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Texas A&M unable to play in Gator Bowl due to COVID-19 issues, injuries

Texas A&M unable to play in Gator Bowl due to COVID-19 issues, injuries

South Carolina Texas A M Football

Texas A&M defensive lineman Tyree Johnson (3) reacts after sacking South Carolina quarterback Zeb Noland (not shown) for a 6-yard loss during the first half of A&M’s 44-14 victory on Oct. 23 at Kyle Field.

Texas A&M had to withdraw from the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against Wake Forest on Dec. 31 because of season-ending injuries and COVID-19 issues within the Aggies’ program.

“It is unfortunate, but we just don’t have enough scholarship players available to field a team,” Aggie head football coach Jimbo Fisher said in a school release Wednesday.

The Gator Bowl is seeking a replacement to play 17th-ranked Wake Forest (10-3). No. 25 A&M (8-4) had played in a school-record 12 straight bowl games. The last time the Aggies didn’t play in a bowl game was 2008, the first season for coach Mike Sherman when the Aggies were 4-8.

 “It is heartbreaking for our players, coaches, staff and fans that we are not able to play in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl,” Texas A&M director of athletics Ross Bjork said. “Postseason football is the pinnacle of the season and when the opportunity is lost, it hurts on many levels. As we have learned in the last 21 months of this health challenge, the well-being and safety of our student-athletes is paramount. Our players poured their heart and soul into this season and we appreciate their dedication as Aggies. Aggie football is on track for long-term success and we know that the best is yet to come.”

A&M was down to 38 scholarship players, including just 13 on defense, because of the virus, opt-outs, transfers and injuries, Bjork told ESPN. The Aggies at running back, wide receiver and defensive back had only 13 available scholarship players.

“We had over 40 guys out between COVID, season-ending injuries, transfers and opt-outs,” Bjork said.

A&M had stopped on-field practices for the Gator Bowl and shutdown operations within the program since Saturday after the virus hit mainly players. A&M had been scheduled to practice Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before breaking for Christmas and reconvening in Florida. The outbreak forced A&M to have virtual meetings.

That news of A&M’s COVID issues broke Tuesday, but TaxSlayer Gator Bowl president Greg McGarity told The Florida Times-Union the game “is still a go.”

A&M had been scheduled to arrive in Jacksonville on Dec. 26 and Wake Forest a day later.

This is the second straight season COVID-19 altered A&M’s schedule. Last year, the Southeastern Conference opted for a league-only 10-game schedule. A&M played nine with the home game against Ole Miss canceled.

Several other Aggie sports have dealt with COVID-19 issues, the latest being the women’s basketball team which was missing three players for its last nonconference game against Texas-San Antonio on Monday. That came on the heels of Rice canceling Sunday’s game because of positive cases within its program.

The A&M men’s basketball team had a game against Tulane on Dec. 14 canceled because of positive cases within the Tulane program. Last season, the A&M men didn’t play for 33 days because of positive cases within the program.

A&M and Wake Forest were scheduled to play at 10 a.m. on New Year’s Eve in Jacksonville, Florida, at TIAA Bank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 77th annual Gator Bowl, which is the sixth-oldest bowl game and it has been played annually since 1946 without interruption. The game would have been A&M’s second appearance in the Gator Bowl in four years. The Aggies defeated North Carolina State 52-13 on Dec. 31, 2018, to cap Fisher’s first season. That was A&M’s first appearance in the Gator Bowl since 1957 when it lost to Tennessee 3-0.

A&M was in position to play in the Citrus Bowl or possibly a New Year’s Six Bowl until losing the regular-season finale to LSU 27-24. Some thought the Aggies could land in the Outback Bowl since A&M hasn’t been there since joining the Southeastern Conference in 2012. The A&M-North Carolina State game also drew only 38,206, one of the smallest Gator Bowl crowds. But the SEC sent 22nd-ranked Arkansas to the Outback Bowl which is among six bowls the SEC supplies teams after the College Football Playoff, the New Year’s Six Bowls and the Citrus Bowls make their selections.

Last year, 17 of 43 bowls were canceled because of COVID issues. This year 13 bowls have been played and A&M is the only school with major COVID issues, though Sun Bowl participant Miami is dealing with the virus, but the Hurricanes are still scheduled to play Washington State in El Paso on Dec. 31.

“We are disappointed that Texas A&M University and the Aggie fans will be unable to represent the Southeastern Conference in Jacksonville at this year’s TaxSlayer Gator Bowl game,” TaxSlayer Gator Bowl chairman John Duce said. “However, the health and safety of the student-athletes, coaches and staff remains our primary concern.”

The Gator Bowl is working with ESPN to find a replacement team for Wake Forest.

“[The players] don’t want to be here Christmas Day, lifting and practicing, if there’s uncertainty," Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson told the Florida Times-Union. “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.”

The Gator Bowl could get an NCAA waiver to invite a team with a 5-7 record which has been the case in recent seasons when not enough teams meet the qualifying standards. The NCAA filled slots with 5-7 teams based by highest Academic Progress Rate.

  Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, an Illinois alumni, is pushing for Illinois (5-7) to replace the Aggies, according to Action Network’s Brett McMurphy, but Pete Thamel of Yahoo sports reports Rutgers is exploring its option and the Scarlet Knights have the highest-rated APR of the remaining 5-7 teams at 979. Illinois has an APR of 970 and also lost to Rutgers. Other Power 5 conference teams with 5-7 records are Florida State, Syracuse, Texas, TCU and California. Florida State and Syracuse are in the Atlantic Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference along with Wake Forest, creating the possibility of rematch.

Another option for the Gator Bowl is to invite a team that already has played a bowl game because it would have been practicing. Most 5-7 teams haven’t practiced since late last month.

This ends a roller-coaster season for A&M which opened the season ranked sixth in both major polls with CFP aspirations coming off a 9-1 season capped by beating North Carolina in the Orange Bowl.

A&M had to deal with injuries much of the season starting with projected starting center Luke Matthews appearing only briefly in one game and eventually having season-ending surgery. Redshirt freshman Haynes King won the starting quarterback position, but broke his ankle in the second game. He was replaced by sophomore Zach Calzada who led the Aggies to a 41-38 upset of defending national champ Alabama, but the offense struggled much of the season with other injuries in the offensive line and at wide receiver.

The upset of Alabama came on the heels of back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State. Alabama jump-started a four-game winning streak, but the Aggies lost their last two SEC games to Ole Miss and LSU sandwiched around a victory over Prairie View A&M.

A&M would have played Wake Forest with a patchwork team. Calzada opted to enter the transfer portal, leaving walk-on Blake Bost has the potential starting quarterback. A&M’s four juniors who were preseason All-Americans – guard Kenyon Green, defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal, running back Isaiah Spiller and tight end Jalen Wydermyer –  all declared for the NFL draft.

Fisher also lost a pair of coaches with defensive coordinator Mike Elko hired as Duke’s head coach and offensive line coach Josh Henson hired by Southern California. Strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt, who had been with A&M four years, also returned to Oklahoma.

The news of A&M not playing in the bowl game was first reported by Sports Illustrated's Ross Dellenger.

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