Archie Manning and the 1970 Sugar Bowl trophy.
Photo courtesy the University of Mississippi.
Well, another college football season has come to a close. Now I wish to propose a topic for discussion: What does the future hold for the sport that I have loved since I was a child?
The inspiration for this editorial began on New Year’s Eve. As I settled down to watch a plethora of contests, the focus of the games was less on who was playing and more on who was not present to compete.
So many commenters were talking about who “opted out” of the game. Most were the best performers from each roster. The bowl games sometimes looked like the end of a scrimmage when the reserves got a chance to get their uniforms dirty.
At one point I picked up my iPad and began to type my manifesto about the current state of college football.
My Facebook post
“I’ve gotten so tired of the media saying college football players are ‘opting out to prepare for the NFL draft’ in skipping bowl games. To me, they are quitting on their teams that got them to this point.
“Are there consequences? Is their scholarship immediately pulled? Do they have to pay back tuition and books? I do not know.
“I was glad to see the topic discussed during Saturday’s episode of ESPN’s ‘College GameDay,’ when analyst Kirk Herbstreit claimed the modern era of college football players ‘just doesn’t love football.’ MSU’s Mike Leach expressed similar comments earlier this week as the Bulldogs were missing several starters.
“What will these players do to prepare for the draft? Lift weights, run and study game films? Is that any different than practice with their teammates?
“Maybe I’m just getting old, but I think it is a sad trend. I wonder if these defections affect NFL general managers who must decide who to pick for their teams. Does loyalty mean anything today?”
Some feel the same
I immediately got responses. Many expressed opinions similar to mine:
“100% agree. That and the transfer portal have made a havoc out of my bowl picks. There should be an agreement right along with scholarships about that.”
“100% agree. Players forget what school allowed them to get the opportunity to possibly play in the NFL! Miss State players who opted out … they lost my support!”
“Mark, I agree with everything you said. It totally has continued to irritate me to no end. I also don’t agree with all these transfers from one school to another. I absolutely believe it should be stopped. The opting out is the most selfish thing a player does to his team. It is always the one the team depends on the most. Just a self-righteous jerk.”
A difficult decision
But then, I began to get other responses. They show why this topic is so controversial:
“Mark, good points, but the other side of the story should be respected. From a player’s perspective, if you’re targeted for the first round, the bowl game comes with risks. Tyler Linderbaum, the All-American center for Iowa, is a projected first-rounder. He got injured in the fourth quarter today. It’s a brutal sport. I can understand why players are cautious. Also, this is another of many examples as to why, IMO, the bowl structure needs replacement with a tournament.”
“Just saying that when guys who make millions to coach amateur athletes — guys who even get millions when they’re fired for failing — are complaining about the loss of purity and love of the game, perhaps it is clear evidence they have no mirrors in their home. How often do these coaches bail on their teams before playoffs and bowls so they can go somewhere else and make millions? Maybe the players have learned the ‘business’ approach from the ridiculously overpaid coaches.”
“When coaches stop leaving schools for other jobs before bowl games, maybe then I’ll get irritated at players opting out.”
How it began
It was not that long ago that no one could have foreseen a star player not appearing in a bowl game. What better way to show off to NFL scouts?
Then things began to change in 2016. LSU’s Leonard Fournette skipped the Citrus Bowl while Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey bypassed the Sun Bowl. How did the NFL react? Fournette was the fourth overall pick and McCaffrey was taken with the eighth pick. Both have gone on to be NFL superstars.
Many of this year’s players who are expected to be high draft choices followed a similar pattern and left early.
But then there was my alma mater, the University of Mississippi. Not a single player opted out of the Sugar Bowl. Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, who was among the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy, proudly said the thought of not finishing the season never crossed his mind.
So what happened? Corral got injured running the ball in the first quarter. Fortunately, X-rays revealed no serious damage; he would be available for the NFL draft.
But what if the injury was so severe that he was not drafted? Would it have been worth it to play in an “exhibition” match?
I will never forget my first college football game when I grew up on the Mississippi Coast. My father was given tickets to the 1970 Sugar Bowl. However, we were unsure if he would be able to attend.
This was the junior year of the legendary Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning. My mother grabbed those tickets, dressed me in red-and-blue attire and we headed down U.S. 90 for New Orleans. This was only a few months after Hurricane Camille, so even finding an operational gas station was an obstacle.
We did make it to old Tulane Stadium on a sunny New Year’s Day. The underdog Rebels upset Arkansas. The pageantry instantly hooked me.
But what comes next for college football? The transfer portal and NIL (name, image and likeness) agreements have certainly changed the scene. It reminds me of a joke by Jerry Seinfeld about professional sports — you really cheer for the uniform, because you never know who the players will be from week to week.
I always felt the college version of football was superior to the professional leagues. There was more of an emotional link to your alma mater after having invested so much of your youth at the institution.
Will I continue to watch college football? Of course, I will.
Will I have the same enthusiasm as that young boy who still has his treasured souvenir Sugar Bowl pennant? Only time will tell.
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