Opting Out

This year's bowl season just doesn't feel the same

Good morning and happy New Year’s Eve everyone. I was going to talk about the upcoming bowl game matchups and go over Elo’s picks (and don’t worry, I’ll still share those), but as I sat down to write this, Florida is contesting the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma. Florida and Oklahoma, two historic powerhouses of college football, in the Cotton Bowl, a historic New Year’s Six bowl game.

Yet it feels muted. Kyle Trask, a Heisman finalist, is throwing to his backups in what would have been the biggest — or at least the most anticipated — game of the season for Florida a few years ago, outside of the SEC Championship. Trask’s top four receivers are out, along with many others, all of whom opted out for the NFL draft. It has, frankly, ruined the Cotton Bowl this year to not see the best product from two great teams on the field.

Yes, this is a crazy year. There’s COVID, there are shortened schedules, different redshirt rules, the list goes on. But it certainly feels like this trend of bowl-game opt-outs has been amplified in the past few seasons, even before the pandemic. And if there were any college football fans remaining — I was one of them — that were still ignorant to the fact that college football is, first and foremost, a business, they were rudely awakened this year when student-athletes were treated as essential employees of the university while their peers sheltered in place. The mass bowl-game exodus has been the final nail in the coffin.

I get it. There is a lot of money to be made in the NFL, and the difference between being a first-rounder and second-rounder can mean millions of dollars of guaranteed money. And with many of these bowl-games mostly being made-up ways to sell TV advertisements and tickets, I would probably skip the Duke’s Mayo Bowl too if I had a million-dollar paycheck banking on me not tearing my ACL. I’ll be on the couch, thanks.

But the Cotton Bowl? The Orange Bowl? Maybe it’s just the nostalgia, but it certainly feels like these games once mattered, but no longer do unless it’s their year to host a semifinal matchup.

The best college football players these days seem much more concerned with their potential net worth, draft-stock, or, dare I say, Instagram followers, than their team. With new NCAA rules coming that will allow players to monetize their name and likeness, and colleges hiring entire staffs dedicated to helping athletes build their “brand” and obtain sponsorships, it’s bound to get worse.

And let me briefly reiterate this point: it’s not the player’s fault. They are under immense pressure to make the best decision for their long-term career, and the current setup dis-incentivizes the best players from participating any longer than they have to at the collegiate level. If you’re not playing for a national championship, and your team no longer appears to have a shot at making the playoff, you can only hurt yourself and your stock.

And yes, it’s only a small group of college football’s elite players that are concerned with their draft stock in the first place and are opting-out. But these are inherently the best, most exciting players in the game. So if those are the guys we’re missing, then we’re missing the core elements that made those teams great and fun to watch throughout the year.

So where does it stop? Micah Parsons had standout seasons as a freshmen and sophomore, and opted out of his junior year. Previously, it was the senior season being forgone. His decision was made amidst the pandemic and looming cancellation of the Big Ten, so it was under special circumstances, but we will likely see more players ending their college football careers earlier and earlier. Will we start seeing breakout freshmen have one great season, and then rest up and wait for the draft?

Last, I wonder if the College Football Playoff is to blame at all. We thought that this system of a four-team playoff would bring a sense of urgency each week, and give hope to more teams for a chance to compete for a National Championship. However, after witnessing the unequal application of the criteria to different teams and conferences, it’s hard for most one-loss teams to have their hopes up, unless those one-loss teams are Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, or other benefit-of-the-doubt teams (this year, Notre Dame was on that list).

We’ve seen many undefeated teams and conference champions written off over the years, even though they were told that these things matter. If you are a Group of Five team, forget it. This leads to seasons going by the wayside after just one loss, maybe two, and the non-playoff bowl games supposedly being meaningless to players now.

Desmond Howard and Kirk Herbstreit summed up the issue with the current playoff system succinctly on College Gameday the other week.

“Games don’t matter” came up several times during that discussion. When you think about the NFL, the reason it’s so exciting is because of that wildcard race, and so many teams still mathematically being in it down to the wire. Now obviously you aren’t going to replicate that with 130 teams. A 2-4 Rutgers is never going to think they have a shot to play in the playoff. We can’t fix that. But we can get more teams invested for deeper into the regular season, and more of these bowl games mattering to players again.

There’s really only one way to make that happen, and it’s an unoriginal idea but the only one I can think will work given the landscape of college football. Expand the playoffs. At least eight games to guarantee six meaningful bowl games, plus a national championship game, every year. If players start opting out of the playoff games, then we’ve got bigger problems, and maybe this whole “amateurism” thing has run it’s course.

This Cotton Bowl is wrapping up, by the way, and Oklahoma has a 28-point lead going into the fourth. It appears that the Big-12 defenses are indeed legit this year, but you wonder what could have been if Trask recognized his starting wideouts.

Bowl Game Picks

We still have some bowl games left to play, so let’s look at the Elo picks. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, we discussed the NY6 games in detail there and went over some more advanced stats, so definitely check that out before placing any money on any of these games. Keep in mind that home-field advantage has been removed for all these games so you’re getting raw neutral-site win probabilities.

As you can see, there are some opportunities there for some outright picks.

So here’s to some (hopefully) more competitive bowl games in the next few days, or at least a competitive playoff.

Thanks to everyone for reading along and have a safe New Year and a good start to 2021. I’m excited with how Staturdays has grown despite this pandemic-ridden season, and can’t wait to bring you all even better content next year.

Talk soon.

— Kyle