Illinois and Northern Illinois have emerged as the favorites to replace Texas A&M to play Wake Forest in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 31 at TIAA Bank Field, after the Aggies had to opt out of the game on Wednesday when they were left with less than 40 healthy players due to an outbreak of positive COVID-19 tests, injuries and players leaving early to prepare for the NFL draft.
The nation's sixth-oldest bowl game was jeopardized after Texas A&M made the surprise announcement, five days after football operations and bowl practices were suspended.
"Due to a combination of COVID-19 issues within the program, as well as season-ending injuries, the Texas A&M football roster is not in a position to safely participate in the upcoming Dec. 31 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against Wake Forest," the school said in a statement.
"It is unfortunate, but we just don't have enough scholarship players available to field a team," Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher told ESPN.
Gator Bowl president Greg McGarity said the game isn't being written off yet but the clock is ticking. An alternative replacement team is being considered, in consultation with ESPN, the game's broadcast partner and the NCAA Football Oversight Committee -- but it needs to be selected by Friday.
"We're positive thinkers," McGarity said. "We're letting the process play out."
McGarity said the team doesn't have to be from the SEC -- the game is contracted to match an SEC team vs. an ACC team -- and also doesn't have to have a winning record.
The NCAA has allowed teams with a record below .500 to play in bowl games in the past, with a priority on the team's Academic Progress Rate. The top three 5-7 teams on the APR list are Rutgers, Syracuse and Illinois.
Kentucky, for example, was invited to play in the Gator Bowl last season with a 4-6 record and beat an 8-3 N.C. State team, 23-21.
That brings Jaguars owner Shad Khan's alma mater into the mix. Illinois finished 5-7 but won three of its last five games. The two losses came by six to Rutgers and 10 to No. 17 Iowa, and the Illini beat No. 20 Minnesota.
According to published reports, Rutgers has already turned down the chance to play in Jacksonville.
"Waiting by the phone.... #ILL #famILLy," Illinois coach Bret Bielema posted on Twitter.
McGarity said he has not had a conversation with Khan but it's gotten back to him that Khan is lobbying for Illinois.
To save the game, McGarity said he's welcoming all the help he can get.
— Bret Bielema (@BretBielema) December 22, 2021
"That would be phenomenal if that could happen," McGarity said of the prospect of having Illinois. "I've gotten word that he is very passionate about his Illinois ties and how happy he would be to see Illinois here."
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.
Wake Forest officials remained optimistic they could still get the reward for their 10-3 season and athletic director John Currie said during a video conference on Wednesday that teams had quickly reached out to him as possible replacements -- which he referred to McGarity and his staff.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL BOWL SCHEDULE: Game dates and times, TV information
"It would be inappropriate to comment on options, but to be very clear, I was heartened," Currie said. "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."
Practice time an issue
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.
Another possibility would be the Florida Gators, who play UCF on Thursday in the Gasparilla Bowl in St. Petersburg, which is eight days before the Gator Bowl. However, UF's only experienced quarterback available, Emory Jones, has already entered the transfer portal and the team didn't utilize all of its available bowl practice dates as it transitions to the new coaching staff under Billy Napier.
Other teams that have already played bowl games that would have short travel distances to Jacksonville are Liberty, Western Kentucky, Alabama-Birmingham, Louisiana, and Old Dominion.
Friday deadline set
McGarity said a deadline of noon Friday has been established to find a team to play Wake Forest, which has not had any COVID-19 issues among its team.
"We're trying to shake the trees to see if there are any replacements," he said. "We will know by noon Friday that we will either play or cancel the game. We're going to run every rabbit down each hole and do everything in our power to find someone."
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.
Texas A&M had suspended practice last weekend once the outbreak began affecting players. There is no minimum requirement this season in the SEC to field a team but the NCAA requires at least 85 players on the active roster.
"Once you hear that team is having issues, certainly it causes you to be concerned," McGarity said.
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.
Last year, 17 bowls were canceled of the 43 on the schedule.
Aggies lose battle of attrition
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.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Gator Bowl: Illinois, Northern Illinois could replace Texas A&M