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Bowl opt-out is personal decision

Commentary

Matt Corral is right.

So is Kenny Pickett.

And Jahan Dotson.

All three project to be top picks in the NFL draft this spring, and all three approached their team’s recent bowl games with different ideas about participating.

Corral, the University of Mississippi’s standout junior quarterback, was adamant that he would join his Rebels teammates in their Sugar Bowl game against Baylor in New Orleans.

He nearly paid a heavy price for it, too, as he left the game with an ankle injury. X-rays were negative for a fracture — he suffered a sprain that shouldn’t affect his draft stock.

Pickett, who quarterbacked the University of Pittsburgh to the school’s first Atlantic Coast Conference championship and a berth in the Peach Bowl in his senior season by throwing for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns, opted out of playing in the Panthers’ bowl game loss to Michigan State in Atlanta.

Dotson, Penn State’s outstanding senior receiver, ranks second in the Nittany Lions’ storied football history in receptions (183) and touchdowns (25). He was one of several Nittany Lions who opted out of Penn State’s Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas in Tampa.

There has been a sharp divisiveness in this country over political and medical issues. For college football fans, the opt-out issue has become almost equally polarizing.

Many players planning to enter the NFL draft, with a chance to earn millions, don’t want to risk an injury playing in a bowl game in which there are no national championship stakes on the line.

They can’t be blamed for choosing not to take a chance that could sabotage life-changing earnings.

Then there are players like Corral, who, come hell or high water, was going to participate in the bowl game, and join his team in battle one last time.

He can’t be blamed, either, even though the sight of him leaving the Sugar Bowl game on crutches left plenty of room for second-guessing.

There’s a school of thought in one camp that a star player who opts out of any game isn’t honoring his commitment to his school and the scholarship that he’s been provided.

There’s another school of thought that the star player has the right to protect his future self-interests, and is foolish not to do so.

Ultimately, there is neither right or wrong in this matter. It’s a personal decision, and whatever the decision that is made, should be respected.

Combined with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the opt-out surge has depleted rosters across the college bowl landscape in the past two years, and diminished interest in many of the games in which nothing but pride is at stake.

Perhaps one remedy will lie in the inevitable expansion of the College Football Playoff field from its current four teams to eight or even 12.

Then there’s the thought that if players headed for the NFL can opt out of the bowl game, what’s to stop them from jumping ship in the middle of a season in which their team starts off 3-3 or worse?

That shouldn’t happen, and there should be consequences and penalties for those who would decide to take that route.

Esteemed college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit recently went on record as criticizing the opt-out trend.

“Isn’t that what we do, as football players, compete?” said the former Ohio State quarterback, who played four seasons for the Buckeyes three decades ago. “I think this era of player just doesn’t love football.”

That’s a strong statement that unfairly paints an entire group of NCAA athletes with the same brush, but Herbstreit played college football in a different era, when the stakes were much lower and the thinking was much more old-school.

Times have changed, NFL careers today are often more short-lived than they are lucrative, and players today have to get what they can when they can.

Loyalty and love for the game has nothing to do with it. Sound business sense and a chance at a much better livelihood, with a refusal to risk a serious injury in a game that ultimately means very little, does.

Other bowl thoughts:

n Alabama and Georgia are clearly the nation’s two best teams, and it’s most fitting that they will be playing a rematch in the national championship game next Monday.

n Georgia’s emphasis in the title game should be on defense, after Alabama routed the Bulldogs in the Southeastern Conference championship game Dec. 4.

n Increasing the CFP field to eight teams will be a good thing and eliminate almost any questions. Increasing the field to 12 would be a bad move and water it down.

n Michigan’s CFP semifinal blowout loss at the hands of Georgia in the Orange Bowl was the biggest disappointment in the bowl season. Georgia was favored, but a much closer and more competitive game was anticipated.

n It was good to see undefeated Cincinnati finally get its shot in the playoffs. The Bearcats play in the unheralded American Athletic Conference, and their comparatively weak regular-season schedule has cost them playoff consideration in the past. They entered the Cotton Bowl CFP semifinal against defending national champion Alabama as big underdogs, and the Crimson Tide — much more talented and battle-tested in the SEC — won the game with relative ease.

n The Rose Bowl game was by far the most exciting of the bowl season. Ohio State’s second-half comeback against an inspired Utah team was riveting to watch, and the Utes — making their first-ever appearance in Pasadena — ultimately couldn’t control the Buckeyes’ passing game, with talented freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud, a Heisman Trophy finalist, teaming with gifted, acrobatic wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba for a Rose Bowl record 15 receptions and 347 yards, along with three touchdowns.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com.

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