TUSCALOOSA — As much as he’d rather not deal with it, Nick Saban had been anticipating the question for several years now.
And with No. 13 Alabama (10-2, 6-2 SEC) officially out of the College Football Playoff picture for the first time following Sunday’s invite to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, to face No. 14 Michigan (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten) at noon on New Year’s Day, they came in like a crashing wave.
Do you expect any of your draft-eligible players to opt out of participating in the bowl game? What sort of conversations have you had with your draft-eligible players?
“Well I’m sure that guys are going to make individual decisions based on their circumstance and their situation,” Saban said Sunday afternoon on a conference call, “but we want to focus on the guys who want to look to the future and look to try to improve themselves as players and improve our team in getting back to the standard that we want to play to.
“This has been something that’s been a bit of an issue in the past with other programs and other teams. We haven’t experienced it for a while, but we’ll see what happens with this group.”
That group is rather significant too, with around 10 draft-eligible Crimson Tide juniors currently weighing their options of whether to turn pro as well as the value of sitting out the Citrus Bowl. Among those are receivers Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith; offensive tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr.; running back Najee Harris; outside linebacker Terrell Lewis; defensive back Xavier McKinney; injured quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (hip); and inside linebacker Dylan Moses (knee), who missed the 2019 season with an ACL injury. Most have drawn first-round consideration in various online mock drafts, even both Moses and Tagovailoa who won’t play regardless due to their injuries.
During Sunday’s selection show, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit hinted at there being a Tagovailoa-led players-only meeting to discuss their options together, especially those that came in together in the same 2016 signing class, but it’s unclear when or if that is even going to happen.
Saban said there’s already been some internal conversations with Alabama’s draft-eligible players, but there could be more in the coming days between now and the beginning of bowl prep, which is expected to begin sometime next week.
“We will have those conversations and we’ll let you know when and if any of those decisions are imminent to the players on our team,” Saban said.
Players opting out of their bowl games has been an issue for various teams across college football for the last several years, especially those that aren’t in the Top-4 playoff field.
The trend effectively started in 2016 when future Top-10 picks in former LSU and Stanford running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffery elected to sit out their team’s respective bowl games that season to avoid injury and get a head start on preparing for the NFL Draft process.
In 2017, that list ballooned to include eventual first-round picks in Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander, NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb, Florida State defensive back Derwin James, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, and Ohio State defensive back Denzel Ward. Even players that didn’t go in the first round opted to sit and avoid any costly injuries, including third-round picks like Oregon running back Royce Freeman, Texas defensive lineman Malik Jefferson and LSU defensive lineman Arden Key.
“Those are individual conversations,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said Sunday, “(but) ‘finish what you started’ has always been kind of my general rule that I’ve personally thought of it as.”
There are also several horror stories of players who suffered late-season injuries that ended up costing them millions when their draft stock plummeted. Former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith tore two ligaments in his knee while playing in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl and fell from a projected Top-10 pick to the top of the second round. Michigan tight end Jake Butt tore his ACL in the 2017 Orange Bowl and dropped to the fifth round a couple months later.
Alabama’s players have a real-life example of how costly an injury can be having watched Tagovailoa, who many projected as the No. 1 overall pick, suffer a fractured right hip in the second quarter against Mississippi State last month He is now facing a 6-month to a year rehabilitation process that is expected to adversely affect his draft position should he declare.
"For me, I think it’s different. With a lot of the guys that are draft-eligible, you can’t really tell them what they should or shouldn't do,” Tagovailoa said Thursday. “It's their choice and they've worked hard enough and they've worked long enough to get to where they are in their life. And if they decide to not play, to sit out, I think that's a decision they need to sit down with Coach (Saban) and make. I think the best thing I can do and the rest of our teammates can do is support them in that decision."
For his part, while he is clearly out of the Citrus Bowl, Tagovailoa is still weighing the value of leaving for the NFL early or returning to Alabama to rehab and potential play well enough to once again elevate himself to the top of draft boards.
“This is probably going to be the biggest decision of my life. This is why I seek advice from what I believe and why I seek advice from my parents. But truly the decision comes down to me,” Tagovailoa said last week. “If I feel like it’s right for me to stay, or if it’s time for me, too. It’s just a really, really big decision, man, and everybody just wants to know. So that’s what makes it even bigger.”
Of course, there’s still plenty of time before the NFL’s Jan. 20 deadline for Tagovailoa and others to ultimately announce whether they’re turning pro, but in the meantime, there’s still the potential for multiple Alabama players to decide their time in Crimson has already come to an end.
The 68-year-old Saban is just learning how to deal with that trend.
“(We want our players) look at this (Citrus Bowl game) as an opportunity to enhance their future by playing really well and maybe improving their draft status,” Saban said. “And that’s what we’ll emphasize to our older players on our team, and they’ll all have a choice to make.
“But when you have guys that don’t play in bowl games and they do play in the playoffs, that in of itself tells you the view of the players in terms of how they look at the bowl game because we have made everything about the playoffs in college football.”