College football’s bowl season is near and the list of star players choosing to skip their respective bowl games is once again growing. As players continue to make a business decisions to sit out their team’s bowl game and focus on preparing for the NFL Draft circuit, the debates over whether or not players should do so will continue raging in the court of public opinion.
Barring a late change of heart or mindset, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley will play in the Fiesta Bowl, which many assume will be his final game in a Penn State uniform before he leaves for the NFL. Barkley is considered by many draft analysts to be a top 10 prospect and the top running back available in the NFL Draft next spring. His stock is nearly as high as they come for a running back these days, which has seen the importance of a running back in the draft decline in recent years. Though Barkley may not have had the rushing production expected this season for the Nittany Lions, his season was full of highlights that showed just how dangerous he can be at the next level.
So why would the top running back on the board risk playing one more game when he could suffer an injury that might alter his draft outlook? Why would he not follow in the footsteps of last year’s top two running backs, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey? Why not move on from the college game now instead of putting himself in harm’s way in the same Fiesta Bowl that drastically changed the future of Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith just two seasons ago?
Barkley raised a few eyebrows back in the spring, responding to a question about potentially sitting out of a bowl game. At the time, he said it would be a difficult decision to skip such a game, but did leave the door open to consider the possibility.
“I would have a hard time doing it,” Barkley said, according to Sports Illustrated. “But I’m not going to sit here and say I would never do it. I don’t know. I could be in a situation next year where I have close to two broken ankles, God forbid, or something going on in my upper body and I can’t play in a game if I’m considering playing in the NFL.”
Fournette and McCaffrey were criticized when they decided to skip out on the bowl season, but any questions about hurting their draft stock were silenced with the draft. Fournette was the fourth pick overall, going to the Jacksonville Jaguars. McCaffrey heard his name called just four picks later, going to the Carolina Panthers. Skipping their bowl game had no negative impact on the draft stock for either running back, establishing the argument for why running backs should strongly consider sitting out of the bowl season.
But Barkley’s situation is much different from what Fournette and McCaffrey went through. Fournette and McCaffrey each missed some games during the 2017 season due to various injury concerns. Barkley has been healthy all season and is in good shape going into the bowl season.
There is also the magnitude of the bowl games to be considered as well. Penn State is playing in a College Football Playoff New Year’s Six bowl game. Fournette’s LSU was playing in the Citrus Bowl, attempting to go 8-4 for the season. McCaffrey skipped out on Stanford’s appearance in the Sun Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl may not be a playoff game with a shot at winning a national championship this year, but there is much more prestige involved with the game that makes it more rewarding for a player compared to a game in the middle of the day in El Paso.
After Penn State’s final home game of the season, Barkley revisited the comments he made in the spring, clarifying his positioning on the subject with the perspective of his current status as Penn State neared the bowl season.
Saquon Barkley said he’s healthy so he’s playing in the bowl game. pic.twitter.com/ZYh9nkKmoI
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) November 19, 2017
Barkley’s situation is more like former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 than Fournette’s or McCaffrey’s. And like Elliott, Barkley appears ready to play his final college game in the Fiesta Bowl before heading to the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining. Playing in the Fiesta Bowl certainly didn’t hurt Elliott, who was picked with the fourth overall in 2016 by the Dallas Cowboys.
All these young guys deciding to skip their bowl games ?.I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray
— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) December 19, 2016
As it would turn out, it was the Cowboys who also ended up drafting Smith out of Notre Dame after he suffered a crucial injury in that same Fiesta Bowl game. Additionally, the Fiesta Bowl was the stage of Willis McGahee’s knee injury in the 2003 BCS National Championship Game against Ohio State. McGahee was still selected in the first round of the 2003 draft, although not until the 23rd overall pick. Did the injury cause him to drop? Probably.
Barkley is certainly taking a risk by choosing to play in the Fiesta Bowl for Penn State, but it is his decision to make.