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Gator Bowl Preview

Rutgers fans, a Christmas miracle has happened. After Texas A&M pulled out of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, the NCAA needed to find a replacement. They turned to the 5-7 teams, calling the team with the highest Academic Progress Rating (APR). This team happened to be Rutgers, allowing the Scarlet Knights to officially accept their first bowl bid since 2014, ending the second longest bowl drought among Power 5 teams.

On New Year’s Eve, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights will take on the #17 Wake Forest Demon Deacons in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl at TIAA Bank Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. Putting a team that hasn’t practiced in nearly a month against a top 25 team in the nation could be a recipe for disaster. A Rutgers victory is highly unlikely, but crazier things have happened.

Rutgers will be greatly understaffed. Several players entered the transfer portal or declared for the NFL draft. The Knights will also be without Defensive Coordinator Robb Smith, who accepted the same position at Duke after Coach Schiano decided not to renew his contract.

Unofficially, the Knights will be without many playmakers. Isiah Pacheco and Bo Melton both declared for the NFL draft after their loss to Maryland, and neither has decided to come back for this game. Kyle Monangai also will be inactive due to injury. With these inactives, Rutgers’ RB1 will be Aaron Young, and WR1 will be Shameen Jones.

On the defensive side of the ball, three players have declared for the draft. Olalunkle Fatukasi had his season cut short due to injury, so it would make sense that he would want to play in this game. However, opting out of bowl games is seen as standard for NFL draft prospects, so it’s hard to know whether he’ll actually play. Fellow linebacker Tyshon Fogg also declared for the draft, so the linebacking corps may be very depleted and inexperienced on Friday. Defensive lineman Julius Turner declared for the draft, but reportedly will be playing in the bowl.

All of these roster reports are purely speculations. In Greg Schiano’s game week press conference, he would not comment on who would or would not be playing. The only thing he said about who would play is that he expects that he will need to use a variety of players. Given that this team has not practiced in a month and has not played in 80 degree weather since September, fatigue is expected. It’ll be all hands on deck on Friday.

Wake Forest is led by one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Sam Hartman. Hartman finished the 2021 regular season in the top 10 in touchdowns and yards. He led the Demon Deacons to the ACC championship where they fell to Pittsburgh. The Deacons rank 5th in the country in total points this season. This offense will be tough for Rutgers to stifle, and if the Knights are understaffed, things could get ugly quickly.

All signs point towards a Wake Forest victory, however Rutgers certainly has a shot. A few things need to happen for Rutgers to come out on top. First, the defense needs to step up. We’ve seen the Knights defensive unit struggle against good passing offenses, which is exactly what Wake Forest is. Secondly, Noah Vedral needs to play extremely well. Vedral is a proven leader and field general, but his throwing ability has been questioned all season. While Rutgers fans are excited about Gavin Wimsatt and would like to see him have a significant role, the Knights need a big quarterback performance and with Vedral likely taking the majority of the snaps, Gavin Wimsatt will likely be a metaphorical white flag for Rutgers.

I’ve always tried to be optimistic when it comes to my predictions and this time is no different. But Rutgers winning this game will be somewhat of a miracle. The reality is, Rutgers shouldn’t even be in this position. They are a 5-7 team playing one of the best teams in the nation in one of the biggest bowls. I think Rutgers will be overpowered by Wake Forest’s offense, and the Knights’ offense will continue to struggle. Unfortunately, I see this game getting ugly fast. I predict a Wake Forest victory by a score of 52-13. Noah Vedral will struggle and the Rutgers offense will have no response for the Wake Forest offense.

Tune into ESPN on 12/31 at 11 am to see the Rutgers Scarlet Knights take on the #17 Wake Forest Demon Deacons in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl at TIAA Bank Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida.

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