Bowl practice a chance to prepare for future
When a team earns a bowl bid, its coach inevitably talks about how much the extra practice time helps the program get a jump start in preparing for next season.
But the nature of the bowl schedule dictates that some teams benefit more than others.
The postseason schedule begins Saturday with the New Mexico Bowl, Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and New Orleans Bowl. It doesn’t end until Alabama and LSU face off in the BCS championship game Jan. 9 at New Orleans.
Because there’s no specific NCAA limit on the number of workouts a team can hold to prepare for its bowl, teams playing later in the calendar get more practice time.
“It’s obviously a benefit to go to a bowl game, but you don’t get any extra practice time when you’re playing like we are, on the 17th,” says San Diego State coach Rocky Long, whose team faces Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl.
Indeed, four of the six teams playing Saturday finished their regular season two weeks ago. That didn’t give them much time to prepare for next season; heck, it barely gave them enough time to prepare for their bowl game.
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That didn’t stop Utah State from using its bowl preparations as a way to gear up for next season. Utah State faces Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl two weeks after closing the regular season with a 24-21 victory over New Mexico State. But the Aggies have spent 30-45 minutes of each practice session doing developmental work with their underclassmen.
“I’m calling it another spring ball,” Utah State coach Gary Andersen says. “That’s what I told our younger kids in the program.”
Utah State switched to this practice strategy after beating Nevada on Nov. 26 to become bowl-eligible. Even as it prepared for the New Mexico State game, Utah State was devoting at least 30 minutes per practice to developmental work with an eye toward next season.
These sessions give underclassmen a chance to work on Utah State’s base offense and base defense. Many of those players spent much of the season on the scout team and didn’t get much individual time with their position coaches. Now they’re getting a head start on spring practice.
As much as he wants to make sure his team wins Saturday, Andersen believes he also must get his team ready for next season. As an assistant at Utah, Andersen saw how much those extra workouts would help the Utes the following year. During his first two seasons at Utah State, he saw how much the Aggies could have benefited from the additional practice time. Now that he has Utah State bowl-eligible in his third year on the job, Andersen wants to make the most of the situation.
“There’s no question the kids are more prepared [in the spring] because they have a base knowledge of the offense and the defense,” Andersen says. “It’s the same way they did it at Utah.”
Andersen also believes the extra practices help Utah State’s recruiting efforts. Most of the big-name programs headed to bowls already have filled out the majority of their 2012 recruiting classes, but that’s not necessarily the case for schools outside the six major conferences.
By getting a closer look at the underclassmen who haven’t earned much playing time this fall, Andersen’s staff can decide which guys are ready for expanded roles next season and where the Aggies need to find upgrades.
“Our recruiting board has changed two or three times within the last two weeks because of the young men in our program – will they be ready to play next year or not ready to play next year?” Andersen says.
Teams with later bowl games can benefit even more. Although coaches and the media often talk about the “15 practices” a team gets to prepare for a bowl game, as if that’s a set number, the NCAA actually has no specific regulation on the number of sessions a team can hold. A team only must follow the same regular-season rules that limit practice or athletic activities to four hours per day and 20 hours per week.
That allows teams in January bowls to have a little more flexibility as they attempt to prepare for the game while also looking ahead to next season.
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For instance, Northern Illinois won’t face Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl until Jan. 8, the night before the BCS championship game. The Huskies plan to hold 17 practice sessions (15 full practices and two walkthroughs) as they get ready for that game. NIU coach Dave Doeren considers seven of those sessions developmental or fundamental workouts, in which the older players rest while the underclassmen get ready for the spring.
Northern Illinois boasts a senior-laden lineup that has recorded double-digit wins in each of the past two seasons. This isn’t a 6-6 team that barely became bowl-eligible and is still trying to find its way. The Huskies’ top players also need time to rest after playing 13 games, including the Mid-American Conference championship. By devoting nearly half its practice time to 2012 preparations, the Huskies get to begin the rebuilding process early while allowing their key performers to heal.
“We know who our best players are, and we know who’s kind of banged up and who’s fought through injuries for us all year,” Doeren says. “This is really an opportunity to get some guys healthy and a huge opportunity to get our young guys who are going to have to play a ton next year some extra work.”
This is Doeren’s first season as a head coach, but he learned the value of these extra bowl practices during a five-year stint as a Wisconsin assistant.
“It’s priceless,” he says. “The teams that don’t get this time are at huge disadvantage, in my opinion. Every coach in the country will tell you spring ball is vital to a program. Well, we get to do it twice. It’s huge.”
Having a later bowl game would seem to create even more of an advantage, but coaches insist that isn’t necessarily the case.
“There’s a positive to having an early bowl,” Andersen says. “You can get them back and get them in the weight room even sooner. There’s give and take in both scenarios.”
And as much as Doeren likes having the extra practice time that a January bowl provides, he worries that a long layoff could hurt his team. Wisconsin was one of the nation’s hottest teams at the end of the 2010 regular season, but the Badgers weren’t as sharp as usual in a Rose Bowl loss to TCU. It didn’t help matters that Wisconsin hadn’t played since Nov. 27.
Northern Illinois enters its bowl on an eight-game winning streak, and Doeren wouldn’t have minded playing a bowl as soon as possible while his team was playing so well. The last thing the Huskies needed was a five-week break.
“Our guys were in a pretty good groove,” Doeren says. “I’d rather have played two weeks [after the end of the regular season] and kept it going, but we don’t get to make those decisions. We’re very excited to play when they tell us we’re playing, but I think any coach will tell you that’s a long time off.”
That long layoff might hurt Northern Illinois in its next game.
But it sure ought to help the Huskies next season.
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