Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman
Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman (10) throws a pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Duke, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (AP Photo/Matt Kelley)

GATOR BOWL PREVIEW

Mike Shara

TAXSLAYER GATOR BOWL
Friday, December 31
TIAA Bank Stadium, Jacksonville FL at 11 a.m. on ESPN

SPREAD: Rutgers +14.5 (consensus)
OVER/UNDER: 57.5 (FanDuel)
MONEYLINE: Wake Forest +140 (DraftKings)

Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

This year’s Gator Bowl will be missing one of the two teams that were supposed to appear, as Texas A&M’s football program was absolutely wracked by a Covid breakout and were forced to withdraw from the event due to a lack of available players.  With precious little time to scramble and find a replacement, the ‘slayers of tax’ sponsors soon settled on a Rutgers team that finished the season with a losing record in hopes of salvaging a game that would have been a really interesting one had the Aggies all stayed healthy.

WAKE FOREST (10-3, 7-2 in the ACC)
After finishing the Covid-ravaged 2020 season with a 4-5 record, WFU rallied in 2021, winning their first eight games this season before losing a high-scoring heartbreaker at North Carolina early in November. They recovered to narrowly defeat a Top 25 N.C. State team the next week before being blown out by (then) unranked Clemson the following Saturday. They did still manage to win the ACC Atlantic Division but were soundly beaten in the conference championship game by Pitt. A win Friday would give the Demon Deacons just their second 11-win season in team history.  Instead of facing A&M’s #7 ranked defense, Wake will get the distinctly nicer option of facing the 77th-ranked defense in the nation. For quarterback Sam Hartman, who threw for almost 4000 yards this year and receivers Jaquarii Robinson and A.T. Perry, who had over 1000 yards, this change could make for a field day. The Deacons averaged over 40 points per game in the regular season this year but did turn the ball over with some regularity and allowed an unusually high number of quarterback sacks (32).

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RUTGERS (5-7, 2-7 in the Big Ten)
There’s one key weakness that explains why Rutgers weren’t supposed to be playing in a bowl game this year – and that specific reason is that Head Coach Greg Schiano’s team just isn’t very good at football. Their offense is among the lowest scoring in the nation and their defense is barely middle-of-the-pack. Quarterback Noah Vedral (a Nebraska transfer) threw just 7 touchdown passes vs. 6 interceptions this year, and no one on their team averaged even a measly 4 yards per carry or scored more than 4 total touchdowns all season long.  To be fair, their slate of games was brutal – they were among the top 20 in Strength of Schedule rating this year, but most of their tough opponents absolutely blew them out. They played very well against CFB finalist Michigan in late-September, but none of their other games vs. above average teams were even particularly close and their final game of the regular season was a 24-point home loss to a terrible Maryland team. Their only conference wins were vs. Illinois and Indiana, and they didn’t win a home game vs. a Big Ten opponent. There just isn’t a lot of hype material here. Their uniforms are nice, I guess…

THE MATCHUP
The spread in this game is more than two touchdowns and that still seems low. It’s hard to envision a scenario where Rutgers makes any sort of contest out of this matchup. They haven’t had a lot of time to prepare, and their players probably weren’t even thinking about football for a few weeks after their regular season ended. It’s only because Wake Forest’s defense is about as sturdy as gossamer that Rutgers has much of a chance of putting points up. There is a good reason this game is being played at 11a.m. on the day of the National Semifinal games. It’s sort of the bowl game equivalent of being the first band onstage at Coachella. Technically it counts as being a part of the big festivities, but it isn’t likely going to be a thing anyone talks about the next day. I look for Wake to be pissed off to be playing such a weak-ass opponent in a bowl game that they have to play in Jacksonville and for them to take it out on the unworthy Jersey-ites.

PREDICTION: Wake Forest 48, Rutgers 14

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