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NCAA committee votes to give priority to teams with 5-7 records to replace Texas A&M in Gator Bowl

Garry Smits
Florida Times-Union

The NCAA football oversight committee voted on Thursday to give preference for the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl replacement team for Texas A&M to teams that finished 5-7 during the regular season.

That opens the door for Rutgers to accept a spot in the game Dec. 31 at TIAA Bank Field to play Wake Forest (10-3) in the 77th edition of the nation's sixth-oldest bowl game.

Rutgers has the best Academic Progress Rate among the 5-7 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which is used by the NCAA when it needs to fill bowl spots with teams below the usual threshold of having a .500 or better record.

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If Rutgers turns down the bid (the game is only eight days away), Jaguars owner Shad Khan's alma mater, the University of Illinois, could come into play. Khan has lobbied for the Illini to play in the game.

"That would be phenomenal if that could happen," Gator Bowl president Greg McGarity said. "I've gotten word that [Khan] is very passionate about his Illinois ties and how happy he would be to see Illinois here."

So would Illinois coach Bret Bielema.

"Waiting by the phone.... #ILL #famILLy," Bielema posted on Twitter.

The most recent APR numbers have not been released by the NCAA, other than Rutgers being the best among the teams under consideration to play in the game.

"Members were notified of their [ranking]," the NCAA said in a statement. "As some schools may choose to decline [bowl] opportunities, the NCAA will not make the list publicly available."

The scenario unfolded in startling fashion on Wednesday when the Aggies, the SEC's representative in the game, announced it had to opt out when they were left with less than 40 healthy players due to an outbreak of positive COVID-19 tests, combined with injuries and players leaving early to prepare for the NFL draft.

Reports late Wednesday on nj.com indicated Rutgers might be poised to accept a bid, countering earlier reports the Knights were turning down the chance to come to Jacksonville.

All FBS teams with 6-6 records or better had already received bowl bids.

Noon Friday deadline set

McGarity said a replacement needs to be selected by noon Friday, a deadline also established by Wake Forest officials, who didn't want to keep their players in Winston-Salem over Christmas for scheduled practices if they weren't going to play a game. 

"We're positive thinkers," McGarity said. "We're letting the process play out."

The NCAA has allowed teams with a record below .500 to play in bowl games in the past, with a priority on a team's ARP.

Kentucky, for example, was invited to play in the Gator Bowl with a 4-6 record and beat 8-3 N.C. State 23-21.

A bowl industry source has also told the Times-Union that MAAC champion Northern Illinois (9-5) is a possibility if the NCAA uses the option of allowing a team that has already played in a bowl game to play in another. The Huskies lost to Coastal Carolina 47-41 on Dec. 17 in the Cure Bowl in Orlando.

The sign outside Daily's Place and TIAA Bank Field in  Jacksonville, FL Wednesday still shows tickets for sale for the upcoming TaxSlayer Gator Bowl football game on December 31, 2021. Wednesday, December 22, 2021, Texas A&M announced that they would not be participating in the matchup with Wake Forest because of an outbreak of coronavirus infections among the staff and players. [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]

"It would be inappropriate to comment on options, but to be very clear, I was heartened," Wake Forest athletic director John Currie said of five teams contacting him about playing in the game. "I didn't know what kind of interest would be out there. A football team is complicated, with a lot of parts and people, to mobilize and at least four have reached out already.  Greg [McGarity] and his staff continue to work diligently to find opportunities for Wake to play."

Coach Dave Clawson said he has met with his six captains who said they all wanted to play in the game, with one caveat.

"They don't want to be here Christmas Day, lifting and practicing, if there's uncertainty," Clawson said of his planned bowl practice schedule. "In fairness, if we're going to keep them over Christmas, we need to know something fairly early on Friday. They want to play in the Gator Bowl. They worked very hard to get in a bowl of this caliber, this prestige and we're going to give that every opportunity." 

