Since the inception of the College Football Playoff, for many teams, the mentality has been playoff or bust. For the powerhouse college football programs such as Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Clemson, a season’s success is not measured by being 6-6 or better and making a bowl game, but being one of the four best teams in the nation and competing for a title. With the inception of the college football playoffs, the standard for the best teams in the nation changed from normally the two best-undefeated teams to four teams with the ability to have a loss. But, with the number of teams competing for a title increasing, the incentive for the best players on teams not in the playoffs to compete in other bowl games has decreased significantly. For instance, University of Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett and star wide receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave did not compete in the Rose Bowl for Ohio State against Utah. It has become a trend for projected first-round draft picks to sit out bowl games if they aren’t a part of the college football playoffs, which has caused a divide across the college football landscape. But, for the players, it is the right choice to sit out for their careers.
First, it is important to look at the consequences of possibly playing in a bowl game. This year was a great example through Matt Corral. Corral was a projected first-round pick from Ole Miss with potential to land within the top-10 picks or be the first quarterback taken in the 2022 draft. But, in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s day, Corral injured his leg within the first quarter after having an extremely unimpressive stat line of 2/6 passing for 10 yards and an interception. Many teams could have used Corral with earlier picks in next year’s draft, including Pittsburgh, Washington, and Carolina. But, his injury may disallow Corral to compete in the draft combine, team workouts, and could cause Corral to slide down the draft boards into the late first to second round, possibly later. Last year, Trevor Lawrence was the number one overall pick in the draft. Lawrence’s contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars was worth up to around $37 million. Kyle Trask, who was taken 64th in last year’s draft and the only quarterback taken in the second round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has a contract of four years (the same length as Lawrence), but only worth up to $5.3 million. Although Lawrence was the first overall pick, there still is almost a $32 million discrepancy between the two quarterback’s contracts. If Corral were to fall to the late second round, he could lose out on tens of millions of dollars just because he decided to play in the Sugar Bowl. For certain players who grew up with very little and have a massive opportunity to compete at a high level and cement themselves in the NFL, it wouldn’t come as a difficult decision to pass on one game and take the money they would get in the league.
The main argument which analysts such as Kirk Herbstreit have suggested as to why players should play in bowl games is because of their love for the game. If love for the game is such an issue for some players, why do they put their blood, sweat and tears into going to workouts all season, waking up early for classes and balance being a student and an athlete all season? Being a student-athlete at a major-level college is one of the most underappreciated parts of college sports. Students are willing to endure the hardships of being full-time students and athletes because of their love for the game. Practically every player who decides to opt-out of a bowl game is a projected first to third-round pick the upcoming year – meaning they have little to prove. Through their three-to-four-year careers, they have proven that they have what it takes to compete at the next level. Their “love for the game” is what motivates them to play at the next level. Very few first-round picks would risk playing in one more college game that doesn’t mean as much to them as playing hundreds more games at the professional level. The money is a motivating factor for sure, but the love for the game isn’t lost because a player skips the Pinstripe Bowl. Very few players should risk injuring themselves playing in a bowl game in college when tens of millions of dollars could be a reward instead.
Is there a solution to get more big-name players from opting out of bowl games? The answer varies from player to player, but the easiest way is to increase the size of the playoffs and include more of the new year’s six bowls to the slate. For instance, if the playoff this year was expanded to eight teams instead of four Notre Dame, Ohio State, Baylor, and Ole Miss get into the playoffs. Teams within the top-10 in the rankings tend to have the bigger names and the better NFL talents. The motivation to win the national championship causes many players to opt-in to bowl games in which they normally wouldn’t have. Increasing the field of teams would lessen the amount of high-talent players who would otherwise opt-out of the games, and overall viewership would increase for the new year’s six games as a whole. There will always be the Kenny Pickett-Esque players with outstanding talents but would fail to make the playoffs and sit out. It is not up to the NCAA to decide what players do after their time in college athletics is over – the NCAA can’t ban opting out of a bowl game to go to the NFL and to pursue a professional career.
At the end of the day, sports as a whole is a business. If a player sees that they can maximize their earnings in the NFL by skipping a bowl game, they are entitled to do so. Any person would take the opportunity to make tens of millions of dollars in general, even if it came with sacrifices. College football players are right to sit out, and the NCAA should expand the playoffs if they want less big-name talent sitting out bowl games.