Skipping Bowl Games: Assessing the Arguments

West Virginia University QB Will Grier is the latest student-athlete to opt out of playing in their Bowl Game. Grier, who is a fringe first round pick (and my favorite value QB in the draft) and former Heisman candidate, will forgo playing in WVU’s Camping World Bowl game against Syracuse University. WVU will also be missing their star OT Yodney Cajuste, a likely first-round draft pick and All-Big 12 selection.  Both players are electing to sit out during their bowl game in order to focus on preparing for the draft.

Cajuste and Grier represent a growing trend of NFL-hopeful college players that are wanting to protect their body and begin focusing on their school’s pro-day or the NFL Combine by skipping their bowl games.  Other notable projected draft picks forgoing their bowl games are LSU CB Greedy Williams, Michigan DL Rashan Gary, N.C. State LB Germaine Pratt, SC WR Deebo Samuel, Iowa TE Noah Fant, ASU WR N’Keal Harry, OSU RB Justice Hill, and Minnesota OT Donnell Greene. All players are on scholarship with their respective teams and have confirmed to their program and to the media that they are electing to skip their teams final game of the season.

Earlier in the season, we saw the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, Ohio State DE Nick Bosa leave school after suffering an abdominal injury that required surgery. His decision was motivated by protecting his status as a projected top-five pick and preventing further injury to his body before the draft. The NFL’s first-round draft picks are given contracts that are nearly 70% guaranteed, and the top pick in the draft, which Bosa could very well be selected at, commands nearly $28M. It’s not hard to see with millions on the line, why protecting their investment is at the forefront of every elite student-athlete’s mind. But, there are some that argue that a student-athlete on scholarship is failing to live up to the contract signed with the school.

For an elite NCAA student-athlete like Bosa, a scholarship to a Division 1 (particularly a Power 5 conference) school provides their athletes with free education, housing, food program, professional athletic training, dietary supervision, education assistance, and the ability to showcase their talents to NFL scouts. On average, a four-year degree for in-state students costs ~$165,000 according to the college board. That is nearly $41,250 per year, and that number is almost doubled for an out-of-state student.

Social media has been starkly divided on the subject of skipping bowl games, and some analysts (including a few former players) suggest that skipping a bowl game after being on scholarship is a failure to live up to their end of the offer and a weak move. Suggesting that during the most important game of the year, a player sits out when the team arguably needs them most. A bowl game victory is a huge recruiting opportunity for teams and missing their most talented player(s) can jeopardize their chances at securing a win. In the case of WVU, they will be missing one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country in Will Grier. If West Virginia loses to a tough Syracuse team who beat a ranked N.C. State team and competed to the wire with then #3 Clemson, it would be easy to suggest that the absence of their star quarterback was the reason.

It could be argued, that Grier’s selection in the first two rounds of the draft is just as good a pitch for future QB recruits as a bowl win, if not better, and that goes for any position player that is electing to skip their bowl game for the draft. The ability to produce NFL players will always be a significant chip for programs to recruit elite talent.

Despite skipping bowl games being a recent phenomenon, there is a precedent for players concerned with jeopardizing their draft stock. Former Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith was projected to be a top-five selection before he suffered a torn LCL and ACL in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Smith decided even with surgery to skip his senior year and enter the NFL Draft, missing the combine and his pro day as he recovered from surgery. Smith was still drafted by the Cowboys in the second round but likely missed out on over $20M due to his injury.

Former Michigan TE Jake Butt tore his ACL during an Orange Bowl loss to Florida State University. Prior to his bowl game injury, Butt was expected to be an early second-day draft pick but instead was selected with the first pick in the sixth round by the Denver Broncos. Butt’s NFL career has been unremarkable to date, and during the 2018 campaign, he has only hauled in eight catches for 85 yards.

In a similar vein, former USC QB Matt Barkley (now with the Bills) has become a cautionary tale for top-tier athletes projected to be drafted in the first few rounds. Barkley elected to stay for his senior season at USC instead of entering the 2012 NFL draft, and during a game against UCLA separated his throwing shoulder. By staying the extra season Barkley missed out on being a first or second-round selection (likely drafted ahead of Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden) and instead was taken by the Eagles in the fourth round.

Ultimately, the saturation of Bowl Games and post-season events has depreciated the value of the modern era of bowl games. There are now 42 Bowl Games (including the BCS National Championship) and three all-star games that cater to college football.  That means 82 teams qualify for some form of playoff event.  When teams barely above .500 qualify for a post-season game, the integrity of college football’s bowl games is rightfully called into question. The league needs to accept, that in exchange for their advertising money and widespread product, their star athletes will continue to sit out of the less important bowl games (non-BCS Playoff games) more often. Although the trend is recent, I expect that more players will continue to skip these games. There is typically enough tape and advanced metrics taken through the season for scouts to develop an idea of how a college athlete will project in the NFL, and missing one game will not likely impact the draft stock of top athletes. The list of athletes below demonstrates that teams are not concerned with the character of an individual skipping a bowl game.  Most bowl games have lost their significance and just aren’t valuable enough for players to risk their future earnings over.

This, of course, would change, if players were financially compensated, but that’s another conversation altogether. Should they? Shouldn’t they? Isn’t a free education compensation enough?  Maybe it would get us another NCAA Football game, wouldn’t that be worth it alone?

Other Notable NFL Athletes to Skip Bowl Games Since 2016:

  • LSU RB Leonard Fornette skipped the Citrus Bowl (Top-10 NFL selection)
  • Stanford RB Christian McCaffery skipped the Sun Bowl (Top-10 NFL selection)
  • FSU S Derwin James skipped the Independence Bowl (First-round selection)
  • Texas S DeShon Elliot skipped the Texas Bowl (Sixth-round selection)
  • Texas OT Connor Williams skipped the Texas Bowl (Second-round selection)
  • Oregon RB Royce Freeman skipped the Las Vegas Bowl (Third-round selection)