It is true today—as always—that all of the scheduled bowl games must be played in order to determine the national champion. However, in today’s Bowl Championship Subdivision (yesterday’s Division I-A), this is only a technicality. The College Football Playoff means that only three games matter, and that come January 1st, and then January 8th, only 4, and then 2 teams, have anything consequential to play for.
Only 4 teams.
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Outside of these 4 teams there are countless players who still have their entire lives to play for.
Or to not play for.
It began last year, with star running backs Leonard Fournette of LSU and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford, who made headlines by announcing that they would not be playing in their team’s bowl games to prepare for the draft.
Their decision provoked criticism from peers and former players for a lack of commitment to their team/teammates and also to the game itself. Talking heads across the country wondered whether the Playoff has stripped all significance from every other bowl, and whether Fournette and McCaffrey may become poster boys for a new trend in college football—star players not in the Playoff electing not to play in bowl games.
The fact is that all of these fears are justified. The Playoff of course means that no other bowls matter, and so of course players with serious draft potential will not play. Why would they? In 2015-16, Jaylon Smith of Notre Dame, the nation’s best linebacker, tore his ACL in the first quarter of ND’s bowl game against Houston, an injury that sidelined Smith for his entire rookie season and then some.
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Now, this season, QB Josh Rosen of UCLA elected not to play in the Cactus Bowl v. Kansas State, and OL Conor Williams of Texas chose to sit out the Texas Bowl v. Missouri. Both are projected high first-round picks in the 2018 NFL Draft.
But why should players be criticized for skipping bowl games? A bowl game without national championship implications is an exhibition. A player who is not returning next season sitting out only gives another player a chance to play in his place.
Whether it is a young player who can put something on tape going into the offseason or a senior who hasn’t had a chance to leave anything out on the field, there is something more to gain by Fournette and McCaffrey not playing in these final games.
In 2016, Fournette averaged almost 20 touches per game and McCaffrey averaged over 30. With each sitting out their teams’ bowl games, the ball went instead to their teammates.
In the Citrus Bowl v. Louisville, without Fournette the Tigers instead unleashed Derrius Guice, a lead back who had shared the backfield all season long.
Guice saw the ball 29 times for 150 yards from scrimmage and 2 TDs, and the Tigers won the game 29-9.
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In the Citrus Bowl v. North Carolina, Stanford had a parallel experience. Waiting in the wings behind Christian McCaffrey was Bryce Love, who with McCaffrey out was handed the ball 21 times, running for 119 yards. He also had a 49-yard TD catch. Stanford won 26-24.
And at the Cactus Bowl on December 26th, Josh Rosen watched from the sideline as UCLA lost to Kansas State 35-17 behind freshman backup QB Devon Modster.
Some aspects of the Rosen/UCLA saga are markedly different from both Fournette and McCaffrey’s. Rosen suffered two concussions in November and was already a game-time decision for the Cactus Bowl.
And UCLA played the game with their newly-hired coach Chip Kelly watching from a stadium suite. The lame-duck coaching staff on the Bruins’ sideline was no match for Bill Snyder’s second-half adjustments, as they took a 17-7 lead into halftime only to suffer a 35-17 defeat.
But with Rosen unlikely to return to UCLA next season, isn’t it the best thing he can do to let the guys who will return hog the tape? It is a win-win scenario, not a selfish bail.
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Most importantly, it is doubtful that Rosen’s teammates feel slighted by the decision.
Does the backup feel hurt by the fact that the starter has left him to have to take the reins? Are his teammates upset that the backup will have to play?
Or is the backup wildly excited that the starter’s sitting and stoked that he gets to play in the last game? And don’t the teammates actually love to see the backup–who is their teammate just as much as the starter is–get to play in the last game?
It was reported that McCaffrey was given an ovation when he addressed the rest of the team and told them his plans.
LSU’s interim coach Ed Orgeron had just had his interim tag removed, and was surely grateful to be given a glimpse of his next year’s talent in the season finale.
Other bowls may always be just an exhibition, but with departing players sitting out, they can still be meaningful.