If you were an elite NCAA football player with an NFL future, what would you risk to play in the Cheez-It Bowl?
If you had just finished a regular season hampered by ankle injuries, would you rush back into the lineup to headline one of nearly two dozen late-December bowl games that form the undercard to the College Football Playoffs in the new year?
If raising your NFL draft stock depended on turning scouts’ heads during pre-draft workouts, would you trade it for a duffel bag full of Cheez-It Bowl swag?
No disrespect to the Cheez-It Bowl, which pits Oklahoma State against Miami on Dec. 29, but it’s not even the biggest game at Camping World Stadium in Orlando this season. That honour falls to the Citrus Bowl, which features Northwestern against Auburn on New Year’s Day.
Both games are also notable for the high-profile players who won’t take part. After Northwestern’s loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game last Saturday, Wildcats all-conference cornerback Greg Newsome II announced he would skip his team’s bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft.
His announcement came a week after Chuba Hubbard, an all-conference running back from Sherwood Park, Alta., made public his own decision to cut short his Oklahoma State career to focus on draft preparation.
As a former bench warmer on Northwestern’s football team, and a man who still owns a beach towel from the 1997 Citrus Bowl, I can attest that bowl game swag is awesome. But it’s not worth risking an injury that could knock a draft prospect down a few rounds, even if it means helping your team win on a big stage.
This trend might diminish the quality of the on-field product, but that’s what happens when the big money tied up in college football butts heads with the even bigger money financing the NFL. Coaches get paid on either platform — Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s $9.5 million US salary would make him the fifth-best paid among the NFL’s 32 head coaches.
On the surface, the tension between for-profit sports in U.S. colleges and the pro leagues they feed appears to have little to do with sport in Canada, where the coronavirus pandemic has shut down college and university sports.
But NCAA stories are Canadian stories. A mid-season article from The Canadian Press pointed out that six of the top 11 NCAA football programs boasted Canadian players, and this season’s College Football Playoff will include Canadian talent in Alabama Crimson Tide receiver John Metchie, of Brampton, Ont., and Clemson backup receiver Ajou Ajou, of Brooks, Alta.
For top players on teams in college football’s final four, the stakes might justify the risk of sticking around for two January playoff games, even if the players’ pay is still zero.
But top prospects at prominent, but sub-elite, programs often follow a different calendar. Their yearly schedule might begin in the lead-up to a bowl game, when someone ahead of them on the depth chart opts out to focus on NFL draft preparation. And it might end late in his team’s subsequent season, after the player has weighed the risk of playing in the post-season against the potential rewards that flow from standout pre-draft workouts.
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Hubbard knows the drill. Two years ago, star running back Justice Hill left Oklahoma State for the NFL before the team played in the Liberty Bowl. Hubbard, to that point a second-stringer with tantalizing potential, stepped into the starting lineup and rushed for 145 yards on 18 carries. That performance catapulted Hubbard, a national team sprinter as a teenager, into a sophomore season that saw him rush for 2,094 yards on 328 carries, with 21 touchdowns.
The 2020 season started with a high-profile showdown against his team’s head coach, Mike Gundy, who, as thousands of Americans protested for racial justice in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, wore a t-shirt bearing the logo of right-wing propaganda channel One America News Network.
This season, injuries limited Hubbard to 133 carries for 625 yards, prompting him to make a business decision as the final games loomed.
It wasn’t simple.
Even future stars find their draft stock, and thus their salaries, suppressed by the widespread perception that running backs are interchangeable and disposable. None of the top five rushers in the NFL this season were first-round draft picks, and one, Jacksonville’s James Robinson, went undrafted altogether. In a buyer’s market that extreme, with NFL teams convinced they can find standout ball-carriers at bargain prices, running backs like Hubbard need standout pre-draft workouts just to salvage earning power.
Bowl games can complicate that process. The longer you play, the later you start training for the NFL Combine, which is scheduled to run March 8 to 11 in Indianapolis. For players like Hubbard and Newsome, it’s the difference between starting pre-draft training healthy and rested in late December versus limping into it in mid-January, banged up from a long season.
For Hubbard, better preparation could also make the difference between running, say, a 4.37 second 40-yard dash at the Combine, or covering that distance in 4.52 seconds. Those 15 hundredths of a second might not mean much to civilians, but to a running back hoping to impress NFL scouts the distinction could be worth a few rounds in the draft and six figures in salary.
So it makes sense for players like Hubbard, their college football credentials established, to leave their teams a few weeks early to focus on pro preparation. His early departure might inconvenience Oklahoma State, but head coaches will still collect bowl game bonuses — $3.2 million total for coaches at public schools, according to USA Today — and a long list of football team staffers will, unlike the players, still get paid.
If NCAA decision-makers want the best possible on-field product during bowl season, they can figure out how to pay the players who make those events popular appointment television and, in non-pandemic years, hot tickets. Until then, players like Chuba Hubbard will make business decisions to leave their teams early.
The Cheez-It Bowl might provide souvenirs that last decades, but it won’t pay the mortgage.