TaxSlayer Gator Bowl: Wake Forest returns to Jacksonville 75 years later to play Texas A&M

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  • Dave Clawson
    American football player and coach
  • Jimbo Fisher
    Jimbo Fisher
    American football player and coach
  • Sam Hartman
    American football quarterback
Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman leads an offense that was first in the ACC in scoring during the regular season with 42.9 points per game.
Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman leads an offense that was first in the ACC in scoring during the regular season with 42.9 points per game.

Wake Forest, which won the inaugural TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, will finally make another appearance 75 years later to play Texas A&M on Dec. 31 at TIAA Bank Field.

The Deacons (10-3) lost in the ACC championship on Saturday to Pittsburgh. They will bring their prolific offense, led by quarterback Sam Hartman, to face the Aggies (8-4), whose hopes for a New Year’s Six Bowl were high after upsetting Alabama 41-38 on Oct. 9.

"Two great teams, two ranked teams," said Gator Bowl president Greg McGarity during a teleconference on Sunday with the coaches, Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M and Dave Clawson of Wake Forest. "We're really excited."

The game will be at 11 a.m. on New Year's Eve and aired by ESPN. It will serve as the appetizer for the two College Football Playoff semifinals on the network, Alabama vs. Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl and Michigan vs. Georgia in the Orange Bowl.

Wake beat South Carolina 26-14 in the first Gator Bowl. Texas A&M last played in the 2018 game, routing N.C. State 52-13 behind a record-setting rushing performance by Trayveon Williams – who gained a game record 236 yards and scored three touchdowns.

Isiah Spiller (28) leads Texas A&M's offense with 984 yards rushing and six touchdowns.
Isiah Spiller (28) leads Texas A&M's offense with 984 yards rushing and six touchdowns.

Wake is the first double-digit victory team in the Gator Bowl since West Virginia in 2006 and the Deacons are playing in a Florida bowl for the first time since the 2007 Orange Bowl.

"We tell our kids the better the bowl the warmer the weather," Clawson said.

The Gator Bowl also will be one of only three bowls outside of the New Year's Day Six games with two ranked teams. Wake is 17th in the College Football Playoff rankings and 20th in the AP; and Texas A&M is 25th in the CFP rankings and 23rd in AP.

It will be the Aggies' third appearance in Jacksonville and the second under Fisher. They are 1-1 in the game, losing 3-0 to Tennessee in 1957.

Clawson, in his eighth season at Winston-Salem, is 50-48 and was named the ACC coach of the year. Fisher is in his fourth season with Texas A&M, with a 34-14 record after guiding Florida State to an 82-23 record, three ACC titles and the 2013 national championship in eight years with the Seminoles.

Fisher became the first former Nick Saban assistant to beat his old boss in a game when the Aggies stunned the Tide at home. It was the first in a four-game winning streak but A&M lost their last two conference games, to Ole Miss and LSU.

Fisher and Clawson met four times when Fisher was at Florida State, with the Seminoles winning all four. However, after a 43-3 victory in 2014, FSU struggled to beat the Deacons, winning the next three games by eight, 13 and seven points.

Fisher's defenses face pass-happy opponents in the SEC West such as Ole Miss and Mississippi State but he said Wake has some wrinkles his players will need to work on in bowl practice.

"They're a little different in the way they block up front," Fisher said. "We've kept up with it, with two guys here [who coached for Clawson, defensive coordinator Mike Eklo and linebackers coach Tyler Santucci] ... we try to keep up, root for them. I consider Dave a friend. They're very dynamic with their [Read-pass option] system, the way they push the front is a little bit different. They're going to be tremendously competitive and diverse in all phases."

Other teams in play for the Gator Bowl included Clemson and Arkansas. The Tigers will face Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando and the Razorbacks drew Penn State in the Outback Bowl in Tampa.

The Gator Bowl is on an SEC tier with five other games (Outback, Music City, Duke’s Mayo, Texas and Liberty) and an ACC tier with two other games (Cheez-It and Holiday).

After the College Football Playoff committee seeded the two national semifinal games (Orange and Cotton) and the four remaining New Year’s Six games (Sugar, Fiesta, Peach and Rose), the conferences slotted the remaining eligible teams for the rest of the bowls.

Wake and Texas A&M have played only once before, but it was memorable: The Deacons won 55-52 in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., with Bishop Kenny graduate John Wolford earning game MVP honors by throwing for 400 yards and four touchdowns.

Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford, a Bishop Kenny graduate, gets his facemask grabbed by Texas A&M's Jayden Peevy during their 2017 meeting at the Duke's Mayo Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. Wolford was the game MVP in the 55-52 victory for the Deacons, the only previous time they met the Aggies.
Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford, a Bishop Kenny graduate, gets his facemask grabbed by Texas A&M's Jayden Peevy during their 2017 meeting at the Duke's Mayo Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. Wolford was the game MVP in the 55-52 victory for the Deacons, the only previous time they met the Aggies.

Fisher had just been hired as the Aggies coach and was an observer

"That game was like Ali and Frazier," he said. "It was one of the least-stressful games I was ever at. I could be a fan."

The two teams will bring different offensive styles to the game. Hartman was third in the ACC in passing during the regular season at 309.25 yards per game and has thrown for 3,924 yards and 36 touchdowns.

But in the 45-31 loss to Pitt in the ACC title game, he was intercepted four times and threw for only 213 yards.

Hartman's main target is Jaquarii Roberson, who has 71 receptions for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns.

The Aggies, who have had injuries this season at quarterback, have relied on a strong running game featuring Isaiah Spiller (1,011 yards, six touchdowns) and Devon Achane (943 yards, nine touchdowns).

"Jimbo's teams are going to be well-coached, they're always physical, a great play-action game, talent across, the board and always physical up front," Clawson said. "They're a really good football team. They beat the No. 1 team in the country and can play with anybody."

Tickets are available at taxslayergatorbowl.com.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Gator Bowl: Wake Forest, Texas A&M to play in Jacksonville

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