Picking college football's all-time bowl opt-out team
Things didn’t go exactly the way Caleb Williams planned this season.
He won’t be in New York this weekend to join Archie Griffin as the only 2-time Heisman Trophy winner. And his USC Trojans won’t be ringing in the new year in Pasadena or New Orleans competing for a shot at the national championship.
So to avoid any further disappointments that might jeopardize his chance at being the No. 1 overall pick in next spring’s NFL Draft, the star quarterback has chosen not to play in the Trojans’ upcoming Holiday Bowl game against ACC runner-up Louisville.
It’s hardly a stunning decision. Williams will be joined on the sidelines by dozens of players looking to protect their health and draft status by opting out of games that have become little more than “inventory” to help ESPN fill its December broadcast schedule.
But it hasn’t always been that way.
On New Year’s Day 2016, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith blew out his left knee during a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. The injury dropped the Butkus Award winner out of the 1st round as projected and turned him into a cautionary tale for others trying to avoid his misfortune.
Running backs Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Leonard Fournette of LSU were the first to heed the warning by opting out of their team’s bowl games the following season.
It was later learned that Fournette was suffering from an injury and couldn’t have played, anyway. But McCaffrey, despite having a $5 million insurance policy that would pay off if he dropped below the 40th pick because of injury, made the conscious choice to sit out.
Plenty of others followed. Here is our All-Opt-Out Team.
QB – Kenny Pickett, Pitt, 2021: The ACC Player of the Year set a conference record by throwing for 42 touchdowns and single-season school records for passing yardage and total touchdowns on his way to leading the Panthers to their first league championship. But he opted out of Pitt’s Peach Bowl matchup against Michigan State. It worked out well for him, as he was able to stay in Pittsburgh as the 1st-round pick of the Steelers the following spring. Pickett’s replacement Davis Beville performed well in the bowl, completing 14-of-18 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. But Michigan State scored 21 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to win 31-21.
RB – Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, 2016: McCaffrey caught considerable grief for his decision not to play in his team’s Sun Bowl game against North Carolina, including a Tweet from Ezekiel Elliott implying that he was letting down his teammates. But everything worked out in the end. McCaffrey was taken with the 8th overall pick by the Carolina Panthers and continues to be one of the NFL’s most productive running backs. His replacement, North Carolina native Bryce Love, benefitted from the increased playing time by rushing for 119 yards and a touchdown while also catching a 49-yard pass for a score in leading Stanford to a 25-23 victory against the Tar Heels.
All these young guys deciding to skip their bowl games 🤔.I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray
— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) December 19, 2016
RB – Bijan Robinson, Texas, 2022: It’s unusual these days for NFL teams to spend 1st-round picks on running backs. But Robinson was projected to be the exception last year. So to protect that status, he chose not to play in the Longhorns’ Alamo Bowl game – and 2023 national semifinal preview – against Washington. Robinson set career highs with 1,580 yards, 18 touchdowns and a 6.1 yard per carry average during the season. Texas could have used that against the Huskies. While Quinn Ewers threw for 369 yards, Robinson’s replacements managed only 51 rushing yards in a 27-20 loss.
WR – Chris Olave, Ohio State, 2021: Olave is from Southern California, so you’d think he would be itching to play in the Granddaddy of Them All. Instead, he opted out of the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl date with Utah after catching 65 passes for 936 yards and a team-leading 13 touchdowns. As valuable as Olave was, Ohio State didn’t really miss him in Pasadena. CJ Stroud threw for a Rose Bowl record 573 yards, fellow 1st-round pick Jaxon Smith-Njigba caught 15 passes for 347 yards and 3 touchdowns while soon-to-be 1st rounder Marvin Harrison Jr. added 6 receptions for 71 yards while also scoring 3 times in a 48-45 Buckeyes win.
WR – Treylon Burks, Arkansas, 2021: With their top receiver opting out in preparation for his eventual 1st-round selection by the Tennessee Titans, the Razorbacks chose to keep the ball on the ground in their Outback Bowl matchup against Penn State. Quarterback KJ Jefferson threw for only 98 yards, but he ran for 110 to spearhead a 353-yard ground assault that produced a 12-minute time of possession advantage and a 24-10 victory.
