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Gator Bowl president Greg McGarity urges local support for Texas A&M vs. Wake Forest New Year's Eve match

Game is one of only three non-New Year's Day Six games matching two ranked teams

Garry Smits
Florida Times-Union
Trayveon Williams of Texas A&M set the Gator Bowl rushing record with 236 yards in 2018, when the Aggies beat N.C. State 52-13.

The TaxSlayer Gator Bowl matchup is set: Texas A&M vs. Wake Forest on Dec. 31, at 11 a.m. at TIAA Bank Field. 

Breakfast or lunch will be optional at tailgate parties. 

After speculation that the game could land Clemson, only one year removed from its sixth consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoffs, or Arkansas, the most-improved team in the SEC, area college football fans will have the Aggies (8-4) versus the Deacons (10-3) in a clash of styles: Texas A&M’s power running game against Wake’s air-it-out passing attack. 

More:TaxSlayer Gator Bowl: Wake Forest returns to Jacksonville 75 years later to play Texas A&M

More:Gene Frenette: CEO Greg McGarity wants Gator Bowl to be part of CFP expansion

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If the game is anything like the only other time the two teams have met, it will be a holiday treat. The Deacons beat the Aggies 55-52 in the 2017 Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., with Bishop Kenny graduate John Wolford throwing for 400 yards and five touchdowns to earn game MVP honors. 

Gator Bowl president Greg McGarity said the matchup is a tasty appetizer to the main course of college football that day, with the two College Football Playoff semifinals between Alabama and Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl and Georgia and Michigan in the Orange Bowl. 

“We’re very excited about this game, and the time slot we have,” he said. “Fans here can come to the game and get home in time for the two playoff games, and those watching on TV can start their day with us. We’re the only college game starting at 11 a.m. (the Sun Bowl and the Arizona Bowl both begin at 2 p.m.) and we’re going to have the entire morning and early afternoon to ourselves on ESPN.” 

The Gator is one of three non-New Year’s Day Six games to match two ranked teams (the Alamo and the Citrus are the others) and Wake is the first team with double-digit victories to play in the Gator Bowl since Virginia Tech in 2006. 

Wake is 17th on the CFP rankings and 20th  on AP. Texas A&M is 25th on the CFP and 23rd on AP. 

Local ticket sales 'vital' to game's future

McGarity said local ticket sales will be extremely important to prove to the power structure of college football that the Gator Bowl and Jacksonville deserve to be part of an expanded playoff in the future. 

“This game is vital to our future,” he said. “We really don’t want TV cameras panning around the stadium to empty seats. Our job is to make sure the community knows how important this game is to the progress of college football in Jacksonville moving forward. We have a great opportunity to make our case.” 

Attendance has been an issue in past Gator Bowls. Last year's game between Kentucky and N.C. State was a wash because of the pandemic, with 10,422 watching. Only 17,000 seats were available. 

There were 61,789 at the 2019 game between Tennessee and Indiana but in the previous three years, the average attendance was 40,872. When Texas A&M defeated N.C. State 52-13 in 2018, it was the smallest crowd since 1956. 

Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman is seventh in the nation in passing yardage.

Each team has guaranteed 3,000 tickets. McGarity pointed out that Wake estimated its fans and alumni bought more than 10,000 tickets to the 2019 Pinstripe Bowl in New York and Texas A&M is eager to prove it can be the type of program bowls don’t hesitate to invite. 

“Wake had a very good crowd at the ACC championship game and we expect them to be excited about coming to Jacksonville,” McGarity said. “And Texas A&M wants to be known as a team that travels. What we do have in our control is our local support of the game.” 

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson was optimistic about the support of his fan base for the game. 

“Our players are very excited,” he said. “The Jacksonville area is an area where we have gotten a lot of great players from Riley Skinner [Bolles] to John Wolford, and there's a number of players on our team right now that are from the Jacksonville area. I think we'll get a lot of Deacon fans there and a lot of parents and a lot of families … hope we can sell a lot of tickets and have a lot of black and gold in the stands.” 

National media rates game high

Wake Forest played in only one other Gator Bowl: the inaugural game in 1946, beating South Carolina 26-14. Texas A&M has played twice, losing to Tennessee 3-0 in 1957 and routing N.C. State 52-13 in 2018.

The national media perception is that the Gator Bowl has a tantalizing matchup. The Washington Post picked it as the ninth-best game of the 42 bowls; Yahoo Sports weighed in by picking the Gator Bowl 10th; an Athlon Sports ranked it 12th. 

“When these teams last met … Wake Forest snagged a rollicking 55-52 victory. If this game is half as entertaining, it will justify its placement,” wrote the Post. 

Both have decent resumes this season. 

Wake won the ACC Atlantic Division before losing to Pittsburgh in the conference championship game and is the fifth-highest scoring team in the nation at 41.2 points per game, behind quarterback Sam Hartman. 

Hartman is seventh in the nation with 3,924 passing yards and tied for sixth with 36 TD passes. 

“They're scoring a ton of points,” said Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, who is back in Jacksonville for the second time in four years. “They go very fast. They go very quickly. They got playmakers outside. The quarterback really makes them go. They run the football. You say throwing it, but they can run the football. They deceivingly get you [to] think throwing, and then all of a sudden they're gassing you with the run.” 

One of the key players on defense for the Deacons is Fleming Island graduate Ryan Smenda, a junior linebacker who has 66 tackles this season. 

Aggies only team to beat 'Bama

Texas A&M beat top-ranked Alabama on Oct. 9 to start a four-game winning streak, before losing its last two SEC games against Ole Miss and LSU.  It remains the only game the Crimson Tide has lost this season.

The Aggies have developed into a run-first team because of injuries at quarterback, with Isaiah Spiller (1,011 yards, six touchdowns) and Devon Achane (910 yards, nine touchdowns) splitting time. Offensive guard Kenyon Green was first-team All-SEC. 

Texas A&M is 20th in the nation in total defense, led by junior All SEC tackle DeMarvin Leal. However, he has already declared for the NFL draft may opt out of the bowl game. 

“You lose a great player, but that's part of the world we live in today,” Fisher said of the possibility of losing Leal for the Gator Bowl. “The guy has a chance to be a first-round draft pick and most likely will, so that’s definitely got a big bearing on him and what we do.” 

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