Rutgers to the rescue: Scarlet Knights will face Wake Forest in Gator Bowl next week

Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano yells at his players after a penalty in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) (Charles Rex Arbogast, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The TaxSlayer Gator Bowl will go on.

Rutgers answered the call for a last-second invitation to the bowl game and will play Wake Forest at TIAA Bank Field at 11 a.m. on Dec. 31 in their first postseason contest since 2014.

The Scarlet Knights have a quick turnaround to get prepared for a high-powered Demon Deacons team that played in the ACC championship game. Rutgers has been off since it lost its season finale to Maryland on Nov. 27.

It was a mad scramble for both Rutgers and the Gator Bowl itself after Texas A&M withdrew from the game early Wednesday afternoon, citing not enough healthy players due to opt-outs, COVID-19 cases and athletes entering the transfer portal.

That made real the possibility of the game not being played this season for the first time in the bowl’s history and erasing a big windfall for the city. The game generates between $14-$16 million in economic impact and donates a substantial amount to area charities.

Gator Bowl Sports leader Greg McGarity said everything came together about as quickly as it could have, with leaders from the Big Ten and the NCAA football oversight committee reacting swiftly once A&M withdrew.

“It was a process that certainly the NCAA facilitated for us. A lot of teams reached out to us ... we could not invite anyone we didn’t have the right to invite anyone because the NCAA was going to determine that,” he said. “But once Rutgers, which was at the top of the [APR] list, said they were interested, we were able to huddle and here we are with Rutgers. And so this has been a ... let’s see a 25-hour period here that has been really hectic. But it all ended up great and Jacksonville is going to have a great game on 31st.”

But hours after A&M’s announcement, multiple teams had expressed interest in being a replacement for the Aggies, laying the groundwork for an opponent to emerge before Friday’s deadline for to game to still go on.

Rutgers (5-7) is that team.

“We’re very, very excited. Our guys, just got off a Zoom call with them. And our team is thrilled, can’t wait and our ready to get back to work. We are really looking forward to it,” said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.

“Coach [Dave] Clawson has done a tremendous job at Wake Forest. We go back 30-some odd years. We’re very close, and look forward to competing with his team again in a tremendous, tremendous venue and a tremendous bowl game. I know our team’s excited, we got a lot of work to do but can’t wait to do it.”

The TaxSlayer Gator Bowl will go on.

While the matchup isn’t nearly as exciting as a top 25 showdown between the Jimbo Fisher-led Aggies and the 10-3 Demon Deacons, it’s a far better option than no game at all. Rutgers had just three wins against Power 5 programs (Illinois, Indiana and Syracuse) and won just two of its final seven games. reported late Wednesday night that Rutgers would be the replacement, although that confirmation didn’t officially come until the NCAA football oversight committee wrapped things up on its end Thursday. At 5-7, the Scarlet Knights needed to get approval from the committee and did so as the team with the highest Academic Progress Rate metric of the eligible 5-7 teams. The APR is used as a tiebreaker for sub-.500 teams who are selected to play in a bowl game.

Schiano said the layoff of his team isn’t a concern to him, and that he gauged the interest of his players before agreeing to proceed with the game. Schiano said that players will return to campus the night of Christmas to begin preparing for Wake Forest.

“I think number one, physically, if I didn’t think we would be able to I wouldn’t do it. Football coaches want to coach games and football players want to play in games. I mean, that’s why we do it,” he said. “And it’s it’s an incredible sport because it’s the only sport where you practice exponentially more than you get to play the game. And we are really excited about playing one more game with this 2021 team. Because this 2021 team is really the 2020 team as well, right. Most everybody came back with the COVID year. ...

“As things were unfolding yesterday, I certainly did a straw poll to make sure that’s what they wanted and it wasn’t just what their coach wanted. But I knew from a physical standpoint we were fine because of the the nature of how we trained in the month of December.”

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.