McGarity said one issue was practice time: teams with losing records last played on Thanksgiving weekend, which might make it more feasible for a team such as Northern Illinois or Marshall, which played last week.

Gator Bowl only game in jeopardy

McGarity said if there is no game, the Gator Bowl will have no ticket or TV revenue and therefore will not have to make the $5.35 million payout to the two teams. There is an issue of operating expenses until next year's game but the Jacksonville City Council voted to give $500,000 to the Gator Bowl Association last week to help if there are any financial shortfalls.

There have already been 12 bowls played without any issues and only one other bowl participant, Miami in the Sun Bowl, has reported COVID issues. Miami officials said on Thursday that they would not travel to E Paso until the day before the game on Dec. 30.

Last year, 17 bowls were canceled of the 43 on the schedule.

It's been one hit after another for the Aggies since finishing their regular season at 8-4 with losses in their last two conference games.

It began with players opting out of the bowl game to avoid the risk of injury before the NFL draft, defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal, tight end Jalen Wydermeyer and running back Isaiah Spiller. Quarterback Zach Calzada, who started 10 games this season, entered the transfer portal and while he could have played in the bowl game, decided against it.

Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork told ESPN that Texas A&M was down to 38 scholarship position players, of which 20 were offensive and defensive linemen.

"So if you take running backs, receivers, quarterbacks and defensive backs, we had 13 of those guys and only 13 scholarship players on defense," Bjork told ESPN. "We had over 40 guys out between COVID, season-ending injuries, transfers and opt-outs.

"We just didn't have enough. You can't put the other players that are healthy at risk."

Wake Forest has not reported any issues. Currie said that 72 players received the booster shot late last week when they returned to the campus, ahead of a university mandate that all students must have received their boosters before enrolling in January.

Wake played in first Gator Bowl

The Gator has been played without interruption since 1946, when Wake Forest beat South Carolina 26-14. The Deacons had not played in the game since then.

The only bowl games older than the Gator are the Rose (1916), Orange (1935), Sugar (1935), Sun (1935) and Cotton (1937).

When bowls on the Gator's tier last season such as the Music City and Holiday were canceled, the Gator was able to be played, with Kentucky vs. N.C. State on Jan. 2. In some cases the bowls made the decision to cancel and in others, one of the teams opted out.

The only other time Wake Forest played in Jacksonville was the 2006 ACC championship game, when the Deacons defeated Georgia Tech 9-6.

CFP announces revised policy

In the meantime, the College Football Playoff announced its COVID-19 contingencies on Wednesday for the four-team playoff, the national championship game and two other New Year’s Day Six games. 

If one team is unable to play in one of the semifinal games (at the Cotton and Orange Bowls), the game will be forfeited and the other team will advance to the national championship game. Alabama is playing Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl and Georgia faces Michigan in the Orange Bowl, both on Dec. 31. 

However, Alabama received a jolt on Wednesday when it announced offensive line coach and former Jaguars coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien tested positive for the virus. In a statement, the school said it expects both to be able to coach in the game next week.

Michigan also announced that its entire team will receive COVID-19 booster shots this week

If both teams in one of those games can’t play, it would be declared no contest and the winner of the other semifinal will be the national champion. 

If three of the four teams can’t play, the semifinal game with two teams unable to play will be declared no contest and the remaining team in the other game will be declared the CFP national champion. 

If teams cannot participate in the Fiesta (Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma State) or the Peach (Michigan State vs. Pittsburgh), attempts will be made for alternate dates within a week of the original day. If no date can be found, the game will be no contest. 

The Rose Bowl (Ohio State vs. Utah) and the Sugar Bowl (Ole Miss vs. Baylor) don’t fall under the CFP guidelines this season. 

The national championship game will be played no later than Jan. 14, if the semifinals are conducted, and one or both of the teams are unable to play on the scheduled date of Jan. 10. 

Times-Union sports columnist Gene Frenette contributed to this report.