On Wednesday morning, the 2021 Rutgers football season was in the back of everyone’s minds. Signing Day for the 2022 recruiting class was a week ago, finals were over and Christmas was approaching.
By midday, soon after it was announced that Texas A&M was out of the Gator Bowl due to Covid-19 positive cases, a chain reaction was set off. Of all 5-7 teams available, it was reported that the Scarlet Knights held the top APR score of any newly eligible teams and therefore were first in line to receive a bowl bid. A report from Brett McMurphy stating that as well that Rutgers had declined an opportunity to replace the Aggies was then quickly refuted by a report from Pete Thamel. By Wednesday night, it became clear that RU was working with all the necessary parties involved to be available to play. By Thursday early afternoon, it was official and the Scarlet Knights were going bowling for the first time in seven years.
The Gator Bowl will kickoff at 11:00 a.m. in Jacksonville, Florida on Friday, December 31 and air live on ESPN. The process of securing Rutgers as a replacement for Texas A&M played out in just a day’s time. It was a stunning development for sure.
Gator Bowl President Greg McGarity said on a media call on Thursday night that, “Everyone working together and really going through the protocol of the NCAA, running through the list of teams that were 5-7 and had the highest APR rankings, it was a process that certainly the NCAA facilitated for us. We had a lot of teams reach out to us. We could not invite anyone - we did not have the right to invite anyone - because the NCAA was going to determine that. But once Rutgers, which was at the top of the list, said they were interested, we were able to huddle and here we are with Rutgers. And so this has been a 24, let’s say 25 hour, period here that has been really hectic, but it all ended up great and Jacksonville is going to have a great game on the 31st.”
“This is a great day for Rutgers University,” said athletic director Pat Hobbs. “We’re really excited about the opportunity ahead of us with the Gator Bowl. We’re very excited to bring our team and fans down to Jacksonville. I want to congratulate coach Schiano. The job that he has done in two short years is quite remarkable.”
As for how the players feel about the opportunity, “They’re fired up, trust me,” said head coach Greg Schiano. “This is a team that will be ready to play. They’re thrilled to have the opportunity, especially in a bowl of this magnitude. We’re going to come down and have a good showing.”
He added, ”Football coaches want to coach games, and football players want to play games.”
In regard to how Schiano handled the process of deciding to participate in the Gator Bowl, he confirmed the players were excited for the opportunity.
“As things were unfolding yesterday, I certainly did a straw poll to make sure that that’s what they wanted, and not just what their coach wanted,” said Schiano. “I called some guys when it first broke and I said ‘Look, if this happens, what do you think?’ But then my phone started blowing up when our players saw it. They were texting me gator emojis and all this kind of stuff. So, they are fired up, trust me. This is a team that will be ready to play. I’ve been an NFL head coach and know the business side of the game. If there are guys who choose not to, I understand that, there’d be no hard feelings there.”
The Scarlet Knights last played on November 27 in a 40-16 loss to Maryland and haven’t practiced since before the game. A major concern playing just over a week from now is the lack of practice and prep time that Rutgers has had.
Schiano explained on the call that there was some thought after the Maryland game that a situation like this one could unfold and therefore they prepared for it with continued strength and conditioning training.
“We thought we still had the opportunity to go to a bowl game (at the conclusion of the season), so we trained that week,” said Schiano. “We trained the week after, and it was a great week of training. And when we got into final exams, it was voluntary, but by watching who was around, it was pretty well attended. Being that we have such a late final exam schedule here - we didn’t officially get done with school until the 22nd - our guys haven’t been gone that long, and I’m not worried at all about that issue. Coach Butler has a program that they are doing the next two days at home to do some change of direction things and get themselves ready. And then we’ll ease into it, get into game week, and then play the game on Friday. We are looking forward to it.”
In terms of the plan for the players to report back to the Hale Center in preparation for the Gator Bowl, Schiano stated they’ve been working on the situation since Wednesday.
“We have been working on this in the event that it did come to fruition,” said Schiano. “Our guys have plans, and I want to make sure that our players can be with their families on Christmas morning. We need the time as a coaching staff to put together a game plan. Our coaches are in right now, and we’ve been working on Wake Forest for the last 24 hours in case. So we’re moving along pretty good. They’ll get back here Christmas night, and then we will get started. And it won’t be much more than a traditional game week.”
While it should be no surprise how quickly Schiano and his staff were able to get a plan in place for the Gator Bowl, the reality of Covid-19 makes any plans in life no guarantee. With the tri-state area experiencing a major surge, there is certainly a concern that Rutgers will be able to navigate through the health and safety protocols successfully.
“It’s all across the country, but we’re a fully vaccinated team and I’m confident that, with that, and with being extra careful when we get people back, we’ll be ok,” said Schiano.
As for how Rutgers plans to approach the New Year’s Eve bowl game against No. 17 Wake Forest, there obviously isn’t much time to prepare.“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” Schiano said. “We’re going to go out and play with great energy, great excitement and not make it real complicated, and see where the chips fall. I think our guys will play with great effort. When you do that, you give yourself a chance.”
Out of nowhere, Rutgers has a chance to play in the biggest bowl game in program history. Hopefully, they can take advantage of the opportunity and stun the college football world, including this lifetime fan.