By WILL CARTER ~ For the T-G
For those that have a favorite college team and others that are simply fans of the sport, college football brings us the best of times and the worst of times.
Comeback stories like that of the Baylor Bears — a two-win team last season to now a 12-win team crowned as Sugar Bowl Champions—are why we love the game.
A 93-point Rose Bowl barn burner between Ohio State and Utah with a 15 reception, 347 yard and three touchdown performance from the Buckeyes’ Jaxon Smith-Njigba was a spectacle regardless of who you choose to cheer for.
As the 2021-2022 college football season unfortunately nears its end, many narratives have surrounded players and teams since the final regular season whistle pierced the air.
One that took me by surprise was that there are too many “meaningless” bowl games—games that do not matter in the world of the College Football Playoff.
Teams that could care less whether they were invited to a bowl game after a below average season.
To that I would say, there is never enough and never will be enough college football.
True fans of the sport might find more excitement in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl that paired two rivals, South Carolina and North Carolina, than the two blowouts we saw in the first round of the Playoff.
Personally, I loved watching first-year USC head coach Shane Beamer go toe-to-toe with legendary coach Mack Brown.
The ensuing victory bath of mayo Beamer received was icing on the cake.
Diving deeper into that game, the Gamecocks spread the wealth amongst Zeb Noland — a former graduate assistant thrown into the fire early in the season — and Dak Joyner who started the season as a wide receiver, but returned to his natural position of quarterback for the bowl game.
Joyner completed all nine of his pass attempts for 160 yards and an absolute dart in the first quarter to give the Gamecocks an early lead.
He added 64 yards on the ground on 10 carries.
Noland threw only six times, but extended the lead with a missile of his own early in the game.
Following the win, Joyner shook hands with the opposing Tar Heels and enjoyed the celebrations with his fellow Gamecocks before virtually collapsing with emotion.
He proved many people wrong, but more importantly he proved himself to be right.
From that I raise the question, how can any bowl game be deemed “meaningless?”
In my opinion, there is too much focus and energy put on the College Football Playoffs, forcing people to miss the point of why the game is played in the first place.
I am all for a champion being crowned at the end of the season and everyone celebrating their greatness, but do not downplay the rest of the competition when the players and coaches are there for the love of the game.
The second narrative that took me a few years to come to terms with is players opting out of games at the end of the season to ensure their safety and prepare for the NFL Draft.
I grew up with the mindset that if you start something, you finish it.
Following that initiative is difficult at times, especially in the climate we live in today.
Until I understood the business side of the NCAA, I was right there with everyone; pitchfork in hand, calling players “quitters” and “greedy” for not finishing out the season with their teams that helped them reach that goal.
Now that the NCAA has become more and more greedy itself, I can see why players forgo a final game or two to chase the dream they have worked their whole life for.
Most people may not agree with that, but at the end of the day you have to respect someone’s personal decision for themselves.
One person that obviously does not agree with me is ESPN’s College Gameday host and analyst, Kirk Herbstreit.
When previewing the New Year’s Day bowl games, a discussion of players opting out sparked which led to Herbstreit making the comment that, “this era of player just doesn’t love football.”
The same players that by the transitive property pay Herbstreits’ bills, so you would think he would choose his words more wisely.
As expected, his comments were met with former and current players publicly criticizing him which led to Herbstreit issuing a clarification via social media.
“Of course some players love the game the same today as ever, but some don’t. I’ll always love the players of this game, and sorry if people thought I generalized or lumped them all into one category.”
That seems to me that he is simply covering his tracks, but I will not jump to conclusions as he did on national television.
Regardless of if he meant it or not, it is a very bold and broad statement to make.
What does Herby have to say about college coaches leaving their team early for a job somewhere else like Brian Kelly did to Notre Dame and Lincoln Riley to Oklahoma?
Do they love football as much, or is that just a business decision?
Because in my opinion, that is the same as players leaving early for the pros.
Not to mention that Brian Kelly notified his team of his departure via group text, but that is a conversation for another day.
In the players’ defense, I would direct your attention once more to Dak Joyner and South Carolina’s raw emotion after winning a “meaningless” bowl game.
Or you can take the Sugar Bowl for example, and ask Matt Corral what the game of football means to him.
Corral could have opted out of the bowl game with most mock drafts having him being a first-rounder making millions of dollars, but he did not allow for much speculation on whether he would participate or not.
Almost immediately after the Egg Bowl versus cross-state rival Mississippi State, Corral announced he would finish the season with the team that stood by him in his up-and-down career at Ole Miss.
Essentially saying, it was never in question.
Early in their matchup with Baylor, though, Corral suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for the rest of the game - giving further insight into why highly touted players opt-out.
Luckily, Corral’s X-ray came back negative for a fracture, so his stock should not drop substantially.
The final piece of evidence for my arguments belongs to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers.
Flashback to the 2014 season when UAB officials decided to cancel the football program that had been on a downward spiral for several years prior, but the program was reinstated shortly after.
A two-year hiatus from college football gave the program time to recruit and build back to what it once was.
In 2018, the Blazers won their first conference championship along with their first bowl game.
Fast-forward to the present day where the Blazers finished the season with a 9-4 record and a bowl bid to play 13th ranked BYU in the Independence Bowl - a bowl the “meaningless” crowd surely did not watch.
The Blazers entered the game as 6.5 point underdogs, but ultimately won 31-28.
Canceled and reinstated, sat idle for two seasons, and Independence Bowl champions over a top-15 team all within a decade.
So, once again, how can any bowl game ever be considered “meaningless?”
Who is to say that this era of players doesn’t love football?
Because I guarantee that Dak Joyner, Matt Corral, and the entire UAB football program would love to sit down and have that conversation.
As an avid college football fan, my point is this - if you truly love and enjoy college football, then you can never get enough of it, bowl games included.
Finally, to opt-out or not is a player’s personal decision that should be respected regardless of the situation because who is to tell someone that they should wait just a little bit longer before they chase that dream they have been working towards for 20 some years.
-Will Carter is a freelance sports writer for the Times-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com.
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