College football bowl season is upon us, which will spark the annual debate over the importance of these sponsor-driven exhibitions.
Some love them, others tolerate them and the grumps view bowls outside of the New Year’s Six games as a waste of time and money.
Some players even take a pass on non-playoff bowl games. Will all the Minnesota and Auburn stars be out for the Outback Bowl? Perhaps not, and with good reason.
The decision to play a final college game and risk injury or stay healthy for NFL scouts is in front of so many players this month on so many teams. With 39 games, teams must really torpedo their season to get left out of bowl season. Not at all bowls are created equally, though — in pay, prestige and perception. That’s why there is a selection process that allows bowl executives to create the most desirable matchups possible.
The Gophers landed in an attractive destination, both geographically — Tampa, Fla. — and from a football perspective — drawing Auburn, an SEC “helmet” school.
This isn’t a third-tier bowl, a derision aimed at previous Gophers bowl trips. Playing on Jan. 1 against a highly regarded program is meaningful. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck often references the step-by-step process of building a program. This serves as one of those steps.
Why? Perception. Visibility. A chance to notch a win against a respected opponent.
Interestingly, four different media outlets — Washington Post, CBS, Yahoo and Athlon — ranked the 39 bowl matchups in appeal, and all four put the Outback Bowl at No. 7. Those rankings included playoff games.
“The expectation changes,” Fleck said of playing in a marquee Jan. 1 game. “The level of competition changes. And I think that’s very healthy for your program.”
Especially his program. In Fleck’s quest to transform the Gophers into a national program with a national brand, every bit of momentum matters.
Those skeptical of the Gophers’ 10-2 season point to their 1-2 record against Big Ten teams that finished with a winning record. A victory over Auburn would make a statement.
The Tigers defeated Alabama in the Iron Bowl and opened the season with a victory over Oregon, which is playing in the Rose Bowl. Their three losses came against Florida, Louisiana State and Georgia — one playoff team and two appearing in New Year’s Six bowl games — by a total of 21 points.
This matchup packs plenty of star power … if they all play. The Gophers boast two of the nation’s top receivers in Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson. Gophers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown are two of five finalists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded to college football’s top defensive player.
Brown was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year on Monday and is projected as a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
Brown and a few Gophers with one eye on the draft could pass on playing. A year ago, Gophers linebacker Blake Cashman announced he had made the “very hard” decision to skip the Quick Lane Bowl to prep for the draft. Cashman was a fifth-round pick by the New York Jets and made five starts before a shoulder injury in October ended his season.
This relatively new trend of forgoing bowl games angers some fans, who see it as a selfish move. I see it differently.
If a player stands to lose millions in draft stock if he gets injured and decides the risk isn’t worth it, that should be left up to him and his family without being torn to shreds on social media. There’s nothing wrong with someone making a business decision with so much at stake.
Fleck said Sunday that he hasn’t heard from any of his players about their plans. The Gophers’ senior draft prospects include Johnson, defensive end Carter Coughlin and linebacker Kamal Martin. Winfield, a fourth-year sophomore, also is eligible to enter the draft.
The availability of draft hopefuls will become known in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, the Gophers have started preparing for one of the top defenses in college football and an offense that averages 34 points.
The proliferation of bowl games has become an easy punchline. It’s a challenge and an opportunity — and a nice landing spot for the Gophers and their fans after falling one victory short of the Rose Bowl.
A trip to Florida in December never seems like a bad idea (especially after Monday’s nightmare commute), and this particular trip for this program could be quite impactful.