On Jan. 1 of this year, the way college football players approached bowl season likely changed forever. That was the day Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith suffered an injury that blew up his knee and his draft status at the same time.
Playing in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, Smith moved to make a routine play and ended up tearing his ACL, LCL and enduring nerve damage in the process. “When you’re in bed for six weeks, not able to move, not able to walk, you’re this dominant force, but yet you have to rely on people to do little things for you,” Smith told USA Today in April.
Smith is expected to make a full recovery and make his NFL debut in 2017, but his draft prospects were irrevocably harmed. A possible No. 1 pick, Smith fell to the second round, losing millions of dollars along the way. No. 1 pick Jared Goff signed a contract worth nearly $28 million. Smith’s deal was worth a reported $6.5 million.
A Smith-like injury is a one-in-a-million shot, but it’s one that cost him more than $20 million.
With that in mind, LSU’s Leonard Fournette announced earlier this month he will skip the Tigers’ appearance in the Citrus Bowl and on Monday Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey announce he will sit out the Sun Bowl to prepare for the draft.
— Christian McCaffrey (@CMccaffrey5) December 19, 2016
“We understand this was a very difficult decision. For three years Christian has not only been a great player, but a great teammate as well,” David Shaw said in a statement. “We wish him great success at the next level, as we continue our preparation for the Sun Bowl.”
We’ve yet to see a player skip a bowl game of true consequence — it’s doubtful McCaffrey would sit out the Rose Bowl, for instance — but this is a side effect of the College Football Playoff era. When two bowl games mean more, the rest mean less. And players know that.
This year’s extra-early entrants list is two (so far). Next year it’ll be more. This is the new reality of college football.