Christian McCaffrey skipping Stanford's bowl game underlines point: Outside of the playoff, bowls just don't matter

Pat Forde

The adults involved in college football have known for a while now that bowl games are as meaningless as a verbal commitment from a 15-year-old.

Now the players are figuring it out, too.

With the decisions by running backs Leonard Fournette of LSU and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford to skip their last college football games in order to preserve their health for an NFL payday, the credibility of non-playoff bowls is in tatters. The games don’t matter, and the players’ decisions not to compete in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (Fournette) and Sun Bowl (McCaffrey) reinforce that fact.

With the advent of the College Football Playoff, the FBS postseason outside of three games is further diminished. The bowl execs and college administrators can toss out all the platitudes they want about the cherished bowl experience, but two of the biggest stars of the past three seasons aren’t buying it.

They see a bowl game that is more risk than reward.

Undoubtedly, these players, their families and their prospective agents watched Notre Dame star Jaylon Smith lose a fortune tearing up his knee in the Fiesta Bowl last year. Smith went from a likely top-five pick to the No. 34 overall pick in the draft last spring, and he’s yet to play for the Dallas Cowboys while recovering from that catastrophic injury. Albert Breer of estimated Monday that Smith lost $19 million in guaranteed money due to that injury.

Fournette and McCaffrey are avoiding any chance of a similar calamity in a game that serves little purpose other than providing lucrative holiday TV programming for networks and one last game for football-starved fans.

Christian McCaffrey started the season off as a Heisman contender. (AP)
Christian McCaffrey started the season off as a Heisman contender. (AP)

What they are doing is following the lead of countless coaches who left one job for the next, bypassing a bowl along the way. They figured it out a long time ago.

This bowl season, in fact, there are four teams operating with an interim coach because the old coach is long gone to the next gig. (A low number compared to many years, actually.)

Tom Herman left Houston for Texas before the Cougars appeared (and flopped) in the Las Vegas Bowl. Jeff Brohm left Western Kentucky for Purdue before the Hilltoppers’ appearance Tuesday in the Boca Raton Bowl. Matt Rhule departed Temple for Baylor before the Owls will play in the Military Bowl on Dec. 27. Willie Taggart said his goodbyes at South Florida and headed to Oregon before the Bulls will appear in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 29.

Contrast that with the decisions made by Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Fickell is the new coach at Cincinnati, but will remain with the Buckeyes as long as they are still alive in the College Football Playoff. Kiffin is the new coach at Florida Atlantic, but likewise will still be working for Nick Saban until the conclusion of Alabama’s playoff run.

Does that mean Fickell and Kiffin are more committed to their players than Herman, Brohm, Rhule and Taggart? Of course not. It means their teams are playing in more meaningful games.

I asked Fickell last week whether he would already be at Cincinnati if Ohio State had not made the Fiesta Bowl playoff semifinal and were in a lesser bowl instead.

“It would be different,” he admitted, without fully acknowledging the vast difference between Playoff and Not Playoff.

Another example: I’m willing to bet that Minnesota would never have dreamed of boycotting a playoff game the way it flirted with sitting out the Holiday Bowl last week.

All that said, it’s an unfortunate collegiate conclusion for Fournette and McCaffrey. Their decisions can be defensible and lamentable at the same time.

Those decisions come in conflict with a couple of long-held American sporting ideals: submerging self-interest in favor of what’s best for a team; and finishing what you started. We teach our kids those things from grade-school on – then they become disposable when dollars are involved.

The running backs are bailing on their teammates. And several of those teammates at both schools also are high-end NFL prospects who will suit up and play their bowl games. Are the pro careers of Fournette and McCaffrey more important than theirs? That’s the tacit message here.

(Situations like these are why reporters tend to roll their eyes at the epidemic of quotes from athletes about their “brothers” in the locker room. Brotherhood is fine and good, until it’s time to make a business decision.)

Secondly, this decision spurs speculation that college athletes may simply quit their teams whenever they deem it necessary to avoid injury risk and preserve draft status. Why wait until the bowl game? Why not walk away as soon as your team is out of playoff contention? Or whenever you feel so moved to begin your “draft prep”?

It’s a dicey situation with potentially huge ripple effects.

I’m blaming the college sports system at large more than these individual athletes. They were put in a difficult position and had to make a difficult decision.

It’s a decision that devalues their teams and devalues the bowl games that a lot of fans are paying a lot of money to go see. The Sun Bowl, bless its relatively pristine heart, lost significant heat and light Monday.

But this is the college football world that we live in. Despite the grandiose establishment characterization of bowl games as something special, the non-playoff ones have become just the opposite.

For coaches heading to another job, they’re an impediment to moving on and moving up professionally. And now elite players are figuring that out, too.