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BY CHRISTIAN CRITTENDEN
Have you heard the news? According to the folks who give the Jim Thorpe award to the top defensive back in college football each season, Georgia’s Deandre Baker is peerless. His team is slated to meet Texas on New Year’s Day in New Orleans during the Sugar Bowl, but guess who won’t be there?
Yep, Baker. Since he is projected as a high NFL draft pick next spring, he is continuing a trend in recent years by skipping his team’s bowl in an effort to avoid a possible injury and to prepare for his pro career.
There’s nothing wrong with Baker’s decision for a lot of reasons.
For one, as you’ve determined by now, it’s bowl season, which at one point meant a lot for the majority of teams finishing among the top 25.
Even when those teams didn’t reach whatever bowl for that particular season was designated for the national championship, they still used bowl games as a chance to end their campaign on a high note. They also evaluated themselves against foes from other conferences to see where they needed to improve.
That said, we’re beginning the fifth season of the College Football Playoff (CFP) featuring four teams playing semifinal games in two of the traditionally huge bowls (Rose, Orange, Sugar and Fiesta) before the winners travel to another bowl for the championship game.
As a result, those other bowl games (you know, the ones you’ve barely or never heard of) are suddenly a waste of time for teams that don’t make the CFP.
Take schools such as Georgia and Michigan, both with playoff aspirations down the stretch of the regular season and both falling short of the playoffs. Two days before Georgia takes the field at the Sugar Bowl with Baker only watching, Michigan will go against Florida in the Peach Bowl. Neither of those bowls is close in prestige this year to the Cotton or the Orange bowls, the venues for this year’s CFP semifinal sites for Notre Dame-Clemson and Alabama-Oklahoma respectively.
So, since the overwhelming majority of the 40 bowls don’t matter, why is it such a big deal when high profile players with NFL careers ahead of them decide to sit out of a bowl game? What does a player who is set to make millions of dollars in a few months have to gain from a meaningless game?
I’ll tell you . . . absolutely nothing.
A trend that began with Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey two years ago has continued with Baker, and it will only get “worse” depending on who you ask. But if you ask those who get it, they’ll tell you there is nothing wrong with players deciding to do the right thing by looking out for themselves in this situation.
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith didn’t follow the lead of Fournette and McCaffrey, and the results weren’t good. During the 2016 Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, Smith suffered ACL and MCL tears in his knee. The damage was so bad at the time that it wasn’t known if Smith would ever play again. He went from a top-five lock in the NFL draft to a second-round pick for the Dallas Cowboys, and the whole scenario cost him millions of dollars.
The following year, former Michigan tight end Jake Butt suffered a torn ACL against Florida State in the Orange Bowl. That was the second such injury for Butt in his collegiate career. He was drafted in the fifth round by the Denver Broncos when he was projected to go higher before the injury.
Still, fans head the list of folks who get upset when players sit out of bowl games, and that’s understandable. Those fans want to see the best of the best in action, either to help their team or just to see top completion. None of that should matter to these players, though, and it hasn’t. In addition to Baker, Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Houston’s Ed Oliver, LSU’s Greedy Williams and Michigan’s Devin Bush are among those who won’t participate in postseason play. Bosa hasn’t played since early in the season due to injury, and he decided to shut down his Ohio State career early. But the other three players made their decisions after the season.
These decisions can benefit both the program and the players. You already know the obvious: The players have a chance to avoid injury while preparing for the draft. As for the teams, they can take advantage of the NCAA’s new redshirt rule, which allows student-athletes to play in four games and maintain redshirt status. That gives freshmen a chance to get more reps in bowl practices and games.
Now, if you really want to prevent players from sitting out, the CFP committee could expand the current format to eight teams or more.
Then again, that would open a door that may best be left closed.
Christian Crittenden is a junior at Georgia State University majoring in journalism and minoring in marketing. He is a staff writer for The Signal, where he is the women's basketball beat writer. When he isn't working or writing, he's playing basketball and football. @chris_critt