Bowl games have become like buying in bulk at Costco — the volume is more than you really need or want to consume. Playing in a college football bowl game these days is about as notable as having an e-mail address.
There are 40 bowl games, not counting the College Football Playoff National Championship Game and counting the Celebration Bowl, which features historically black colleges and universities playing at the Football Championship Subdivision level.
Salvation from this corporate name game of gridiron gluttony could be coming from the college football labor force. This bowl season, nearly two dozen college players with designs on being selected in the 2019 NFL Draft have skipped their teams’ bowl games to preserve their health for the NFL. If some of the most talented players in college football believe that many of the bowl games outside of the College Football Playoff aren’t worth their time, then why are they worth playing?
Bowl season came to an end on New Year’s Day, but on a grand scale it could be coming to an end as we know it. Like newspapers and television, the bowl industry is experiencing transformative disruption. NFL-bound players have realized these superfluous games are more risk than reward for them, a potential pro stumbling block rather than a college capstone. The players have gotten wise to the workings of the bowl industrial complex, which benefits bowl committee blazer-wearers, coaches, and television programmers. Good for them.
This represents a course correction, not college football Armageddon.
I’m a college football devotee (it says so on my Twitter profile), but even I cringe at some of these extraneous and meaningless bowl games. What would we do without the Dollar General Bowl, the DXL Frisco Bowl, the Cheez-It Bowl, the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl, or the Redbox Bowl? The bowl herd cries out to be culled.
The bloated slate will get winnowed when marquee matchups don’t materialize and the games become less compelling from a television inventory standpoint.
One of the best bowl games should have been West Virginia vs. Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl. The former Big East rivals both entered the game ranked in the top 11 in scoring offense, averaging more than 40 points per game. One problem: West Virginia star quarterback Will Grier, starting offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste, and leader in receiving yards Gary Jennings all decided to skip the game to preserve their health and their draft stock. (Jennings had played through a high ankle sprain since October.) Syracuse defeated a disarmed West Virginia squad, 34-18, in a game that fizzled.
Even the brand-name bowls that are part of the College Football Playoff semifinal rotation are not immune from the trend. Michigan was without three of its top players — defensive tackle Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush, and leading rusher Karan Higdon — when it got stomped, 41-15, by Florida Saturday in the Peach Bowl.
The top two cornerback prospects in the draft both sat out their team’s New Year’s Day bowl games. Louisiana State’s Greedy Williams took a pass on playing in the Fiesta Bowl against the University of Central Florida. Georgia’s Deandre Baker, the Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back, eschewed the Sugar Bowl against Texas.
The pearl-clutching crowd will lament that these players have betrayed their teams and teammates by electing to boycott games for their own benefit. Don’t we send kids to college to learn to think for themselves and set themselves up for professional careers?
To paraphrase Albert Einstein: Unthinking respect for college football convention is the greatest enemy of truth. The calculus on skipping an extraneous game is pretty easy if you remove emotion and the tug of loyalty.
The average guaranteed money for a first-round pick in last year’s draft was $15.7 million. In the second round, it slipped to $3.55 million. In the third round, it was $893,636. So, if you suffer an injury in a meaningless bowl game, you could be costing yourself millions of dollars.
The cautionary tale for taking one for the team and playing in a bowl is Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith. At the end of the 2015 season, he suffered a catastrophic left knee injury, resulting in nerve damage and a torn ACL, in the Fiesta Bowl. A presumptive top-five pick before the bowl game, he dropped to the second round (No. 34 overall) of the 2016 draft. Being there one last time for his Notre Dame teammates cost him almost $19 million in guaranteed money on his rookie contract.
It was the next season that running backs Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette, both eventual top-10 picks, decided to sit out their teams’ bowl games, sparking the current trend.
There has been the false cry that players who skip bowl games will be viewed negatively by NFL decision-makers or that path portends a lack of NFL success. This is a transparent attempt to shame players into not skipping bowls. UCF defensive coordinator Randy Shannon tried to peddle this flawed and self-serving logic recently. (It’s not uncommon for college coaches and their staffs to have bonuses in their contracts for winning bowl games.)
This season, McCaffrey set the NFL record for receptions by a running back (107) on a team that missed the playoffs. He has yet to miss a game in his career. He finished third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, behind Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott, both of whom elected to end their college careers in bowl games. There’s no correlation.
By the way, do these coaches feel the same way about coaches that abandon their teams for better opportunities? In 2009, Brian Kelly informed his players he was leaving Cincinnati to coach Notre Dame, and that he would not coach them in the Sugar Bowl. Manny Diaz was Temple’s coach for 30 seconds. Diaz was there just long enough (18 days) to eat a Philly cheesesteak and sign 17 recruits during the early signing period, then forsake them for Miami on Sunday.
When coaches do what’s best for them, it’s a smart career move; when players do it, it’s blasphemy. Passion, pageantry, and hypocrisy are staples of college football.
College coaches should actually embrace players who have made up their minds about declaring for the NFL Draft and choose to bypass bowl games. With the additional practice time bowl teams receive, it’s an opportunity for that coach to get a head start on the following season when he must replace those players.
Rather than the swan song for the current season, bowls should be viewed as the first game of next season. That would represent a way to market them sans the studs safeguarding their draft stock.
Of course, the other solution is an expansion of the playoff to six or eight teams, replacing crapulous bowl games with some meaningful ones. No player is skipping playoff games.
Since the advent of the playoff, there has been an uneasy equilibrium between the preservation of the traditional bowl system and the glorification of the modern method of crowning a national champion. The current state of bowl season and the spate of player absences is a reflection of that inherent incoherence in college football’s postseason.
Bowl season remains proof that you can have too much of a good thing. College football should follow its players and start skipping a few bowl games for its own good.