To Bowl or Not to Bowl

I asked former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, in 2011, about the importance of bowl games. I wanted his opinion on whether bowls, other than the national championship, really mattered to teams. Carr could probably tell from my phrasing that I was skeptical.

“You’re darn right they matter,” he told me, reminding me that there’s a scoreboard in the stadium so you might as well try to win. He said it helped recruiting and gave the program momentum heading into the next season. Bowl games mattered; they were important.

You wouldn’t know it this season. At least three high-profile players, all running backs—juniors Christian McCaffrey (Stanford) and Leonard Fournette (LSU), and Baylor senior Shock Linwood—are skipping their bowl game to focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.

Fournette and McCaffrey, two likely first-round picks, both missed games because of injuries this season. While injuries were not mentioned in Stanford’s announcement of McCaffrey’s decision, LSU’s said that Fournette “continues to rehabilitate an ankle injury that has lingered for most of the season.”

Would these players be sitting out if their teams had made the playoffs? Alabama coach Nick Saban implied they would not. “All anybody talks about is the playoff,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday. “We have a whole bunch of other bowl games that people don’t think are all that important. So if you don’t think it’s important, all of a sudden the players don’t think it’s important. So you can’t really blame the players.”

While this doesn’t prove anything, so far no players have said they will voluntarily skip either playoff game: the Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Clemson and the Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Washington.

In theory, bowl placement should not matter. If LSU had a shot a winning it all, it still wouldn’t change Fournette’s health. The risk of injury would only increase for a player appearing in not just a semifinal but also a potential national championship after that. That being said, I just can’t imagine these players making the same decision if they were in the playoffs.

I won’t rip these kids, but their way of thinking is confusing. If the lure of NFL money is all that matters, Fournette may have been wise to sit out this entire season. Or—and I realize this sounds absurd—he could have focused on individual training as soon as he was named the No. 1 prospect coming out of high school. I’m wondering how McCaffrey’s 30 carries in Stanford’s regular season finale against Rice improved his draft stock. Why suit up then but not in the bowl game?

Professional sports drafts are so much about potential and upside. Former NBA player Jason Kapono once joked that he would have been a lottery pick if he’d left college after one year, moved overseas, and changed his name to Kaponovich. When less is known about you, teams can fantasize about how good you might be.

Many former players are criticizing McCaffrey, Fournette, and Linwood. Plenty of current players have been asked about them, and the consensus is that they understand the decision but wouldn’t make the same choice. For the time being, most players still agree with Lloyd Carr.

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