The decisions by LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey to bypass postseason games as they prepare for the NFL could be a jolt to the bowl business.
“Is it a sign of things to come?” asked Arthur Weiss, an agent based in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. “I would think that it’s too early to say for sure, but when you factor in the type of financial considerations that these top-ranked players are facing, it may well be headed in that direction.”
McCaffrey, the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up, announced Monday he wouldn’t play in the Dec. 30 Sun Bowl between No. 16 Stanford and North Carolina “so I can begin my draft prep immediately.” Three days earlier, Fournette said he would miss No. 19 LSU’s Citrus Bowl matchup with No. 15 Louisville on Dec. 31 to rest an injured ankle.
The two running backs are regarded as potential first-round draft picks, with Fournette expected to be among the first players picked.
Their decisions garnered so much attention Monday that Texas A&M junior defensive end Myles Garrett released a statement through the university saying he would play in the Texas Bowl against Kansas State. Garrett hasn’t announced whether he plans to turn pro after this season, but he is considered a potential No. 1 overall pick.
Bowl officials have taken the news in stride, at least publicly.
Steve Hogan, the executive director of the Citrus Bowl and Russell Athletic Bowl, said he was aware at the time LSU received a Citrus invitation of the possibility Fournette’s ankle might prevent him from playing.
“I hope it’s not a trend,” Sun Bowl executive director Bernie Olivas said. “As far as Christian, I’m not speaking for him, but I know where he’s coming from, especially based on the fact he’d been injured this year already and didn’t want to risk reinjuring.”
Last season, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith tore two knee ligaments in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, and has not played since.
Smith was projected as a potential top-five pick before his injury, and instead went to the Dallas Cowboys in the second round with the 34th overall pick in the draft. The difference in guaranteed contract money is about $19 million.
Wright Waters, the executive director of the Football Bowl Association, said he understands if an injury prevents a star player from performing in a bowl game.
“If we have someone who is just pulling out of the game … and they’re just saying, ‘I might get hurt,’ and they don’t have any problem, yeah, I’ve got a problem with that,” Waters said. “And I think that’s in some cases kind of narrow-sighted, because they might have the opportunity to enhance their (stock).”
North Carolina junior defensive tackle Naz Jones will forgo his senior season to enter the draft and will play in the Sun Bowl.
“I still have things that I can put on film,” Jones said. “Yeah, I’m not in that category to sit out a game like that.”
Pittsburgh junior running back James Conner redshirted the 2015 season as he recovered from a knee injury and battled cancer. Conner said he never considered missing the 22nd-ranked Panthers’ Dec. 28 Pinstripe Bowl matchup with Northwestern.
“I just feel like I’m going to take advantage of it really, showing the scouts I’m back to my normal self and that I can compete at a high level after everything I’ve been through,” Conner said.
McCaffrey’s Stanford teammates Trenton Irwin and Solomon Thomas sent out tweets supporting him Monday. Dallas Cowboys rookie running back and former Ohio State star Ezekiel Elliott tweeted: “I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray.”
Elliott bypassed his senior season to enter the draft. He added in separate tweets: “there is a difference between not coming back for your last year and not finishing your last season.”
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said he understands getting upset about a player bailing out on his team, but there is more to it.
“You’ve got to let go of the moment and look at the big picture, which I think is really, really big in moments like this,” Bielema said. “These kids now have not only the next six months that could shape their future, but when you’re paying the money that some of these people are getting, you’re talking about the next 40 years of their life, their children’s lives and everybody can be affected by this.”
The stakes are higher than ever for players looking at professional careers.
“It’s as simple as this,” Weiss said. “It’s risk vs. reward.”
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Will Graves in Pittsburgh and Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Arkansas, contributed to this report.
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