TAMPA — When Stanford star Christian McCaffrey and LSU standout Leonard Fournette announced they were skipping their bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft, their semi-controversial decisions made national news.
Two years later, those choices hardly make a ripple, even to coaches who must end their season without a top player.
"It's a trend," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I don't think we're going to see it come backwards."
In fact, it's going the other way.
McCaffrey, Fournette and Baylor's Shock Linwood sat out their bowl games in 2016. Two years later, nine players have already announced their plans to skip their final college game.
Three of those choices will affect matchups of local interest. Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary won't participate in the Peach Bowl against the Gators. UCF's high-powered offense won't have to worry about LSU cornerback Greedy Williams, and Iowa tight end Noah Fant won't be playing Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
"Not a surprise," Ferentz said. "It's the time we're living in right now."
Which means it's something most major programs must discuss.
Florida coach Dan Mullen said some of his players are still gathering information about whether to leave school for the NFL, but they all intend to compete in Atlanta.
Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said he thinks all of his NFL prospects — including potential first-round picks Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons — will play in the Outback Bowl, but things are always fluid with 20-year-olds.
The Outback Bowl matchup pic.twitter.com/iaufL1H25i— Matt Baker (@MBakerTBTimes) December 6, 2018
"I think it's just part of the way that the game has progressed," Moorhead said Thursday before the Outback Bowl's contract signing ceremony. "Certainly when guys are in line to progress their careers at the next level and have an opportunity to make a lot of money to play the game that they love — I don't want to say it's surprising, but I can say it's understandable, if that makes sense."
It definitely makes cents, or at least minimizes the chance of losing money because of injury. That's what happened to Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, a projected top-five pick who fell to the second round after seriously injuring his knee in the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2015 season.
McCaffrey and Fournette were among the first players to avoid that risk by skipping the game entirely. Both were injured during the regular season, and both are running backs — a position known for short NFL careers.
The NFL didn't seem to care. Both were drafted in the top eight, and both have had success; Fournette was a 1,000-yard rusher as a rookie for the Jaguars, and McCaffrey leads the Panthers in rushing and receiving yards.
The NFL didn't care last season, either, when the Chargers drafted Florida State safety Derwin James (who ignored the Independence Bowl) at No. 17. James is the favorite to be named the league's defensive rookie of the year.
Those decisions leave their old teams with a hole to fill. Fortunately for Iowa, it's an easy fix. While Fant is extremely talented and could be chosen in the first round, he might not have been the Hawkeyes' best player at his position. Teammate T.J. Hockenson won the John Mackey Award this week as the nation's top tight end.
For Ferentz, there are no hard feelings about losing a great player before the end of the season.
"I don't think a player owes anybody anything," Ferentz said. "It's like a real job. What you owe your employer is showing up every day and doing a good job. But if you decide the next day you don't want to work anymore, that's your prerogative.
"You've got to do what's best for you."
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.
At least nine players have announced that they plan to skip their bowl games to get ready for the draft:
Arizona State WR N'Keal Harry (Las Vegas Bowl vs. Fresno State)
Houston DL Ed Oliver (Armed Forces Bowl vs. Army)
Iowa TE Noah Fant (Outback Bowl vs. Mississippi State)
LSU CB Greedy Williams (Fiesta Bowl vs. UCF)
Michigan DL Rashan Gary (Peach Bowl vs. Florida)
North Carolina State LB Germaine Pratt (Gator Bowl vs. Texas A&M)
North Carolina State WR Kelvin Harmon (Gator Bowl vs. Texas A&M)
Oklahoma State RB Justice Hill (Liberty Bowl vs. Missouri)
South Carolina WR Deebo Samuel (Belk Bowl vs. Virginia)