As we enter the thick of college football bowl season, let’s call it what it is: programming inventory for the behemoth that is ESPN. Who could wait for Tuesday night’s Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl, featuring UAB and Northern Illinois, two programs that plain don’t like each other? Why, that was just an appetizer for Wednesday’s DXL Frisco Bowl, with San Diego State out to prove its fourth-place finish in the Mountain West Conference’s West Division was no fluke against Frank Solich’s Ohio Bobcats, co-runners-up in the Mid-American Conference’s East Division. Batten down the hatches, indeed.
The new, lousy reality — from a programming and therefore a viewing standpoint only — is that however obscure the bowl game, there’s a chance the best available players aren’t even playing in it. This is a phenomenon that will affect the Hyundai Sun Bowl (Bryce Love, Stanford), the Camping World Bowl (Will Grier and Yodny Cajuste, West Virginia), the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl (Germaine Pratt and Kelvin Harmon, N.C. State), the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (Rashan Gary, Michigan) and at least seven other games.
Those players are among more than a dozen college stars who, after being taken advantage of for at least three years, have picked the holiday season to stop giving back. They’re skipping their final chance to wear their college uniforms. If there’s any sort of outcry over this, let it cease here and now. It’s their right. It’s their health. These are their careers at stake.
Not that it doesn’t have an impact on our viewing pleasure.
Take the aforementioned Camping World Bowl. Grier, West Virginia’s senior quarterback, averaged more passing yards and more touchdown passes per game than Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray of Oklahoma. Grier is a legitimate star, a player worthy of flipping on the television to see.
Instead, flip on the television — 5:15 p.m., Dec. 28, live from Orlando — and you’ll probably drink in Jack Allison (career pass attempts: 10) directing the Mountaineers’ offense. I’ll watch the game anyway, for sure, because I’m weird like that. But it won’t be the same.
This is, of course, the new norm. Two years ago, when running backs Leonard Fournette of LSU and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford decided to skip their bowl games to better prepare for — read: preserve themselves for — the NFL draft, there was indignation in some corners. “How could they let down their teams?”
But that dismisses what these players have become: featured characters in a reality series that runs all through December. Except, even with all the eyeballs following them, these actors aren’t paid.
Their payday lies ahead, so why should they agree to risk it for free?
Fournette and McCaffrey, it’s worth remembering, were selected fourth and eighth, respectively, in that spring’s draft. And — not that this matters — but LSU and Stanford won their bowl games. So did anyone really let anyone down?
Well, yes, there’s the matter of us, the poor viewers, cooped up with Uncle Ed, Cousin Smalltalk and not enough eggnog to make the entire season tolerable. So we want the football. We need the football.
Like, say, Saturday. Well, what have we here? A little Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl action. Now, given Army runs for nearly 300 yards per game and Houston passes for 300 yards per game, here’s a contrast in styles that could make this a historic Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, one of the best Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowls in history. Plus, you’ll get to see Ed Oliver, a defensive tackle projected as a top-10 pick in . . .
Oh, wait. He’s not playing.
“Thanks to the University of Houston, the entire coaching staff and my teammates for their 100 percent support,” Oliver said in a statement released by the school. “It means a lot to me. To all the fans, thank you for your relentless support. Forever I will be a Coog!”
Well, except on Saturday.
But I get it. So there’s no Gary, another potential top-10 pick, for Michigan against Florida in the Peach Bowl. That eliminates some star power. But you know what else it eliminates? Any risk that Gary will aggravate the shoulder injury that kept him out of three games this season. Letting down his team? Sorry. He’s looking out for his career.
It’s actually amazing this didn’t become a trend until this year. There remains one dividing line, however: No players from Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson or Notre Dame are sitting out their games. Those are the four teams in the College Football Playoff. For now, still in its infancy, the CFP is immune, because playing for a national championship that’s actually determined on the field feels like a big deal. (Bigger, anyway, than the Outback Bowl, which Iowa tight end Noah Fant will skip, or the Belk Bowl, which South Carolina wide receiver Deebo Samuel will blow off.)
But can that last? How long before a high-profile prospect — one such as Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams or Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell — looks his coaches and teammates in the eye and says, before a national semifinal, “My work here is done”?
Selfish and outlandish? Well, consider the difference in total contract value for the first pick of the first round (roughly $32.7 million from Cleveland for quarterback Baker Mayfield) and the first pick of the second round (roughly $7.6 million from the Browns to offensive lineman Austin Corbett). Could an injury suffered in one of the College Football Playoff games contribute to a tumble of 10, 20 or 30 slots? Sure it could.
For the entirety of their college careers, players have no control. They can’t control the marketing of jerseys bearing their numbers. They can’t control the fact that they’re the people putting their bodies at risk while the men who coach them make the money.
A small example: N.C. State Coach Dave Doeren earned a $25,000 bonus for leading the Wolfpack to the Gator Bowl. He’ll make $50,000 more if the Wolfpack beats Texas A&M in that game.
What will Pratt, N.C. State’s leading tackler, and Harmon, its star wide receiver, earn for playing in the game? Zilch. What about winning it? Nada. They’re both sitting out.
The player who took this idea past bowl season is almost a surefire top-five pick: Ohio State defensive lineman Nick Bosa. Bosa suffered a core muscle injury in the Buckeyes’ third game of the season, back in September against TCU. He announced in October that, even though it was possible he would be healthy enough for a playoff appearance, he would leave Ohio State altogether to prepare for his professional career.
My count: 14 players have announced they won’t play in their bowl games this season. My bet: That number will exceed 20 next year.
The best name missing from the — ahem — 40 bowl games the season has to offer? Why, that has to be LSU cornerback Greedy Williams. In this new reality, though, Greedy isn’t being greedy for skipping the Tigers’ PlayStation Fiesta Bowl date with Central Florida.
Rather, he’s being sensible. It might be too bad for us, the viewers merely trying to enjoy bowl season, but it’s hard to imagine a future in which all of the stars participate. For the players, there’s more at stake than who wins the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl.