Mike Bianchi: If FSU and other college stars are getting paid, then they should play in bowl games

With apologies to the the legendary Simon & Garfunkel and their iconic song Mrs. Robinson:

“Where have you gone, Charlie Wysocki?

A college football nation turns its lonely eyes to you — woo, woo, woo.”

As I sat in the press box for the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl matchup Monday between Iowa and Tennessee, I thought back to the first bowl game I ever attended in this same stadium more than four decades ago. I was a wide-eyed teenager as I excitedly watched the Charley Pell-coached Florida Gators play the Jerry Claiborne-coached Maryland Terrapins in the 1980 Tangerine Bowl. I don’t remember a whole lot about the game except that both teams were giddy to be playing in a second-tier bowl game a week before Christmas.

And even though Florida won 35-20, the star of the game was a Maryland running back by the name of Charlie Wysocki — an NFL prospect who ran the ball 39 times for a Tangerine Bowl record 159 yards.

Sadly, in today’s world, Wysocki would have either opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft or would have already entered the transfer portal in order to accept a larger financial offer at a more traditional college football powerhouse.

Which brings us to this year’s Citrus Bowl on a cool, sunny, honey of a New Year’s Day at Camping World Stadium, where coach Josh Heupel’s Vols destroyed Iowa 35-0 in a game that, quite frankly, had no juice or intrigue. Part of the reason, of course, is because Iowa’s offense is historically incompetent. A bigger reason is that it was played on the same day as the two College Football Playoff semifinals. But the biggest reason of all is because bowl games are rapidly turning into glorified pre-spring scrimmages where coaches are playing backups and benchwarmers.

God bless the announced crowd of 43,861 — the second-lowest attendance since Camping World Stadium was expanded 33 years ago — that showed up on Monday to watch the Vols post the first Citrus Bowl shutout since 1965, but there’s no denying that bowl crowds in general are shrinking and shriveling like a deflating New Year’s Eve balloon.

Bowl attendance will be even worse next year when the 12-team playoff is implemented, especially because fans are becoming more and more disgruntled with players whom they feel are disloyal. Give Tennessee credit for blowing out Iowa despite playing without starting quarterback Joe Milton, starting running back Jaylen Wright (both NFL opt-outs) and a dozen other players who either opted-out or entered the transfer portal.

“I wish I had a silver bullet where I could change it, but I don’t,” erstwhile UCF coach Heupel said before the game.

Added Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz: “We, the adults, have done a lot to really screw this thing up. … We need to have a summit and really basically blow up everything and try to start over again.”

College football’s leaders — or lack thereof — should be ashamed at how they are ripping off their fans by putting an inferior product on the field for these seemingly “major” bowl games. Imagine all of those Florida State fans who spent thousands of dollars for tickets, travel and hotel rooms at the Orange Bowl only to find out that all of their star players had opted out and they would have to sit through the embarrassment of their jayvee team getting resoundingly seal-clubbed 63-3 by SEC powerhouse Georgia.

It’s disgraceful that Florida State’s star players, many of whom were likely being paid six-figure NIL deals, are permitted to abandon their undefeated team before the bowl game. It seems obvious that the fans and boosters who are funding these NIL collectives with their donations are getting royally ripped off.

I understand NFL-bound college players not wanting to risk injury by playing in a bowl game, but if they are being paid to play in college, then they need to play in EVERY game if healthy. If they don’t, their NIL deals should be structured so that they have to pay back a large chunk of money if they choose not to play in a bowl.

Think about it: If a player has to either play in a bowl game or write a $200,000 NIL refund check to opt out of the bowl, then isn’t he more likely to play in the game?

College football bureaucrats act as if their problems are so complex and unsolvable when really they’re not. It seems to be the consensus that college programs will soon be paying players directly. If and when that happens, then what’s so hard about putting a bowl-game stipulation in their employment contracts?

As for players entering the transfer portal and leaving their team before the bowl game has even been played, that, too, is easily remedied. Instead of opening the portal on Dec. 4, why not just open it in the first week of January?

Boom. Problem solved. How hard was that?

If college football is going to sell high-priced bowl tickets, then they need to make sure fans are getting their money’s worth. Otherwise, just admit that bowl games are really just a way to satisfy ESPN’s thirst for highly rated live sports programming. Believe it or not, more than 10 million viewers watched Georgia’s 60-point rout of FSU — the largest TV audience for the Orange Bowl since 2017.

More and more, bowl games are just becoming ESPN studio shows. If that’s the case, then why even hold these games in cities like Orlando and Tampa? Why doesn’t ESPN just build a football field at their studio headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, and fly the bowl teams up, let them play in front of a virtual A.I.-generated crowd and be done with it?

Where have you gone, Charlie Wysocki?

A college football nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Boo, hoo, hoo.