What a great college football program looks like

The college football season will draw to a close next Monday with the national championship game between SEC powerhouses Georgia and Alabama. That game will have been preceded by more than three dozen bowl games, the last of which is tonight, plus the two national semifinal games.

One reason to watch bowl games used to be to watch outstanding players who would be drafted by the NFL in the Spring. For example, I was eager to watch Pitt because of its outstanding quarterback prospect, Kenny Pickett. The Washington Football Team needs a QB.

In recent years, however, top NFL draft prospects have been refusing to play in bowl games. With their NFL readiness established, they don’t want to risk injury.

Pickett, for example, didn’t play in Pitt’s bowl game, the Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl, against Michigan State. He was the rule, not the exception, among players likely to be selected on the first or second day of the draft (i.e., the first three rounds).

I don’t blame players who opt of a bowl game, although I do get tired seeing them on the sidelines cheering their former mates on and being praised by the announcers for being exemplary teammates. Not playing is a business decision. Football, even at the collegiate level, is a business.

However, I admire top prospects who elect to play in bowl games. They truly are exemplary teammates who demonstrate loyalty not just to their brothers, but also to the programs and coaches who, in many cases, helped them establish their NFL readiness.

One team laden with draft picks had no one opt out of its game. That program was Clemson.

If any set of players had cause to consider their bowl game meaningless it was Clemson’s. This is a program that has played in the national championship game four times in the last six seasons. Clemson has been in the four-team championship playoff all six of those seasons.

But this season, they were relegated to playing Iowa State in Cheez-It Bowl. Talk about a come down.

Yet, no Clemson player decided the game wasn’t big enough for him. None concluded that the risk of injury outweighed one last chance to represent Clemson and help the team achieve its eleventh straight 10-win season.

Cornerback Andrew Booth, almost certain to be first round pick if he goes pro this year, played. So did the other healthy players rated likely picks by draft guru Todd McShay.

One of them was James Skalski, a sixth-year senior linebacker. Skalski has seen it all when it comes to competing in the four-team championship tournament. But he wasn’t sufficiently jaded to pass up playing one more game with his brothers.

Skalski, who projects as a mid-round pick in some of the ratings I’ve seen, suffered an injury in the second quarter of the Iowa State game. Or rather, he aggravated an injury he’s been fighting all year. Skalski finished the game coaching up freshman linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr., son of a former NFL star.

Does Skalski regret playing in the Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl? I’m guessing he doesn’t. After all, Clemson won the game.

It was a close call, though — 20-13 — even with Iowa State’s top two draft prospects sitting it out. Without the services of its best draft prospects, I suspect Clemson would have lost.

Why does the Clemson football team excel year after year? The fact that it recruits the kind of players who don’t opt out of bowl games probably has something to do with it.

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