Why I admire the Big Ten players who aren't skipping their bowl games
I don’t like when players sit out bowl games. I think every college football consumer feels the same way. We want the best guys out there all the time.
But there’s obviously a ton of money at stake, so I understand why some highly touted players skip these games. I support it. I probably would skip them too, if I were a top NFL Draft prospect. I would at the very least consider it. Starting with Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette in 2016, a growing number of top prospects has elected to skip non College Football Playoff bowl games at the risk of getting hurt and instead begin preparations for the NFL Draft.
That’s why it’s surprising that the Big Ten’s top draft-eligible players from non-Ohio State schools are all playing in their bowl games (as of now). Iowa edge rusher A.J. Epenesa and offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor and Penn State edge rusher Yetur Gross-Matos are all likely to be among the top picks at their respective positions and have proven themselves consistently at the college level — and all have indicated that they plan on playing.
None of them are playing in the CFP, and you could argue other than Taylor (whose Badgers are in the Rose Bowl), none of them are playing for much at all other than pride.
I deeply admire these guys for it, because I think the concept of being part of a team (and not just looking out for individual interests) gets forgotten by the general public and some members of the media.
We saw this last winter with Zion Williamson, who famously busted out of his shoe against North Carolina and hurt his knee. There were no shortages of takes that Zion should sit out the rest of the season and mitigate his injury risk, as he was the no-brainer No. 1 pick. But Zion, at least publicly, never indicated this was a possibility. Look at it from his perspective: He spent the previous eight months spending nearly every waking minute with his Duke teammates — at offseason conditioning, practice, study tables, the dining hall, watching film, road trips, playing video games and probably countless other hours. And he’s just going to bail on his buddies at the end?
Think if Zion had skipped the NCAA Tournament to avoid injury. He would probably regret it for the rest of his life. That specter would hang over every reunion with his teammates in 10 or 20 or 30 years. Is it worth it? He still got hurt anyways in the preseason.
You may not agree with that way of thinking when there is a lot of money at stake, but that is how a lot of these guys think. Especially when you’ve played for your school the last three or four years. It certainly lines up with the way Taylor has spoken. He said, “I want to make sure I help those guys finish it the right way.”
Jonathan Taylor says he will play in the #Badgers bowl game.
"I want to make sure I help these guys finish it the right way."
— Evan Flood (@Evan_Flood) December 8, 2019
A few weeks ago, I was ready to write a column about how Taylor, Epenesa, Wirfs and Gross-Matos should consider sitting out their bowl games. I mean, what more does Taylor have to prove? If NFL scouts don’t already know how special he is, they never will. All it takes is one wrong move for a non-contact knee injury, and his stock could plummet. All it takes is for one teammate to get blocked into Wirfs’ blind side and take out his legs, and his stock could plummet.
It’s noteworthy that Boston College running back A.J. Dillon, who has played in five fewer career games than Taylor and has 60 fewer carries, is sitting. And that’s perfectly understandable.
That said, I don’t think every potential draft pick should sit. The lower-profile bowl games, while usually played in front of sparse crowds, are a chance for a player to really increase their draft stock. The games are usually on by themselves and not competing for eyeballs with other games (until New Years Day), which is very different then a typical Saturday in October. If a player does something noteworthy, they have the potential to go viral. Consider it a preamble of the Senior Bowl, except you’re in a familiar scheme.
With these four guys in particular, though, they have proven over and over that they are special players. Their draft stock reflects that. Plus, they have family members they want to take care of, which is why I wouldn’t think any less of them one bit if they decided to sit. Their personal journeys started long before getting to their respective universities, and we should keep that in mind.
.@PennStateFball's Yetur Gross-Matos lost his father and brother in two unimaginable tragedies.
This is the story of how it shaped his path: pic.twitter.com/SWQd3Kdpa0
— ESPN (@espn) October 19, 2019
But the fact that these guys are playing, it’s special. And they should be commended for it.
These Big Ten players want to finish what they start. I admire them for it, and I think it will serve them well moving forward.