Illinois, Northern Illinois emerging as favorites to play Wake Forest after Texas A&M opts out of Gator Bowl

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,…

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