Christian McCaffery of the Stanford Cardinal and Leonard Fournette of the LSU Tigers skipped their team’s bowl game to concentrate on getting ready for the NFL Draft. Rarely had there been a more polarizing reaction among fans and pundits. Everyone seemed to be coming down emphatically on one side or the other. After listening to arguments both pro and con (and there are good points made by both sides), we are coming down on the side of the players, and here is why.
Last year, a Notre Dame linebacker named Jaylon Smith played in the Fiesta Bowl game against the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Fiesta Bowl is one of the biggest bowl games. It is part of the “New Year’s Six” games, which means every third season it serves as one of the Playoff Semifinal Games. Notre Dame and Ohio State are two of college football’s most storied and high profile teams. So this was a huge game. Playing in that game wound up costing Smith anywhere between 15 and 20 million dollars, if we are to believe ESPN NFL Draft experts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, who had him going in the top five picks.
Smith tore an ACL in the Fiesta Bowl and dropped all the way to the second round where he was picked by the Dallas Cowboys. He spent the entire season rehabbing from the injury. McCaffery and Fournette are not stupid. They saw what happened to a guy playing in the Fiesta Bowl. McCaffery’s team went to the Sun Bowl. The Sun Bowl is played in El Paso, Texas in a small stadium (home of the UTEP Miners) against the North Carolina Tar Heels, who are better known for their basketball team than they are for football. Was this a game worth risking millions of dollars for?
Fournette’s Tigers played in the Citrus Bowl, a somewhat bigger game, against the Louisville Cardinals. But Fournette had been battling injuries for the second half of the season. So it was entirely reasonable for him to skip this game and get healthy for the NFL Pro Day at his school and the Draft Combine.
While there is something to be said for finishing the season and playing one last game with your teammates, in some cases, the risk outweighs the reward. If you’re a player who feels like he could go in the first round, playing that one last game in El Paso could be penny wise, but pound foolish.
Detractors are worried this will now be a trend. But college football survived many disturbing bowl trends in the past, such as back in the old days when teams were accepting bowl bids with three or four games left on their schedule, or bowls being awarded based on how many fans the team would likely bring with them rather than whether they deserved to be there. Now we have 40 bowl games, which means well over half of the FBS schools go to a bowl game, and some do not even have a .500 record. College football will survive a first round-pick skipping the Music City Bowl or the Independence Bowl.
While you might not like a player “quitting on his team” by skipping the bowl game, let us remind you that Tom Herman was the Head Coach of the Houston Cougars this year, and he was nowhere to be found on the sidelines at the Las Vegas Bowl, because he skipped the game to be the next coach at the University of Texas. This happens every year after the regular season ends. Willie Taggert left South Florida, and Charlie Strong coached them in their bowl game. Jeff Brohm was Western Kentucky’s coach, and he was not there in Boa Raton for the Hilltoppers bowl. If coaches, who are paid a lot of money to coach these teams, can bail on their team for a better gig, then what’s wrong if a player does the same thing? Until colleges and universities can guarantee that a coach won’t leave before the bowl games, they should not have a problem with a potential top player deciding to end his season early.