When Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl CEO and President Gary Stokan looks at the ever-increasing numbers of players opting to skip non-playoff bowls to save themselves for the NFL, he looks at the issue from three angles.
There’s the older-guy viewpoint (wherever you care to put 63 on the scale): “I was brought up in a generation where you’d never leave your team,” he said.
There’s the pragmatist’s view: “You sign with Florida or Michigan, you’re going to have a shot at possibly playing in the NFL. Now, with so much money in the NFL I can fully understand and respect a player’s decision to want to move forward with their life’s work and make potentially life-changing money.”
Then there’s the cultural anthropologist’s view. The view of someone taking a step back and watching everything speed up for the young footballer. High school kids sign earlier, they enroll in college earlier, and they try to leave college quicker. Who know where it goes from here? “I think, I may be wrong, but in a couple years you’re going to see a high school kids that are going to sign at a major university, they’re going to commit before a season starts and say you know what I’m fine, I don’t need to play my senior year of high school. I’m going to work out so when I get to school at mid-year I’ll be really ready for spring ball so I can start my freshman year.”
In Saturday’s Peach Bowl matchup between Michigan and Florida, the Wolverines will be missing two players – leading running back and team captain Karan Higdon, and potential first-round pick defensive end Rashan Gary – who are protecting themselves for the draft. Two others – All American linebacker Devin Bush and tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty – have taken themselves out with injury issues. No Florida players are skipping the game.
What’s a coach to do but to answer this issue in the most understanding way, because there are some forces you just can’t fight and stay relevant in the eyes of this generation of player?
“We respect that it’s their decision to make. We don’t push anybody in the back to go play football,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Friday. “I think I’ve grown in terms of respecting people when I don’t agree with what they’re decision is.”
It was just two seasons ago that running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey became trend-setters and newsmakers, announcing they would skip their bowl games. The number of those opting out this season has reached into double figures, including the likes of Georgia defensive back Deandre Baker and West Virginia quarterback Will Grier. Unlike the stock market, these numbers are likely to only go up.
Not all players are created equal, and the Peach Bowl stands as a helpful classroom for studying both sides of a difficult decision.
Michigan senior defensive end Chase Winovich is delaying an unspecified surgery to finish with his team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Florida junior defensive back Chauncy Gardner-Johnson, who has declared for the NFL draft, will remain a Gator through the Peach Bowl.
“I came in early and the guys that came in with me, they’re still playing,” Gardner-Johnson told Gatorsports.com. “Even if it was like a lower-level game, not a New Year’s Six bowl, I still was going to play with my team.
“I started something with them. It’s out of respect given to me and all the respect given to them. We worked hard together, so it’s something that I value. I’m not going to give up on nobody. I started something, I’m going to finish it.”
As coaches can leave before bowl games to take another job, it’s only right that players share at least that much freedom of movement. There is no strong right-wrong line to draw here. Players skipping games is just another symptom of how the shift to a playoff system has devalued all the other bowls, even a New Year’s Six game such as the Peach Bowl. The once unthinkable act of blowing off a bowl game is becoming increasingly common place, soon to be a reflex action for players of a certain caliber.
So, we salute those who chose to honor the bonds of team, and keep all fingers crossed they make it through one more game undamaged.
And we take a moment to feel sorry for ourselves for a lost chance to enjoy some special talent showing out for one last college game. But, somehow, the game still will go on without them.
At least players who opt out shouldn’t be a Peach Bowl topic next season, when it’s a playoff semifinal. If that is an issue, then the whole sport has tipped off its axis.