By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Given the changing circumstances heading into the Citrus Bowl matchup between Iowa and Tennessee on New Year’s Day in Orlando, Florida, the game seems more important to one team.
And that team would be the 10-3 Iowa Hawkeyes.
Because how else do you explain Iowa’s roster staying mostly intact, while multiple Tennessee players have opted to skip the bowl game, the most recent being starting quarterback Joe Milton?
He announced on Wednesday that he would skip the Citrus Bowl to focus on preparing for the 2024 NFL draft.
The fact that Milton has opted out hardly comes as a surprise, but it is sort of strange that he waited until five days before the bowl game to announce it.
But then again, maybe it’s wrong to think that anything is strange in this current landscape.
Maybe Milton finally heard what he wanted to hear about his NFL stock, and his decision was made for him.
In addition to Milton, Tennessee will also be without its top two running backs and six defensive backs in the bowl game.
Some are turning pro, including starting running back Jaylen Wright, while others are entering the transfer portal.
Whatever the case, they’re gone, and that hurts the credibility of this matchup, and it hurts the image of the bowl game.
The Citrus Bowl is a January bowl game that has a long-standing tradition, and yet, to multiple Tennessee players, the game isn’t worth playing in apparently.
In fairness, though, Joe Milton is a senior who has a legitimate shot of playing in the NFL, while Iowa quarterback Deacon Hill is a sophomore whose options are probably limited.
Being the Iowa quarterback is probably as good as it could get for Hill at this point, while Milton already has proved himself at the collegiate level and now has a chance to play in the NFL.
Kirk Ferentz deserves praise for building a culture in which wearing the Iowa uniform means a great deal to his players, especially in a bowl game.
But again, for many of his players, being a Hawkeye might be their best option as loyalty works both ways.
Iowa is a developmental program in which multiple players improve over time.
They embrace the grind and take pride in finishing what they started.
The few Iowa players that have entered the portal since the end of the regular season appear to want more playing time than anything else.
And that reason would certainly make sense.
As for the Tennessee players that have opted out of the bowl game, it would be unfair to say that they’re disloyal or selfish because each case is unique.
And sadly, the situation with Tennessee is hardly out of the ordinary as multiple players from multiple teams have opted out of playing in a bowl game.
Minnesota was down to its third-team quarterback, Cole Kramer, and had a 5-7 record heading into its Dec. 26th matchup with Bowling Green in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.
Minnesota received the bowl bid because it had the best Academic Progress Rate among five-win teams.
The Gophers won 30-24 as freshman running back Darius Taylor rushed for a career-high 208 yards after returning from a leg injury.
Taylor often lined up in the wildcat formation to help compensate for a lack of depth at quarterback.
Kramer was set to leave the program after the season, but he stuck around to play in the bowl game.
He passed for just 26 yards, and he also denied a rumor that he was paid $30,000 in NIL money to stick around.
Nothing says bowl fever like a 5-7 Minnesota squad down its third-team quarterback squaring off against a 7-5 team from the Mid-American Conference the day after Christmas.
The fact that an Academic Progress Rate is used when there aren’t enough bowl-eligible teams with at least six wins might be a sign that there are too many bowls games.
There are currently 43 bowl games played by 86 teams over a three-week period from December to January.
That is way more than half of the 133 teams that compete at the FBS level.
Many bowl games have been reduced to a participation trophy, and it’s only going to get worse with the college playoff expanding to 12 teams for next season.
The month of December is busy for college football for lots of reasons, including that it marks the opening of the transfer portal window.
The season isn’t even over, and yet, college football’s version of free agency starts in December.
It just seems a recipe for chaos, and a major threat to the future of some bowl games.
Kirk Ferentz likes to say that there is no such thing as a bad bowl game, and for a person in his position, maybe that’s true because there are rewards for playing in a bowl game, including the additional practice time.
But as the college playoff continues to grow in size, power and influence, the future of the current bowl structure just doesn’t seem sustainable moving forward.
Florida State is undefeated (13-0) and preparing to face Georgia in the Orange Bowl, but will be without at least 21 players that have opted out of playing in the game.
That includes its top three receivers – Keon Coleman, Johnny Wilson and Jaheim Bell – all of whom declared for the 2024 NFL Draft.
Those three accounted for just under 53 percent of Florida State’s total receiving yards and 15 of its 25 touchdowns through the air.
And remember, this is the Orange Bowl matching Florida State against the two-time defending national champion that we’re talking about.
It’s as if Florida State’s season ended when it was left out of the four-team playoff despite being undefeated.
Because for some of the players, apparently, it did end.