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BATON ROUGE – Somehow, they have figured out a way to make meaningless college football bowl games even more meaningless.
Not that long ago, key players began “opting out” of the less significant bowl games — which is most of them — before that was a common term brought forth by COVID-19. Juniors and seniors not in the College Football Playoff or a major bowl did so and this will continue, so as not to risk injury with NFL draft preparations right around the corner.
Since the early recruiting signing date of Dec. 15 began in 2017, more and more just-hired head football coaches have been opting out of bowls as well to focus on recruiting for that date and to hire a staff. They can’t be bothered with getting to know the current players of the team they just inherited. They have to keep the commitments the previous coach gathered and add new ones. And they have to hire coaches to help them recruit now and win later.
Most new coaches are hired in late November or early December with bowls starting as early as mid-December, so there just is not enough time.
New LSU coach Brian Kelly will not coach the 6-6 Tigers against 7-5 Kansas State in the Texas Bowl in Houston, even though that game is not until Jan. 4 (ESPN, 7 p.m.), a curious date to be sure. That’s a Tuesday, by the way. Surely, ESPN would rather Kelly — the first Notre Dame football coach to leave for another job since 1907 — coach LSU that night for ratings. Surely, the Texas Bowl people would prefer Kelly be at the various pre-game festivities and press conferences too.
New Florida coach Billy Napier will not be coaching his new team (6-6) in the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa on Dec. 23 against Central Florida (8-4). Perhaps this is because of the name of the bowl, which is after the mythical and probably fictional pirate Jose “Gasparilla” Gaspar. He terrorized the area in the late 1700s and early 1800s with a form of recruiting. Since 1904, Tampa has held the “Gasparilla Pirate Festival” virtually every year in January. Napier is also more interested in recruiting for Dec. 15 and hiring a staff than donning a pirate costume.
Interim coach Greg Knox, who coaches special teams, will guide the Gators in the bowl after directing Florida’s win over Florida State to finish the regular season. He may or may not be retained. ESPN would probably prefer Napier for its 6 p.m. game on the eve of Christmas Eve.
Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops will coach the No. 14 Sooners (10-2) in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29 in San Antonio against No. 15 Oregon (10-3) in a pretty good bowl, actually, albeit a battle of interim coaches. Stoops is filling in for Lincoln Riley, who just left to be USC’s coach and has no bowl worries as the Trojans went 4-8. Oklahoma just hired Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables to be head coach, but he was not planning to coach the bowl.
Oregon pass game coordinator/receivers coach Bryan McClendon will coach Oregon as head coach Mario Cristobal just accepted the Miami head coaching job on Monday.
As of Monday night, Cristobal was not expected to coach the Hurricanes (7-5) in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31 in El Paso, Texas against Washington State (7-5). Oh, and Miami is expected to hire Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich. It is unknown at the moment if he will direct athletics at the bowl.
Washington State will be coached by its former interim coach Jake Dickert, who opened the season as defensive coordinator. But on Oct. 18, he became acting coach when head coach Nick Rolovich and four assistants were fired for not complying with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees. Dickert just had the “acting” removed after his Cougars beat rival Washington 40-13 on Nov. 27 – their first win over the Huskies since 2012.
Whew, this interim coaching carousel can be breathtaking.
LSU will be coached in the Texas Bowl by interim coach Brad Davis, who just got to LSU last June to coach the offensive line. The offensive line was LSU’s main problem through the first half of the season. And Davis, who is on his seventh job in eight years, likely won’t be retained. Kelly is particularly adept at recruiting and coaching offensive linemen and will likely find a new offensive line coach if he cannot get Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn to join him.
Kelly is also unlikely to keep most of the current LSU coaching staff. Strength coach Tommy Moffitt, who is one of the best in the business and had been at LSU since then-new coach Nick Saban hired him in 2000, has already been let go. Wide receivers coach Mickey Joseph saw that he may not be retained or get a raise and left to be passing game coordinator and receivers coach at Nebraska.
So, LSU’s players will be practicing and playing for coaches they will likely not ever play for again. The coaches, in turn, will be trying to prepare players they may never coach again for a program that may soon fire them. The term, “Mail it in” comes to mind.
Sounds like a great game. Surely, LSU fans can’t wait to hop in their cars and drive to H-Town on a Tuesday after the holidays.
Get ready for some opt-outs or phantom injuries from several players. Even if they wanted to finish their careers playing hard for their school one more time, it probably just doesn’t feel right. One former player told me he would want to play if coach Ed Orgeron had stuck around for the bowl, which was the original plan when he was let go back in October.
But it didn’t feel right for Orgeron to remain while Kelly gets started. Destin, Florida, is feeling a lot better right now for him. Would he and Kelly have shared an office? It has been such a weird season. Some at LSU may even wish the Tigers would have just lost to Texas A&M so as not to have to deal with this juggling act.
For those LSU juniors and seniors considering the NFL Draft who still play in this game, hats off to you. You have pride.
As far Kelly, it would seem like the bowl practices would be a great time for him to get to know and bond with his new players. He would see up close and personal what he needs to do in the spring practices. He could learn their names.
Yes, he can watch the film. But he could also balance the bowl preparation with his recruiting and staff hires, particularly since LSU does not play until Jan. 4. And Houston is a good city for Kelly to spend time in representing LSU at a bowl since it is a fertile recruiting area LSU has long tapped.
Then again, he might lose and look bad. And he has another signing date on Feb. 2 as well.
Plus, Kelly is not off to a fast start. As of Monday night, he has been LSU’s coach for a week, and he has not hired a coach yet or been seen at a prospect’s home or school.
And that’s more important than the Texas Bowl, which is proving that everything is NOT big in Texas.