As Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral emerged on crutches from a tunnel in the Caesars Superdome and headed toward his team’s sideline during the second quarter of the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day, the contingent of Ole Miss fans in attendance in unison rose to their feet and gave the senior a standing ovation.
In the first quarter, Corral’s collegiate career ended when his right ankle rolled underneath him as he was tackled by a Baylor defender. Corral, visibly somber, was later carted off the field and taken to the locker room.
Leading up to the 2021 bowl season, Corral – who is projected by some to be a first-round selection during the 2022 NFL Draft – was frequently pointed to as an example by talking heads and fans who grew increasingly bothered by players who opted out of their team’s bowl games in an attempt to avoid injuries that could impact their draft position and earning potential.
Before the Sugar Bowl, Corral said it was a duty to his teammates to play in the contest following a 10-win regular season.
“I think this era of players doesn’t love football,” ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said earlier that day during a broadcast of College GameDay.
The opt-out trend has become increasingly popular over the years as NFL-bound athletes weigh the risk-reward factor of playing in many of the bowls. The trend hasn’t yet impacted the College Football Playoff, where four teams compete in an elimination-style tournament for the national championship.
Opt outs, however, spilled into New Year’s Six bowls this season.
Pitt and Michigan State received bids to the Peach Bowl after both programs turned in one of their best seasons in recent memory, thanks to dynamic efforts by Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett and Spartans running back Kenneth Walker III. Pickett is projected to be a first-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, while Walker is projected to be taken in the second round, according to a mock draft by USA Today’s Luke Easterling.
Neither Pickett nor Walker played in the Peach Bowl.
Ohio State was without stars Garett Wilson (wide receiver), Chris Olave (wide receiver) and Haskell Garrett (defensive tackle) in the Rose Bowl. Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton opted out of the Fiesta Bowl.
“We’re dealing with a totally different mentality when we’re dealing with these student-athletes nowadays, especially the football players,” said Desmond Howard, ESPN college football analyst and College GameDay co-host. “Their whole mentality right now is about the championship, the playoff. … And because of that, they don’t value the bowl games. Now when we were coming up – Herbstreit and myself – to go to a bowl game was a huge reward for a fantastic season. That’s what it meant.”
Penn State’s defense looked vastly different for its Outback Bowl contest against Arkansas than it did in its regular-season finale. The Nittany Lions were without starters at defensive tackle, defensive end, safety and at two linebacker spots. Offensively, Penn State was without its most dynamic player in wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who many expect to go in the early rounds of the upcoming NFL Draft.
After the defensive opt outs, Penn State fielded nearly half of a new unit against the Razorbacks.
“I think that’s one of the things that me and (Arkansas) coach (Sam Pittman) were talking about the other day,” Penn State coach James Franklin said when asked about preparing a team to play after opt outs. “I’ve been a head coach – I’ve been fortunate enough to be a head coach for 12 years. Have never had an opt-out in all of my 12 years. They’ve had a little bit of it. We’ve had more. It’s challenging.”
The bowl system has 44 bowl games, making 88 teams eligible to participate in the offseason. The 2014-15 season brought forth the creation of the College Football Playoff. Five bowl games have since been added to the postseason schedule.
Former Michigan tight end Jake Butt was the poster child for the reason for college players to opt out of bowls when he tore his ACL in the 2016 Orange Bowl. Butt’s decision to play wound up costing him millions of dollars, as he slipped from a potential first- or second-round pick to a fifth-round selection of the Denver Broncos in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Butt understands why today’s players are making more careful choices when it comes to playing in bowl games.
“Guys aren’t sitting out because they don’t love the game of football,” Butt said. “That’s not the case. You wouldn’t be in that position if you didn’t love the game of football.
“People have got to understand, I always knew there was life after football. My mom wasn’t going to get her lights turned off, or she didn’t have to worry about making rent. That’s the reality for a lot of people. So if you come from that situation, you have an opportunity to guarantee yourself five, 10, 15 million dollars, do what’s best for you. Surround yourself with the right people, gather all the possible information that you can.”
Alabama safety Jordan Battle, a junior All-American and projected third-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft, echoed Butt’s sentiments. Battle chose to play in the BCS title game in Indianapolis on Monday for a chance to win a national championship. His Alabama teammate, projected first-round pick and standout wide receiver Jameson Williams, suffered a torn ACL in the first half of the national title game against Georgia.
“I don’t think that’s, like, anything to judge,” Battle said. “It’s that player’s option to opt out or do what they want. That’s on them. If they choose to opt out, that’s what they do. They want to opt out and do what they have to do to get ready for the next level, that’s on them. That’s fully their decision.”
As for quitting on teammates, Butt said loyalty was thrown out the window when coaches started leaving for more lucrative jobs before the start of the postseason in December.
“We talk about loyalty, Brian Kelly, you know, Notre Dame – had Alabama lost (the SEC championship game), Notre Dame might have been in the playoffs, and he left down south (for LSU) for $100 million,” Butt said. “So we can’t hold a 20-, 21-year-old kid to a higher standard than we do a $100 million head coach.”
One potential solution would be to expand the College Football Playoff from four teams to create a chance for more players to play for a national title. But talks of CFP expansion from four to 12 teams stalled this week in Indianapolis due to a myriad of stumbling blocks. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Monday those issues won’t be easily resolved.
“We’re in a nine-overtime contest, and none of us can accomplish a 2-point conversion right now,” Sankey said.
The SEC, which had 13 of its 14 teams bowl eligible in 2021, had a number of players sit out to protect their draft status. With minimum contracts for NFL first-year players making a 62% jump since 2015, there is reason for caution.
“Expanding the playoff is not the panacea for all that ails us,” Sankey said. “What am I hearing, I’m going to a Texas Bowl with (Missouri having) 36 scholarship players. Opt outs, injuries, transfer, NFL, Omicron, eligibility, there are any number of issues.
“I have not immersed myself into solutions yet because I’m still focused on moving through, but I had two conversations today with non-New Year’s Six bowl leaders about you are going to have to think differently.”
KEVIN BROCKWAY covers sports in Indiana for CNHI while ELTON HAYES covers Penn State sports for CNHI. Follow Brockway on Twitter @KevinBrockwayCNHIIndiana and follow Hayes on Twitter @EHDC12.