WR – Josh Downs, UNC, 2022: Downs is proof that you don’t have to be a projected 1st-rounder to opt out of a bowl game to protect your draft status. A 2-time All-American who had the good fortune to play alongside 2 future NFL quarterbacks – Sam Howell and Drake Maye – Downs chose not to play in the Tar Heels’ Holiday Bowl game against Oregon last December. Even without his favorite target, who was taken in the 3rd round by the Indianapolis Colts, Maye threw for 3 touchdowns. But the Ducks rallied in the 4th quarter for a 28-27 win.
TE – Michael Mayer, Notre Dame, 2022: Mayer’s 180 career catches for 2,099 yards and 18 touchdowns in 36 games are the most ever for a Notre Dame tight end. That’s saying something, considering that the Irish have produced a pair of Hall of Famers in Dave Casper and Ken McAfee, and a 1st-rounder in Tyler Eifert. Mayer eventually went in the 2nd round to the Las Vegas Raiders, watching his final college game from the sidelines as Notre Dame outscored South Carolina 45-38 in the Gator Bowl.
Michael Mayer has broken the record for career receptions by a Tight End at Notre Dame!
That’s a bad bad man!pic.twitter.com/iXT2ntPxOB
— The GOAT House (@GoatHouseNFL) October 9, 2022
OL – Andrew Thomas, Georgia and Isaiah Wilson, Georgia, 2019: If the Bulldogs’ 2019 Sugar Bowl matchup with Texas is any indication, Kirby Smart can look forward to several key opt-outs for this year’s Orange Bowl date with an equally disappointed Florida State. That earlier Georgia team played without both starting tackles in its 28-21 loss to the Longhorns. Thomas, the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner, went No. 4 overall to the New York Giants while Wilson was also a 1st-rounder, going No. 29 to the Titans.
OL – Charles Cross, Mississippi State, 2021: Cross was rated as the No. 2 offensive lineman in the draft and ultimately went No. 9 overall to the Seattle Seahawks after a college career that saw him allow only 2 sacks in 919 snaps over 2 seasons. But that still didn’t justify his decision not to play for the Bulldogs against Texas Tech in the Liberty Bowl. “It’s the most bizarre thing in the world to me,” Mike Leach said before his team’s 34-7 loss to the Red Raiders. “They think they’re going to have a storied 10-year NFL career and they can’t play 1 more college game. That’s ridiculous.”
OL – Nicholas Petit-Frere, Ohio State, 2021: Olave wasn’t the only Buckeye to sit out the Rose Bowl game against Utah. The Outland Trophy semifinalist was one of 4 players to skip the game, along with Haskell Garrett and Garrett Wilson. The 5-star left tackle ended up being drafted in the 3rd round by the Titans.
OL – Anton Harrison, Oklahoma, 2022: Harrison was 1 of 5 starters to opt out of the Sooners’ Cheez-It Bowl clash with Florida State last December. The 1st-team All-Big 12 tackle went on to be the 1st-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Even without him, Oklahoma still managed to put up 32 points. But even that wasn’t enough, as the Seminoles came away with a 3-point victory on a last-second field goal.
DL – Ed Oliver, Houston, 2018: The youngest winner of the Outland Trophy and an All-American in 2017, Oliver missed 4 games in 2018 after being injured by a chop block against Navy. With his team scheduled to face Army and its similar triple option offense in the Armed Services Bowl, Oliver decided it was better to opt out than risk suffering a similar fate. Or worse. Whether Oliver would have made a difference or not is debatable. His Cougars suffered a 70-14 beatdown by the Cadets. As for Oliver, he went No. 9 overall to the Buffalo Bills.
DL – Alim McNeill, NC State, 2020: An All-ACC defensive tackle who recorded 77 tackles, 10 sacks, an interception and a fat guy touchdown during his college career, McNeill risked the COVID pandemic to play during the shortened 2020 season. But he decided that suiting up for the Wolfpack’s Gator Bowl matchup against a 4-6 Kentucky team was a bridge too far and chose not to play. NC State, which won 8 games that year, lost the game 23-21. McNeill was taken in Round 3 by the Detroit Lions.
DL – Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon, 2021: Thibodeaux was regarded as the top pass rusher in college football and was taken at No. 5 by the New York Giants. His decision to opt out of the Ducks’ Alamo Bowl date with Oklahoma would have been bigger news. But he announced it on the same day that his coach, Mario Cristobal, also left the team to take the job at his alma mater Miami. Without Thibodeaux, Cristobal and several other opt outs, Oregon fell behind 30-3 by halftime on the way to a 47-32 loss.
