The bowl schedule has already included plenty of changes due to COVID-19 and other availability issues, but the Gator Bowl will proceed thanks to a late substitution that allowed for Rutgers to make its first bowl appearance in seven years.
The original matchup for the Gator Bowl was to have Wake Forest, the runner-up in the ACC, face Texas A&M in a rematch of an epic, high-scoring Belk Bowl from 2017. But COVID-19 issues led to the Aggies withdrawing from the game, luckily still in time for bowl officials to offer an invitation to another team. Rutgers finished the year with a 5-7 record, but thanks to its Academic Progress Rate (APR) score, it was first in line among schools that did not automatically quality for the postseason. The Gator Bowl offered, Rutgers accepted and now we have game on in Jacksonville for a Power Five vs. Power Five matchup on Dec. 31. Just not with the teams we initially prepared to see.
How each team handles the late change of plans is going to be one major storyline in the game, but it’s far from the only item of interest. Let’s dig into the some of the things to know and keys to the game for the 2021 Gator Bowl.
Wake Forest vs. Rutgers: Need to know
Wake Forest boasts one of the top offenses in the country: The Demon Deacons rank in the top 10 in total offense and top five in scoring, averaging 41.2 points per game. They play with relentless pace, frustrate defenses with their run-pass option concepts and explosive skill players that can turn routine plays into long touchdowns. Even more, Sam Hartman is having one of the best seasons of any quarterback in ACC history. His 47 total touchdowns on the season (36 passing, 11 rushing) are only bested in the ACC’s single-season record books by Lamar Jackson’s 51 touchdowns in his Heisman Trophy-winning 2016 season and Deshaun Watson’s 50 touchdowns from that same year, his national championship-winning season. Even playing to his season averages will have Hartman flirting with history in this game, adding even more intrigue to the recently-arranged contest.
Rutgers defense wins on third down: Two of the big keys for Rutgers in its success this season were avoiding turnovers and limiting opponents success on third down. The Scarlet Knights were 5-0 when committing no turnovers and and rank in the top 10 nationally in third-down defense. Since the offense ranks No. 123 nationally in yards per play, it was important that Rutgers found other ways to win at the margins, and Greg Schiano has found that with foundational football touchstones like winning the third down and the turnover battle.
Going for win No. 11: Wake Forest football has won 11 games in a season just once, in its 11-3 ACC Championship in 2006. A win against Rutgers would give this year’s group an 11-3 record as well and add some positivity and program history to a season that most recently featured a frustrating defeat to Pitt in the ACC Championship Game. It would also be Dave Clawson’s first 11-win season in 13 years as an FBS coach, though he accomplished the feat at Richmond in 2007 with a team that finished in the FCS semifinals. When Texas A&M withdrew, you could sense that playing one more game meant a lot to the coaches and players, and that they would be mentally prepared to play whoever could make the trip to Jacksonville.
How to watch Gator Bowl live
Game: Gator Bowl
Date: Friday, Dec. 31 | Time: 11 a.m. ET
Location: TIAA Bank Field — Jacksonville, Fla.
TV: ESPN | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Gator Bowl prediction, picks
Rutgers has a lot of ways that it can be a thorn in the side of the Demon Deacons, but it lacks the horses to keep up in terms of putting points on the board. I could see the Scarlet Knights getting some stops and keeping this close in the first half, but the Wake Forest offense can be overwhelming with its relentlessness and over four quarters the Deacs pull away for a comfortable win. Prediction: Wake Forest (-14.5)
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