Tramel: Florida and OU football opt-outs are an indictment of the bowl system
ARLINGTON, Texas — Actress Wynn Everett and The Richards Group public-relations firm brought us the Southeastern Conference campaign that launched on Sept. 1, 2016.
“It Just Means More.”
I know; barely four years ago. Seems like 40.
Just when you thought those “SEC! SEC!” chants were the undisputed champion of college football annoyance, along came those four little words that the SEC blares on commercials and signs and stadiums.
It just means more.
Until it doesn’t. Like the 2020 Cotton Bowl, where the sixth-ranked Sooners play seventh-ranked Florida on Wednesday night in what should be a bragging-rights game but what has become a battle of attrition.
The latest college football plague has come to the Sooners’ front porch. Opt-outs, code for quitting the team before a bowl game.
Florida’s top three receivers — tight end Kyle Pitts and flankers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes — announced they will skip the Cotton Bowl. That eased the sting of OU cornerback Tre Brown doing the same a few days ago.
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But it casts a pall over this Cotton Bowl, which should have been a classic showdown of Florida's fabulous offense against OU's renaissance defense.
And it's an absolute indictment of bowl games.
The players are telling us, and it's about time we listened. These games don't mean all that much to some of college football's best players. It just means less.
"Are there going to be a couple of players here and there through the years that maybe think the bowl game is not that important?" Lincoln Riley asked. "There may be. But we've got to be careful and not take the one or two percent and say, 'Well, that's how everybody feels.' Because there's a big percentage of both of our football teams that are going to be pretty excited to play this football game.
"So I tend to go with the majority and think these games are still pretty darned important."
To be absolutely fair, players did not invent the opt-out. For decades, administrators and coaches have been quitting on their teams before bowl games.
The former fires a coach and tells him to scram. The latter takes another job and bolts — OU assistant coach Shane Beamer has done exactly that, already off to South Carolina as head coach.
It's only natural that players would learn the lesson.
This trend began a few years ago when tailbacks Christian McCaffrey (Stanford) and Leonard Fournette (Louisiana State) bolted on their teams before bowl games. It's anathema to players of previous generations.
"Man what’s up with all these kids opting out of their bowl games?" tweeted Gerald McCoy, a Sooner superstar from a decade ago, in the time before marquee players quit the team. "I understand before the season but your last bowl game? You’ve grin(d)ed all this time wit(h) your brothers and you say on the last game, 'naw, I’m done.' (I don't know) who’s advising these kids but it’s wack to me!!”
It's wack to most of us. But we know who's advising them. Agents, telling them not to risk injury in a meaningless game. And we're seeing these decisions creep earlier and earlier into the season.
Both Riley and Florida coach Dan Mullen say the pandemic season of 2020 is partly to blame, and there's some truth to that. Players cooped up by coronavirus protocols are ready to be free from constant testing. But conversely, the short wait for 2020 bowl games should be enticing to players — both the Sooners and Gators are only 11 days removed from conference championship games.
“I think it's a pretty unique year," Mullen said. "I think everybody has to understand ... the stress that these guys have been under from week in and week out."
Mullen pointed out that Florida has played in non-playoff major bowls the previous two years, with a grand total of one opt-out.
"So I think this year is just such a unique deal," Mullen said. "I think it's led everybody to be under a little bit of a different mental state of where they're at."
OU has been immune from opt-outs, having played in three straight College Football Playoffs, during which the trend caught fire.
And Riley's previous point is well made — the overwhelming majority of players are fired up to be in JerryWorld, playing for pride.
Florida's opt-out receivers combined for 151 catches, 31 touchdowns and 2,343 yards. And the Gators' No. 4 receiver, Jacob Copeland, will miss the game after testing positive for COVID-19.
But Mullen looks to Broadway for consolation.
"Our guys are excited with the opportunity to get out there and go play," Mullen said. "Guys that have kind of been in maybe that supporting actor role now that are going into the lead role in the show tomorrow night."
I can tell you this. History doesn't much care who plays and who doesn't. One rabid fan base will go to bed thrilled Wednesday night; one will go to bed in various degrees of disappointment and disgust.
The Sooner story is littered with players who missed bowl games much bigger than the 2020 Cotton. Tailback DeMarco Murray in the 2008 national title game against Florida. Florida State receiver Snoop Minnis in the 2000 national title game against OU. Quarterback Jamelle Holieway in the 1987 national title game against Miami.
Those were injuries or ineligibilities.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.