— NFL Draft (@NFLDraft) December 7, 2021
DL – Myles Murphy, Clemson 2022: Murphy was part of a Clemson defensive line that had 3 of its members taken in the 2023 draft. He recorded 40 tackles, 11 TFLs and 6.5 sacks in earning 1st team All-ACC honors in 2022. But he’s notable for another reason. After helping the Tigers beat North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game, he became the first player in Dabo Swinney’s tenure to opt out of a bowl game. Clemson lost to Tennessee in the Orange Bowl a few weeks later. Murphy was taken by the Cincinnati Bengals with the 28th pick of Round 1.
LB – Bradley Chubb, NC State, 2017: The Nagurski Award winner as the nation’s best defensive player who was credited with 72 tackles and 10 sacks during the regular season, Chubb considered playing in the Wolfpack’s Sun Bowl game against Arizona State until nearly gametime. He traveled with his teammates to El Paso, but eventually decided to support them from the sideline rather than risking his top-5 draft projection. Those teammates returned the favor by routing the Sun Devils 53-21 and Chubb went No. 5 overall to the Denver Broncos.
LB – Rashan Gary, Michigan, 2018: Gary earned 1st-team All-Big Ten honors in 2018. But he was bothered throughout the season with a shoulder issue that forced him to miss 4 games in October. Rather than risk aggravating the injury and his 1st-round projections – he eventually went No. 12 to the Green Bay Packers – he chose not to play in the Wolverines’ 41-15 Peach Bowl loss to Florida.
LB – Terrell Lewis, Alabama, 2019: Opt-outs were still relatively new in 2019, so it’s understandable that Crimson Tide fans weren’t happy with Lewis for not playing in his team’s Citrus Bowl game against Michigan. They were even more unhappy when he chose to participate in the Senior Bowl a few weeks later, even after he explained his decision by saying that he wanted to get his body “prepared to transition to that NFL stage where you know you’re going to be playing against grown men.” Alabama did OK without him, beating the Wolverines 35-16 behind the performance of a soon-to-be 1st-rounder who did choose to play, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy.
DB – Denzel Ward, Ohio State, 2017: All indications leading up to the Cotton Bowl were that Ward would play for the Buckeyes against Southern Cal. He participated in every practice leading up to the game. But he began to raise eyebrows when he wasn’t on the field for pregame warmups. Shortly before kickoff, he issued a statement saying he would opt out to prepare for a draft in which he would become the No. 4 overall pick by the Cleveland Browns. Ohio State still went on to win the game handily, 24-7.
— Landof10 Ohio State (@Landof10OSU) December 18, 2017
DB – Derwin James, Florida State, 2017: James might have decided to play in the postseason had the Seminoles been in contention for a title, as they were this season. But with his team having just completed an uncharacteristic (at least at the time) 6-6 regular season, coach Jimbo Fisher having already left for Texas A&M and FSU relegated to the bowl purgatory that is Shreveport, La., the top-rated safety in the 2018 draft chose to opt out of an Independence Bowl matchup against Southern Miss. The Seminoles went on to win 42-13 and James was taken by the Los Angeles Chargers at No. 17 overall.
DB – Jaire Alexander, Louisville, 2017: Like several others on this list, Alexander was bothered by injuries during his final college season. He did play in 6 games for the Cardinals in 2017 and was available for their Gator Bowl game against Mississippi State. But as one of the top-rated corners in the draft, he decided it best not to play. It’s a decision that paid off with his 1st-round selection by the Packers – 1 pick after James at No. 18. His college team, however, couldn’t hold onto a late lead in a 31-27 loss in Jacksonville.
DB – Trevon Diggs Alabama, 2019: Diggs, whose brother Stefon was already an NFL veteran at the time, joined Lewis on the sidelines for the Crimson Tide’s Citrus Bowl clash with Michigan. A 2-year starting corner who also excelled as a kick returner, he helped Alabama win a national championship the previous season and was a 1st-team All-SEC selection in 2019. Although he was projected as a 1st round talent, Diggs slipped to the 2nd round where he was taken by the Dallas Cowboys at No. 51.