The unfortunate reality of modern-day college football is that post-season bowl games are just not what they used to be.
With the attraction and accessibility of the college football transfer portal alongside the importance of maintaining NFL draft stock, it’s becoming more commonplace for players to opt out of playing in their programs’ bowl games.
It’s hard to criticize players sitting out of middle-of-the-road, somewhat meaningless bowl games when they have multi-million dollar contracts waiting for them in the NFL. The risk is just simply not worth the reward.
However, as the saying goes, man down, man up. For every player opting out, or transferring schools, there is another keen, hungry player waiting to fill the void. And as bowl games are the final competitive game teams will play until September, having a good showing can earn players starting roles come next season.
Here are some under-the-radar or unsung stars who could emerge thanks to opt-outs and transfers.
Jonathon Brooks – RB, Texas (Alamo Bowl)
Bijan Robinson was the best running back in the country last year. Over 1,500 yards, 18 touchdowns while averaging over 6 yards per carry.
He wasn’t just a large part of the Texas offense; he was the Texas offense. There were only three games last season where he had under 20 rushing attempts. In his final two games as a Longhorn, he rushed for 422 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Bijan will be a first-round pick come April, so understandably he has opted out of the Alamo Bowl vs Washington to preserve himself and prepare for the NFL draft. And secondary running back Roschon Johnson will be joining him.
Steve Sarkisian will unlikely change the run-heavy offensive philosophy for the seasons final game, so this will pass the buck to 2nd year running back Jonathon Brooks.
Brooks has seen limited playing time thus far in his college football career. The former 4-star recruit has 179 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in his two seasons with the Longhorns.
Evaluating Jonathon Brooks as a potential replacement for Bijan Robinson is simply unfair. But with a solid performance, he will ease the anxious feeling that Longhorn fans have about the 2023 season without Bijan.
DeAndre Boykins – DB, North Carolina (Holiday Bowl)
Player defections have ravished the Tar heels’ defensive secondary in the lead-up to their Holiday Bowl appearance vs Oregon.
The Tar Heels had a miserable defense last season. And when they thought it couldn’t get worse next year, three starting defensive backs are on their way out of Chapel Hill in favor of the transfer portal.
Storm Duck, who led the team in interceptions with three last season, Tony Grimes, and Cam’Ron Kelly will all play elsewhere next year and will not be playing in North Carolinas’ bowl game.
DeAndre Boykins played as the nickel cornerback last season and made his first career interception in a game-closing effort against Miami.
Boykins will be one of the most experienced defensive backs on the field for North Carolina against Oregon. He won’t be expected to fix the defense’s problems… they’re a long way from doing that, and this game needs to be a shootout for the Tar Heels to stand a chance.
However, he will be depended upon next season as one of the unit’s leaders. He needs to step up, show he can play outside cornerback against an offensive juggernaut like Oregon, and be the top defensive back for the Tar Heels heading into the 2023 college football season.
Squirrel White – WR, Tennessee (Orange Bowl)
Tennessee had one of its best college football seasons in recent memory in 2022. They were ranked number 1 in the country for the first time in 24 years and had one of the top offenses in college football. They have earned a birth in the orangest of Orange Bowls against Clemson, however, they will be without key pieces that helped the Vols to their great season.
Jalin Hyatt played a massive role in that Tennessee offense, and after leading the SEC in receiving yards and touchdowns his NFL draft stock is as high as can be. So there was no surprise when he decided to forego his Bowl game and eligibility in favor of the NFL draft.
Hendon Hooker also emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. However, a late-season injury will keep him out of the Orange Bowl before his departure to the NFL.
So, in the absence of their top two offensive players, the Volunteers will look to Squirrel White as the top receiving threat.
White is a true freshman who showed glimpses of deep play potential later in the season. Over the final three games of the year, he caught 11 passes for 178 yards. He’s not as much of a presence as Hyatt and lacks some size. However, he is shifty in the slot position and can stretch the field.
We still don’t know who White will be catching passes from in the 2023 season, but the Orange Bowl will provide an insight into if he can be the next deep threat for Tennessee.
Johnny Dixon – CB, Penn State (Rose Bowl)
Joey Porter Jr was Penn State’s shutdown cornerback for the three years he was a starter for the Nittany Lions. He was a second-team All-American this season and one of the top cornerbacks in the country, highlighted by the fact that opposing quarterbacks didn’t give his side of the field a look. His departure to the NFL draft leaves a void in Penn State’s secondary.
Despite losing one of the nation’s best cornerbacks, Penn State will immediately him with another one in Kalen King. The Sophomore will be the number 1 cornerback for the Nittany Lions in the Rose Bowl and heading into the 2023 season.
This leaves everyone else on the depth chart to shuffle up. Meaning Johnny Dixon will move from the 3rd corner on the roster to the second, and will have an increased role in the Rose Bowl.
Dixon is a Junior who transferred from South Carolina a few years ago. He has seen enough playing time to step up into a primary cornerback role and has 2 interceptions this season while showing signs of real promise.
JuJu McDowell – RB, South Carolina (Gator Bowl)
South Carolina has been hit hard by defections of key offensive players heading into the Gator Bowl vs Notre Dame.
Starting running back Marshawn Lloyd is a future NFL talent who is looking for a new home in the transfer portal, while RB2 Christian Beal-Smith has been dealing with a foot injury and has been limited in practice. He will most likely see some snaps in the bowl game due to this being his last year of eligibility.
However, look for JuJu McDowell to be the lead running back against Notre Dame to get him some more experience heading into next season.
Sophomore JuJu McDowell has 439 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in two seasons with the Gamecocks. He also made the 2021 SEC All-Freshmen team as a kick returner.
JuJu is a smaller, quicker-style running back who is elusive and quick in the backfield and open space. The Gator Bowl will be his platform to show head coach Shane Beamer that he can be RB1 next season.
Sai’Vion Jones – DE, LSU (Citrus Bowl)
One of the SEC’s most impactful edge rushers, B.J Ojulari, is heading to the NFL draft and in turn, has opted out of the Citrus bowl.
Like they did at times through the season, LSU will turn to Sophomore Sai’Vion Jones to fill Ojulari’s shoes.
As a four-star recruit, Jones was one of the best players in LSU’s 2021 recruiting class, but despite not seeing the field much in his freshman year, he started to show flashes of great talent totaling 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble this year.
The Tigers are also losing Ali Gaye next season as he runs out of eligibility. Sav’ion Jones is the likely in-house option to become the team’s top pass rusher in 2023. But he’ll need a strong showing in the bowl game to convince head coach Brian Kelly and the rest of the LSU staff that they don’t need to explore the transfer portal options.
This article was written by our new writer Ross Love. Thanks to Ross for contributing this article and you can catch more of his work here in the future.
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