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Overcoming bowl opt-outs could be a decisive factor in Kentucky-Clemson Gator Bowl

The key to handicapping college football bowl games used to depend on figuring out which team in any given postseason matchup would show up genuinely motivated to play.

In the current era, there is now a second, equally relevant variable to bowl success: In a time when player opt-outs are not uncommon, a college football program’s bowl success often relies on how much of its roster it actually has available for the postseason.

We already know that the 2023 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl contest between Kentucky (7-5, 3-5 SEC) and Clemson (8-4, 4-4 ACC) — to be played at high noon in Jacksonville, Florida, on Dec. 29 — could be heavily impacted by opt-outs.

Star running back Ray Davis, starting cornerback Andru Phillips and veteran offensive lineman Kenneth Horsey have already announced they are preparing for the 2024 NFL draft. Though it had been thought that made them opt-outs for Kentucky’s bowl game, UK coach Mark Stoops said Monday at a news conference he still held out hope that Davis and Phillips might play in Jacksonville.

Kentucky could be without star running back Ray Davis when it faces Clemson in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. It was thought that Davis, who set a single-season UK record for touchdowns scored in a season with 20 this year, had opted out of the postseason to prepare for the 2024 NFL draft. But Wildcats coach Mark Stoops said Monday he did not think it was 100 percent certain that Davis would not play in the Gator Bowl.

For Clemson, star linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. — son of the former NFL standout of the same name — and standout cornerback Nate Wiggins have opted out.

From a Tigers defensive unit that ranks No. 7 in the FBS in total defense (allowing 278.7 yards a game), that removes both the team’s leading tackler, Trotter (88 stops, 15 tackles for loss, 5 1/2 sacks and 16 quarterback pressures), and a high-impact defensive back, Wiggins (nine pass breakups and two interceptions).

As to whether the Kentucky or Clemson rosters would be most able to absorb opt-outs, consider: Dabo Swinney’s past five recruiting classes, from 2019 through 2023, have been ranked ninth, second, sixth, 10th and 10th in the nation, respectively, by Rivals.com.

Conversely, UK’s past five incoming classes have ranked 30th, 21st, 35th, 13th and 27th.

Obviously, Swinney and the Tigers should be better situated to survive bowl opt-outs than are Mark Stoops and the Wildcats — but, as UNC Wilmington so recently showed us in a different sport, recruiting rankings do not always dictate competitive destiny.

While I have not conducted scientific polling on the topic, my direct interaction with fans suggests they find the concept of bowl opt-outs from a team’s postseason highly frustrating.

From the UK perspective, the opt-outs last season by starting quarterback Will Levis and star running back Christopher Rodriguez pretty much assured UK had no chance to beat Iowa in the Music City Bowl before the Wildcats even showed up in Nashville — and lost 21-0.

Yet players acting on their perceived professional self-interests are hardly the biggest factor that have destabilized and de-emphasized the college football bowl season. That process began long before players started exercising their rights not to play.

Clemson linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. returns a second-quarter interception for a touchdown in the Tigers’ 31-23 win over Notre Dame on Nov. 4. Trotter has decided not play against Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
Clemson linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. returns a second-quarter interception for a touchdown in the Tigers’ 31-23 win over Notre Dame on Nov. 4. Trotter has decided not play against Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.

It has long been common for coaches to leave their teams for different jobs before their bowl game has been played.

For that matter, it is not uncommon for a university to fire a coach before its team plays in a bowl.

Duke’s impending bowl eligibility did not stop Mike Elko from exiting for Texas A&M. It is assistant Trooper Taylor who will lead the Blue Devils against Jon Sumrall and Troy in the Birmingham Bowl.

Heck, had the Aggies’ coaching search interaction with UK’s Stoops turned out differently, it might be the Wildcats with an interim head man for the current bowl season.

Given that the coaches and the colleges have so long treated the bowl games in a cavalier manner, can you really blame the players for doing likewise?

From the fan perspective, how unsatisfying it feels when your team cannot get to the end of its season with its roster intact simply underscores how special it was for Kentucky during its four-year postseason win streak (2018-2021) when the Wildcats’ NFL-bound star players kept opting in for their bowls.

Josh Allen, Benny Snell, Mike Edwards and Co. all played in UK’s Citrus Bowl win over Penn State following the 2018 season. The following year, Lynn Bowden declared for the draft but played (brilliantly) for Kentucky in its Belk Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.

Even when UK took a 4-6 record into its Gator Bowl matchup with North Carolina State after the coronavirus-impacted 2020 season, soon-to-be NFL first-round draft choice Jamin Davis helped the Cats win against the Wolfpack with strong play at linebacker.

Only months before he would be drafted by the New York Giants, wideout Wan’Dale Robinson starred for Kentucky when it rallied to defeat Iowa in the Citrus Bowl that followed the 2021 season.

Given the realities of the current football landscape, it was inevitable that the UK football program would eventually be impacted by opt-out culture.

One should not think less of players who opt out. But when one of your team’s stars opts in to a bowl as an NFL draft-eligible player, you should create a special place in your affections for him.

You should also fervently hope, even pray, that opt in players don’t get hurt while “bowling.”

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