As frustrating as bowl opt-outs are, they won't tarnish a victory
When the bowl matchups came out, Michigan State versus Pitt in the Peach Bowl was one of the most intriguing games. It pitted 2 of the country’s most prolific offensive players against each other, Kenneth Walker III and Kenny Pickett. And it provided a great opportunity for 2 of the country’s most surprising programs to end the season on a high note, with a New Year’s Six victory.
As the game approaches, though, a lot of that excitement is waning.
Walker and Pickett have both opted out and are ending their college careers to avoid injury and get ready for the NFL Draft. The architect of one of the country’s top offenses, Pitt offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, has already left the program to join Nebraska in that same role. These teams aren’t going to be the same versions of themselves that they were in the regular season in going a combined 20-4. That game was already going to be an uphill battle in terms of attendance, and the optics in this one could be a little depressing if it’s a half-empty stadium without the star players.
But opt-outs and coaching changes are just a part of the sport nowadays, and as fans/media members, we have to respect those decisions. But gosh, it just kind of stinks, right? It’s not politically correct to object to opt-outs, but deep inside, a fan of either one of those teams has to be thinking, “DOESN’T ANYONE CARE ABOUT MY TEAM AND THIS GAME?!”
No one wants to think their game is taken less seriously, and opt-outs signal just that. For the players, it’s not that at all; it’s more of a risk vs. reward calculation. In their estimation, they stand more to lose than to gain, obviously, or they would play. It’s nothing personal to the fan base.
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In the moment, though, whether it’s on social media or in message boards, it seems like these absences tarnish what should be a fun way to cap off the season.
But fans, I’m here to tell you, it’s going to be OK. Years from now, no one is going to remember who opted out of what game.
Do you think Northwestern fans care that Auburn was missing a pair of NFL Draft picks in the Citrus Bowl last year? Can you even name them? Of course not. Northwestern had a great 2020 season, and it capped it off in the best way possible, with a double-digit win over an SEC team.
Does the fact that head coach Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Adam Fuller left Memphis for Florida State in 2019 before the Cotton Bowl matter to Penn State fans? Of course not. Those are such minor footnotes even just a few years later.
Aside from Christian McCaffrey opting out of the Sun Bowl and Leonard Fournette opting out of the Citrus Bowl in 2016, does anyone actually remember these opt-outs? No, it’s just that those 2 were the first to do it. For better or worse, opt-outs are part of the game now. It’s no different than a key player sustaining a season-ending injury.
I don’t think that in 2025, Penn State fans will say, “Well, we did win the Outback Bowl in 2021, but Arkansas didn’t have Treylon Burks.” Heck no. They’ll say, “We beat a ranked SEC team on New Year’s Day.” As they should. Ole Miss isn’t apologizing for Indiana not having Michael Penix Jr. in the Outback Bowl last year; it was more about beating the second-best team in the Big Ten.
So, if Michigan State beats Pitt, Spartans fans should say, “We beat the ACC champion in a New Year’s Six bowl.” End of story.
Football is all about the “next-man-up” mentality anyways, so it’s always assumed that neither team will be at full strength.
While opt-outs ultimately aren’t good for the sport, and the bowls definitely need a solution (more coming on that later this week), it won’t actually impact the way we view these games historically. In a year or 2, no one will even remember who played and who didn’t; all that matters is the result.*
*Unless you lose. Then it’s all about not having Kenneth Walker.