James Franklin might not like it, but Saquon Barkley's bowl game dilemma is worth discussing
You knew it was coming.
The second that Penn State walked off the field against Michigan State — not before shaking hands, though — you knew that the Saquon Barkley bowl game conversation was going to surface. Before you bash me or anyone else for bringing it up, consider why it’s being brought up.
Penn State will not be playing for a B1G Championship or a national title in 2017. If the Lions win on Saturday against Maryland, they’ll still possibly be in position to secure a New Year’s Six bowl berth. If they somehow collapse, they can kiss that goodbye.
Saturday will, in all likelihood, be the last regular season game that Barkley plays in a Penn State uniform. In case you’ve been living under a rock the last nine months, Barkley is projected as a top-5 pick in the 2018 NFL draft. While Barkley hasn’t declared for the draft yet, it’d be the stunner of the year of he elected to stay in school one more season.
Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette were also first-round prospects well before bowl season rolled around. Those two, of course, were top-10 picks in the 2017 NFL draft after sitting out their bowl games.
Barkley is in position to follow in their footsteps. The question is if he wants to take the exact same path as them.
You know, a path that doesn’t include getting 30 touches in a bowl game.
Whatever Barkley decides to do this postseason won’t take away from who he is as a person (you’ve never heard a negative thing about the kid) or what he’s given to Penn State. In three seasons in State College, Barkley touched the ball 752 times. That doesn’t include all the times that Barkley was drilled on quarterback keepers with the defense keyed in on shutting him down on the zone read.
Bowl game or not, it won’t take away the fact that he’s done everything in his power to get Penn State back to national prominence.
James Franklin knows that. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t take too kindly to a question on Tuesday about Barkley’s bowl game plans.
“It’s really inappropriate, in my opinion, to ask a player whether they plan on playing in a bowl game when we’re not even into bowl season yet,” Franklin said via The Morning Call. “… I don’t like the question in general. I don’t agree with it.”
Franklin can share his opinion on what’s news and what’s not news all he wants. Based on how much public debate Fournette and McCaffrey sparked last year, Barkley’s dilemma is absolutely news right now.
For what it’s worth, Barkley already said that he intends on playing in Penn State’s bowl game. That was said after the Nebraska game in which the junior tailback found the end zone three times. Nobody is assuming Barkley will automatically change his mind, but it’s unrealistic to think he won’t at least revisit the subject again after Penn State learns of its bowl fate.
The difference with Barkley compared to Fournette and McCaffrey is that his team could be playing in a New Year’s Six game. They also weren’t within striking distance of earning their school’s all-time rushing record. We don’t know if the fact that Barkley is only 303 yards from breaking Evan Royster’s mark will factor into his bowl decision. Maybe Barkley hangs 305 on Maryland and that’s already locked up.
It’ll be interesting to see what the Lions do with Barkley on Saturday. They haven’t been shy about using him in all situations — kickoff returns, goal-line runs, etc. — which is a credit to his skill set. That’s what Barkley always wanted to do. He’s been a team-first guy and nothing about him says otherwise.
But that doesn’t change the belief that there’s a whole lot more to be gained from being a top-5 draft pick than playing in the Citrus Bowl.
If Barkley wants to roll the dice and make some final memories with his teammates, he’s perfectly inclined to do that. He’ll catch heat for doing so. If Barkley elects to sit the bowl game to get ready for the draft, it’s his right to do that, as well. He’ll catch plenty of heat for doing that, too.
It’s a catch-22, especially for a high-volume, high-contact tailback like Barkley. Public criticism won’t sway his decision one way or another. Those who throw shade at a kid for making a decision that important are probably the same people who blast recruits on Twitter when they make their college commitment.
This is the world we live in. Franklin knows that in today’s world, people are going to continue to talk about it. He can say “Maryland, Maryland, Maryland, Maryland, Maryland, Maryland” all he wants, but it won’t silence the discussion about Barkley’s future.
Barkley made a name for himself as college football’s most explosive player. That’ll likely earn him a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony and eventually, an NFL contract that’ll make him an instant multi-millionaire. In the coming weeks, Barkley is going to be a lightning rod of conversation.
And yes, it’ll be an appropriate conversation to have.