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Texas A&M backs out of Gator Bowl after Covid outbreak leaves team without enough players

The Aggies were set to play Wake Forest in the New Year's Eve college football game.
Texas A&M Aggies helmets on the sidelines during the Southwest Classic game against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Sept. 25, 2021, in Arlington, Texas.
Texas A&M Aggies helmets on the sidelines during the Southwest Classic game against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Sept. 25, 2021, in Arlington, Texas.Matthew Pearce / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images file

Texas A&M, the only team to beat No. 1 Alabama in 2021, suddenly ended its season on Wednesday by backing out of the Gator Bowl, citing injuries and a Covid-19 outbreak.

The Aggies had been set to play Wake Forest a week from Friday at the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville before making the unexpected announcement.

"Due to a combination of Covid-19 issues within the Texas A&M football program, as well as season-ending injuries, the Aggie football roster is not in a position to safely participate in the upcoming Dec. 31 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against Wake Forest," according to a school statement.

The sudden departure by A&M sent Gator Bowl officials scrambling for last-second fill-in to fly to Jacksonville .

The 8-4 Aggies, ranked No.23 in the latest AP poll, authored one of the college football season's most dramatic moments.

Seth Small made a 28-yard field goal as time expired as Texas A&M stunned top-ranked Alabama 41-38 on Oct. 9 in College Station to end the Crimson Tide’s winning streak at 19 games.

“It is unfortunate, but we just don’t have enough scholarship players available to field a team,” A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher said.

Aggies Athletic Director Ross Bjork called the decision "heartbreaking" for everyone associated with the famed 12th Man program.

“It is heartbreaking for our players, coaches, staff and fans that we are not able to play in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl,” Bjork said in a statement.

“Post-season football is the pinnacle of the season and when the opportunity is lost, it hurts on many levels. As we have learned in the last 21 months of this health challenge, the well-being and safety of our student-athletes is paramount. Our players poured their heart and soul into this season and we appreciate their dedication as Aggies. Aggie football is on track for long-term success and we know that the best is yet to come.”

Covid is still wreaking havoc on major sports throughout North America, even 21 months into the pandemic.

The NHL has paused its season due to a Covid surge and on Wednesday announced it's backing out of the Olympics.

New waves of Covid forced the NFL to reschedule games into highly unusual Tuesday night slots this week.

The NBA insists it won't pause the season, though several top players have been sidelined and placed in Covid protocols.

The Toronto Raptors were supposed to visit the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, while the Portland Trail Blazers had been set to host the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday. Both games have been postponed due to Covid-19 outbreaks, according to the league.

Despite all these postponements and cancellations, No. 20 Wake Forest (10-3) still hopes to play a football game next week.

"While we are disappointed that we do not have the opportunity to play a talented Texas A&M football team next week in Jacksonville, our student-athletes and staff are still extremely excited and want to play in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl next week," Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said in a statement.

College football teams that go at least 6-6 are almost guaranteed an invitation to play in a post-season game.

Usually, a handful of 6-6 squads get left out each season. But the NCAA took the unusual step of creating a new, one-time bowl game just this month to ensure that all six-win teams would get a taste of post-season action.

Gator Bowl organizers could conceivably pick a 5-7 team if that program can gather all its players from their holiday vacations or grab a squad that's already played one of the earlier bowl games.

Gator Bowl officials said they're working "aggressively" with the NCAA, the various conferences and ESPN, which televises the game, to find a replacement by Friday afternoon.

The Gator Bowl, played at TIAA Bank Stadium, home of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, was first played in 1946 and is college football's sixth oldest bowl game.

It's considered one of the most prominent games not in the New Year's Six grouping of major college bowl games.

The most famous Gator Bowl game was played in 1978 when legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes punched Clemson's Charlie Baumann in the throat after he intercepted a pass to seal his team's 17-15 victory.

The winningest coach in school history was fired the next day.