A few weeks of speculation followed Alabama’s Iron Bowl win and last Friday’s first practice for the Sugar Bowl.
Whether Will Anderson and Bryce Young would suit up for a rare non-playoff bowl game was perhaps the most discussed aspect surrounding the early December downtime. An hour or so before that first drill, news broke they would, in fact, play in the bowl game despite top-5 pick NFL draft projections.
Nick Saban addressed that decision Friday while the two players had their turn at the mic Monday. Everyone spoke a lot about the culture of the program and their place within the leadership playing a factor.
The other question to consider: What are their top-projection peers doing about non-playoff bowl games?
While a number of potential top picks are competing in semifinals, a healthy number faced the same decision as Anderson and Young.
Most opted out.
Florida State edge rusher Jared Verse is an exception as the transfer from Albany will play in the Cheez-it Bowl against Oklahoma.
The player with the most comparable situation to Alabama’s pair was Clemson’s Myles Murphy. The Tigers play Tennessee in the Orange Bowl but the potential top-5 pick opted against participating. The defensive end reportedly becomes the first healthy player to opt out of a bowl game in the Dabo Swinney era. The Vols will also be shorthanded with star receivers Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt also opting out.
Other opt outs included quarterbacks Anthony Richardson (Florida) and Will Levis (Kentucky), running back Bijan Robinson (Texas) and cornerbacks Joey Porter Jr. (Penn State) and Christian Gonzalez (Oregon). Porter Jr., opted out of the Rose Bowl.
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The decision wasn’t hard for either Anderson or Young, they said Monday.
“Anybody that knows Will Anderson and that knows the type of person I am, the competitor I am,” he said, “probably knew that I was gonna be playing in this game.”
Anderson was asked about playing in the bowl game several times as he cleaned up on the awards circuit. He chose not to reveal any decisions at that time but said at least once he was still working out with the team in Tuscaloosa.
Any discussions he had with Saban where they discussed this matter would remain private, Anderson said.
“But for me, it was all just about leadership and being here for the team,” Anderson said. “I’ve been preaching so much over these last two years about how to do things the right way, the standard around here and how to uphold the standard. It wouldn’t be right for me to walk out on my teammates. I think that’s a big reason why I decided to play in this game and play with those guys.”
The projected top draft picks who are part of playoff teams include Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, Georgia’s Jalen Carter (DT) and Kelee Ringo (CB) and TCU receiver Quintin Johnson. Buckeye receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba was injured late in the season and he announced he wouldn’t be playing but isn’t considered an opt out.
Other big names haven’t announced anything about bowl games including USC receiver Jordan Addison. The Trojans, who had a shot at a playoff spot before losing the Pac-12 title game, will play in the Cotton Bowl against Tulane.
Alabama moved up in the CFP rankings as a result but finished one spot outside of the semifinals. That was a factor for Anderson.
“We have a lot to prove,” he said. “We have a lot to show that we should have a chance to be in the playoff. But we’re not, and we’re going to take this opportunity and go with it and make the best of it and go out there and show people why we’re Alabama football.”
The Crimson Tide will practice every day this week in Tuscaloosa through Thursday before taking a Christmas break and reconvening in New Orleans on Dec. 26. The Sugar Bowl kickoff is set for 11 a.m. CT against Kansas State.
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.
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