ORLANDO, Fla. — Looking back in time, it seems preposterous. But it really happened.
Every year but one from 1934-76, a team of collegiate all-stars played the defending NFL champions at Chicago’s Soldier Field. In its heyday, it was one of the biggest events on the annual sports calendar. The 1947 and 1948 games drew more than 100,000 fans thanks in part to the hometown Bears and Cardinals being the defending champs.
The final edition of the game never even finished. The game was delayed by a lightning storm in the third quarter, then unceremoniously called when a mob of drunken Chicagoans made off with one of the goal posts.
At one time, it was probably inconceivable that there would never be another College All-Star Game. Today, it’s crazy to think they ever played it at all. Given the injury risks for both parties – particularly the players who hadn’t yet earned their first paycheck – it simply wouldn’t fly in the modern era.
Which brings us to a question.
In 40 years, will fans look at draft-eligible players who elect to play in non-playoff bowl games the same way we now look at the College All-Star Game?
While it seems unlikely that things will ever go that far, the powers that be cannot be comfortable with the trend that’s now developing. This year more than a dozen players will be sitting out their bowl games, including West Virginia’s Will Grier and Yodny Cajuste. That’s up from five a year ago and two when running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey elected to sit in 2016.
At the very least, it’s time for bowl organizers to start paying attention to something that has potential to hurt them at the box office – and already might be in West Virginia’s case.
Here’s a handful of potential solutions for organizers to consider if they want to keep the games going strong.
Spin it forward
Mercifully, college football has no preseason. But the best way to market future bowl games may be for the glimpse they provide into the future.
The fact that Jack Allison will get meaningful reps at quarterback before the start of next season is may actually benefit West Virginia more than Grier playing. And if Allison doesn’t play well, better to find out now when there is still time to bring a potential starter in as a graduate transfer.
In a way, it makes more sense to go into the offseason excited about the players who are coming back next fall. If bowl games can successfully sell this concept, it shouldn’t matter how many potential draftees sit out. Fans will get to watch their future stars blossom.
Pay to play
Bowl games already give players cool swag like video game systems, cameras, gift cards and more. Why not up the ante?
Perhaps individual bowl games will need to offer to pay into insurance policies to make up for the potential loss of income should a player be seriously injured in one of their games. If you want a guy bad enough, open the pocket book.
It is possible that the fan and player interest in most bowl games will dwindle to the point where the only way to give the postseason sufficient meaning is by creating more games that have an obvious meaning.
Moving to an eight-team playoff is already being treated as a matter of inevitability. If that serves to further erode interest in bowl games, a move to 16 teams might not be far behind – especially if that’s what it takes for Group of Five teams to feel like they finally have a fair shake.
For what it’s worth, the FCS already has a 24-team playoff, and Division II has a 28-team playoff, albeit with an 11-game regular season. Most would probably prefer to avoid going this route, but the evolution of the next decade of college football will reveal whether the sport’s powerbrokers even have a choice.
Players to skip bowl games
West Virginia QB Will Grier (Camping World Bowl)
West Virginia LT Yodny Cajuste (Camping World Bowl)
Minnesota LB Blake Cashman (Quick Lane Bowl)
Minnesota LT Donnell Greene (Quick Lane Bowl)
Michigan State CB Justin Layne (Redbox Bowl)
NC State LB Germaine Pratt (Gator Bowl)
NC State WR Kelvin Harmon (Gator Bowl)
South Carolina WR Deebo Samuel (Belk Bowl)
Arizona State WR N’Keal Harry (Las Vegas Bowl)
Oklahoma State RB Justice Hill (Liberty Bowl)
Michigan DL Rashan Gary (Peach Bowl)
Michigan LB Devin Bush (Peach Bowl)
Michigan RB Karan Higdon (Peach Bowl)
Stanford RB Bryce Love (Sun Bowl)
LSU DT Ed Alexander (Fiesta Bowl)
LSU CB Greedy Williams (Fiesta Bowl)
Houston DL Ed Oliver (Armed Forces Bowl)
Iowa TE Noah Fant (Outback Bowl)
Texas safety DeShon Elliott (Texas Bowl)
Florida State safety Derwin James (Independence Bowl)
Texas tackle Connor Williams (Texas Bowl)
Oregon running back Royce Freeman (Las Vegas Bowl)
West Virginia running back Justin Crawford (Heart of Dallas Bowl)
LSU running back Leonard Fournette (Citrus Bowl)
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (Sun Bowl)