A strange phenomenon has taken over college football for the 2016 bowl season. Star players projected to be drafted in the first round are deciding to sit out of their team’s bowl game to prepare for the combine. With the introduction of the four-team playoff system last season, the rest of the bowl games are merely another chance for fans to cheer on their favorite teams and for advertisers to capitalize on that fandom. The college football playoffs are here to stay (at least until 2025), which means the trend of star players sitting out of bowl games will become more common in years to come.
The idea of skipping a bowl game to train for the NFL Scouting Combine was unheard of until this season. Considering the criteria a player is graded on in the combine, it’s easy to see on the surface why training specifically for those events is important. In the end, however, the goal is to still play football. It’s great to be the fastest person in the cone drill, but there have been many players who were mediocre at the combine and went on to have very successful NFL careers. What the combine can do is improve (or hurt) a player’s draft stock. A strong combine performance could push someone from a high second round pick to a first round pick. Moving up in the draft has many benefits including a higher salary and signing bonus.
The turning point in player mentality to bowl games seems to have happened in last year’s Fiesta Bowl between Notre Dame and Ohio State. Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith was projected to be taken in the first five picks of the draft. Smith injured his knee on a routine play and left the game. He had a torn ACL, a torn LCL, and nerve damage in his knee. The doctors made it clear that Smith will miss the entire 2016 NFL season and may never play football again. Smith’s draft stock plummeted from a top five pick to a second round pick. He was eventually selected as the third pick in the second round (34th overall) by the Dallas Cowboys. Smith’s four-year contract is worth $6.5M with $4.5M guaranteed to him. Had he been selected in the top five spots of the draft, he would have earned a four-year contract worth a guaranteed $23.5M.
The Fiesta Bowl was essentially an exhibition between two very talented teams with nationwide fan bases. There were no bonuses for the players who won, and there was no next step towards a national championship. For stars like Stanford’s Christian McCaffery and LSU’s Leonard Fournette, playing in that sort of game this season is not worth the potential loss of millions of dollars. McCaffery and Fournette are just two of the many players option to sit out of their bowl games. Both players are on teams with tough bowl matchups. LSU will face Louisville and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson. Stanford will try to stop North Carolina’s high powered passing attack led by Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky is a projected first-round draft pick who has elected to play in the bowl game.
The last thing any college football player wants to do is leave his team down. A football team is a brotherhood, and many lifelong friendships are formed on the gridiron. These players who are sitting out their bowl games are not doing it to spite anyone. I’d imagine the majority of them feel guilty for not playing that last game with their brothers. It’s just a risk they are not willing to take. At the end of the day, exhibition bowl games provide star players with little to gain and millions of dollars to lose.