With news coming on Friday that Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith will opt out of the Outback Bowl, forego his senior season, and begin preparation for the NFL Draft, the debates began on the message boards: should football players opt out of bowl games?
I don’t have any hard and fast rule for this question, merely some thoughts and considerations.
What’s the Purpose for a Football Player in Going to College?
We need to be honest with ourselves when discussing college football. Unlike a lot of other leagues, there is no developmental league for the NFL. No farm teams where younger, less proven players can hone their skills and work their way up the pecking order until they get to the big leagues.
The NFL also doesn’t allow 18-year-olds to head straight into the Draft, instead requiring players to have been out of high school for at least 3 years, creating a 3-year gap where players cannot go pro, and cannot spend time in a developmental league.
The solution is college football, where players can fill that void, hone their skills, and ostensibly get a college degree to boot.
But the reality is the best players are only heading to college because they don’t have (many) other options. The cream of the crop want to play professional football, and have no choice but to take the 3-year detour at State Tech University. For these players, they’re going to declare for the draft as soon as their probationary period is up. From a player’s perspective, some would never have gone to college if it weren’t a virtual requirement on the way to the NFL.
What’s the Purpose of Playing a Bowl Game?
Again, think of this from a player’s perspective. Your final season in your 3-year probation is done, and you can either a) play in a bowl game and add one more game of film for the NFL scouts, or you can b) sit out and avoid any injury risk.
The pros of a non-playoff bowl game are a unique venue and opponent, lots of swag, and at least one more chance to suit up with your teammates.
The cons include another game of potential injury.
How do you weigh those options, especially if rumblings are that you are a fairly highly draft-able player? On the one hand you have your teammates that you’ve suited up with for at least 3 years, perhaps a fairly magical New Year’s Six Bowl type season (which don’t come along every day), and maybe a chance for your family and friends to watch you at the collegiate level one more time.
On the other hand, if you think you’ll be making millions of dollars in less than 6 months, would you risk blowing out your knee for a game that is ultimately meaningless? I cant’ say, but that’s a tough call no matter which way you slice it.
What’s the Purpose of Any College Football Season?
This one is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but let’s think about any college football season. The first goal is a national championship. Since only undefeated or one-loss teams can make the playoffs as they stand now, as soon as a team suffers a second loss, there isn’t as much to play for.
The next step would be conference championships, which again, don’t come along every day. 2-, 3-, 4-loss teams make their conference championship games all the time, and if that’s a sizable aspiration for you - bearing in mind that Power 5 conference champions usually have auto-bids to various New Year’s Six Bowls - then perhaps you stick it out to see how the rest of the season plays out.
But what about when your team is eliminated from conference championship contention? Or is no longer bowl eligible? If you’re a star player on a sinking ship, do you lower the life boat and float away on your own? Or do you go down with the ship?
Everyone’s answer to that question is personal, but the reality is a LOT of any given college football season is “meaningless.” Some things have more meaning to some people, but then everyone has different outlooks, perspectives, and values. How do you decide what’s most important to you?
As I said earlier, there is no right or wrong answer for this question. It’s very much a question that dabbles in shades of gray, and almost everyone is going to have different opinions. But just a few of these things to consider shed light on the fairly difficult decision that college football players have to make, let alone the hundreds of other variables that affect each player on a personal level.
It’s not a decision I’d want to make, especially publicly.