Texas A&M opts out of TaxSlayer Gator Bowl; alternative opponent sought for Wake Forest

Garry Smits
Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The nation's sixth-oldest bowl game is now in jeopardy after Texas A&M announced on Wednesday that it cannot play in the 77th TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 31 against Wake Forest because of a COVID-19 outbreak on its team.

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.

Gator Bowl president Greg McGarity said the game isn't being written off yet. An alternative replacement team is being considered, in consultation with ESPN, the game's broadcast partner, the NCAA and conference presidents.

McGarity said the team doesn't have to be from the SEC -- the game matches an SEC team against an ACC team -- and also doesn't have to have a winning record.

Jimbo Fisher's Texas A&M team has pulled out of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.

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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 teams that finished 5-7 this season among Power 5 conferences are Florida State, Syracuse, Texas, TCU, Rutgers, Illinois and California.

"Everything is on the table," McGarity said about the possibility of bringing another ACC team in to play Wake. The Deacons are in the same division as the Seminoles and Orangemen, so it would be a rematch of a regular-season game.

McGarity said one issue was practice time: teams with losing records last played on Thanksgiving weekend, and are prohibited from practicing again until spring workouts.

One possibility could be 4-8 Navy, which beat Army on Dec. 11.

McGarity said that would be up to the NCAA, which was flexible in allowing teams with losing records to play in bowls last year, due to the pandemic.

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.

Vanderbilt was the only SEC team that did not qualify for a bowl this season. The Commodores had a 2-10 record.

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 on 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.