Jefferson leads No. 22 Arkansas over Penn State 24-10

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) throws a pass as he is pressured by Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool during the first half of the Outback Bowl NCAA college football game Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Tampa, Fla.

TAMPA, Fla. — Linebacker Jesse Luketa and safety Ji’Ayir Brown have been two of Penn State’s better players, this season and certainly Saturday, in a 24-10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl.

Asked about Luketa after the game, Franklin emphatically said, “I will pound the table for him with every single NFL team, GM, coaches. The guy is a football player. He loves football. He’s a great teammate.

“As we all know, whether it’s the NFL or any other industry, the more things that you can do to bring value, the better.”

On Brown, just as emphatically:

“Very appreciative of his opportunity at Penn State. He is a football player. Loves, loves to play the game.’’

As you may have heard, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said on the College GameDay panel Saturday that, “I think this era of player just doesn’t love football.’’

He was talking, of course, about college players with NFL Draft eligibility and aspirations opting out of bowl games.

One wonders if that’s what Franklin was talking about, too.

Six of Franklin’s players opted out Saturday. At least six; not sure what was going on with, for example, CB Tariq Castro-Fields and RB John Lovett.

Those six include nearly half the starting defense and WR Jahan Dotson, who was simply Penn State’s best player.

Of the opt-outs, Dotson is a lock for the first or second round of the draft. S Jaquan Brisker is likely a second- or third-rounder. DE Arnold Ebiketie seems a lock to get drafted somewhere. So does LB Brandon Smith, although based much more on raw upside than production.

LB Ellis Brooks and DT Derrick Tangelo were good college players, but not at all locks for the NFL.

Except for Dotson and maybe Brisker, the opt-outs could could conceivably have helped their draft status by playing Saturday.

But the opt-out trend is about more than careerism.

College football players can now market their image. Like their coaches (ahem), they can essentially move freely from school to school. They can consult with agents from the moment they step on campus.

They have become, in relatively short order, more like independent contractors and less like rank-and-file soldiers.

The college football playoff is perceived to have rendered bowl games meaningless, even though they’re exactly as meaningful, in objective and tangible terms, as they’ve always been.

Interestingly, Penn State QB Sean Clifford kind of offhandedly suggested, during a media scrum here last week, that they ought to pay players — players like Dotson, his favorite target — to play in bowls. Maybe they soon will. The ground is shifting too quickly to process.

Hovering over all this is the reality of which we were joltingly reminded Saturday night when Ole Miss QB Matt Corral, sure to be drafted, injured an ankle in the Sugar Bowl and was next seen in crutches on the sidelines.

More than in any of our major sports, in football, the next game you play could be your last.

There is an argument, often pushed by curmudgeonly old guys, that this is generational, that these kids today are entitled and spoiled and just don’t get all that it means to be part of a team.

On the far other side of the cultural divide, there’s the belief that what’s happening is something like emancipation, that college athletes have at long last been released from some fractional version of indentured servitude. From that side there is nothing about player empowerment that doesn’t justify itself.

Both those sides are off target, because they skim over a central truth and ignore the most central interest.

I’m talking about the fan. The economic demand side of college football.

Start at Princeton-Rutgers in the mud in 1869. From there, draw a straight line to recruiting rankings and seven-on-seven tournaments and combines and the Elite 11 and James Franklin’s $75 million contract and Jahan Dotson’s future.

The force driving that journey, 100% of it, is that Americans fanatically, irrationally love this stuff — not just sports but the specific, collegiate model — and really, really want to beat you at it.

It’s the entire reason we know who James Franklin and Jahan Dotson are. It’s the reason I’m sitting in the Tampa airport, writing this.

Speaking of empowerment: How players and coaches feel about bowls is far less important than how you feel.

And how you feel should be measured in consumerism. The Outback Bowl with Penn State’s entire varsity on the field (and Arkansas’) is a better product than what we saw Saturday, in the same way that a U2 concert isn’t as good if the Edge opts out.

There’s no reason for you to be happy about that, and nothing stopping you from acting accordingly.

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