Top players have little to gain and a lot to lose in bowl games. While bowl organizers and schools want to see their star players competing in their final collegiate games, the only benefit to top players is an emotional one of finishing out their collegiate career with their teammates.
In the last few days, Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Leonard Fournette of LSU announced that they would be sitting out their teams’ bowl games and instead focusing their attention on the upcoming NFL Draft.
It is hard to argument with the decision. Both lost time this season with injuries and another setback would severely hamper their abilities to perform at February’s NFL combine in Indianapolis. Both are considered potential first round picks and the deciding factor could come down to how well they perform there.
Many are starting to ask is this the new trend in college football? Well, for top prospects, it should be. McCaffrey and Fournette have little to gain from participating in the bowl games. Neither is playing for a national championship that will leave a lasting legacy. Stanford is playing North Carolina in the Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso while LSU is set to play Louisville in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. Will anyone care if either sets a bowl rushing record? Probably not. So, other than to sell extra tickets for the schools and the bowls, what is the benefit? The players will likely get their "bowl swag" anyway. Fans already know who the players are too, so exposure is not really an issue. It is not like players are getting an appearance fee (although some enterprising individuals may find an opportunity to cash in on it). Unlike Donnell Pumphrey of San Diego State who played in the Las Vegas Bowl to break the all-time NCAA rushing record, there really is no tangible gain from playing other than the emotional benefit of suiting up for your school one last time.
Now let’s look at the risks. A bad performance in their last game is probably not a big factor. They have a body of work they have amassed over the years, so one game is not a factor. A major injury in a bowl game, though, could cost millions of dollars from seeing first round value drop even one round in the draft. A drop from a top 10 pick to the second round can even be worth $10-20 million over the life of their rookie contract.
So, what does a player do when they by-pass the bowl to “prepare for the NFL Draft?” First, the players need to get healthy. Over the course of a season, it is not just the major injuries but also the bumps and bruises each week that accumulate. Secondly, the grind of six days a week of working out fatigue the body and 2-3 weeks of extra rest probably do wonders. Physical therapy sessions are helpful to building up muscles and joints around injuries and creating the stability to be make it through the NFL Draft process. If a player lost time due to injury too, it is not uncommon to want to build up conditioning too to get back into shape for the draft workouts – it takes a different level of conditioning for draft workouts than it does for games where a player might see more down time per 30 minute increment. If a player will be participating in a post-season “all star” game, means that the player will be under the microscope as soon as mid-January instead of the customary late February combine. This forces players to accelerate their preparations to be close to peak conditions at a time when they have an opportunity to maximize their exposure opportunities. As the college all-star games, pro scouts have a chance to watch players perform daily over the course of the week, so it gives a unique opportunity for players to make an impression.
Lastly, the NFL Combine in Indianapolis and campus pro days are the big prize. A good performance in a 40 yard dash or other drills can really vault a player into consideration. A poor performance by a top player is usually not fatal to their prospects, but it could hurt their “draft stock.” It usually takes a well-structured 6-8 weeks to reach peak levels, so given the timeline for most top athletes, skipping the bowl game is as much about suring up their timelines as anything. A setback of even a week can really hurt the draft process for these prospects. Expect to see more and more players starting to take this route in the future.