl matchup before Texas A&M opted out of the game on Wednesday. Wake Forest will now play Rutgers on December 31 in Jacksonville (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

Rutgers has been selected to replace Texas A&M as Wake Forest’s opponent in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Eve in Jacksonville, Florida.

The Scarlet Knights announced the decision in a post from its official social media account with bowl officials confirming the invitiation shortly thereafter.

The announcement comes roughly 24 hours after A&M opted out of its spot in the game because of a combination of football-related injuries and positive COVID-19 cases. 

“We always talk about it, there’s no such thing as missed opportunities, because somebody’s always going to take it,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “In this instance, we’re the person that gets to take it. We know our opponent is really good and they’re well coached, so it’s going to be quite a challenge. But we’ll get on that plane, we get down there and it will be a good game.”

Among the other teams reported to have been considered were Illinois, Marshall, Coastal Carolina and Northern Illinois. The latter three schools have already played bowl games this postseason and would have needed a waiver from the NCAA to participate.

Rutgers finished the regular season with a 5-7 record but was given the opportunity to play in the postseason because no other bowl eligible teams were available.

The Golden Knights were given the first opportunity to fill the spot because they had the highest APR score among five-win programs nationally. APR, or Academic Progress Rate, measures the academic success of a school’s football players.

Once Rutgers decided it was interested in playing in the Gator Bowl, its participation had to be approved by the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee.

“We didn’t have the right to invite anyone because the NCAA was going to determine that,” Gator Bowl executive director Greg McGarity said during a Zoom call with the media shortly after the approval process was completed Thursday afternoon. “Once Rutgers, which was at the top of the list, said they were interested, we were able to huddle and here we are. This has been a 25-hour process that’s been really hectic, but it all ended up great.”

As excited as the Scarlet Knights are to be making their first bowl appearance since 2014, they won’t have much time to prepare to play the ACC Atlantic Division champion Deacons (10-3).

They haven’t practiced since finishing their schedule with a 40-16 loss to Maryland on Nov. 27. And while the team has continued to work out together since then, most of its players have gone home for the holidays. Schiano said that everyone is expected back on campus by Christmas night with practice scheduled to resume on Sunday.

Schiano said that he and his staff began game planning for Wake Forest as soon as they heard Texas A&M wouldn’t be able to play, just in case they ended up in the game. He said their game preparation would be similar to that of a normal game week during the regular season.

“Football coaches want to coach games and football players want to play in games. That’s why we do it,” said Schiano, adding that he took a straw poll of his players to make sure they were on board with playing in the bowl before accepting the opportunity. “I think with the time we have, we’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel and we’re going to go out and play with great energy and great excitement and see where the chips fall. I think our guys will play with great effort and when you do that, you give yourself a chance.”

Adding to Rutgers’ challenge is the fact that several starters — linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, receiver Bo Melton, running back Isiah Pacheco, defensive tackle Julius Turner and defensive end Mike Tverdov — have all announced plans to enter the NFL Draft and likely won’t play.

“This is a team that will be ready to play,” Schiano said. “They’re fired up. Whoever hits that field for us will play really, really hard. They’re thrilled to have this opportunity.”

The selection ends a frantic, but speedy search to save a game the Deacons (10-3) are anxious to play — not only for the opportunity to win an 11th game and finish on a high note, but because of the prestige involved with playing in one of the ACC’s top-tier bowls.

Coach Dave Clawson said that 72 of his players have gotten COVID vaccination boosters in an effort to avoid the same fate as their original opponent.

“Our outstanding group of seniors deserves this proper send off as we compete for a championship next week,” Clawson said. “Coach Greg Schiano does a great job and I have tremendous respect for him and his staff. We expect a very tough game against a talented and well-coached team.”