DALLAS — From the high heat and humidity of August until the snow and bone-chilling winds of January, this has been the longest major-college season ever.
When Oregon tackles Ohio State in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game on Monday night, both teams will be playing their 15th game of the season. No team has ever played more, not at the highest level of college football.
Will the teams — who got here in part because they play lightning fast getting to the line on offense — look sluggish? Maybe they’re tired, or maybe just tired of being reminded they should be tired.
“The ‘Bama game was very physical, it was a grind, it was a fist fight,” Ohio State safety Vonn Bell said of the national semifinal game his team won in the Sugar Bowl. “This game is going to be a track meet, I’m telling you. So get your legs right.”
After years of having the Bowl Championship Series title game decide who’s No. 1, this year an extra postseason round was tossed into the works for the four-team tournament. In essence, during the period 15 years ago when a team would have a month or so off to prepare for a bowl game, this year they had a conference championship game, followed by a semifinal. And now each school has a record 15th game this season in the CFP title game.
“It feels like it’s been a while,” Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said of the season, which hasn’t had much of a letup since camp opened in early August.
— Darron Lee
As a result, Ducks coach Mark Helfrich and the Buckeyes’ Urban Meyer have kept a close eye on their players for wear and tear.
“It’s something that we tried to plan for going into this season,” Helfrich said. “We got some input from various sources, whether it was the Canadian Football League where they play 20-some games with preseason, Super Bowl winners, and quote-unquote lower [college] levels that have a buildup and a playoff-type season.”
Yet even he concedes that this has been a long haul.
“It is definitely a grind,” he said.
Meyer, a worrier anyway, has worried since November about the accumulation of games and practices leading to tired legs, lack of stamina, colds, bumps, bruises and the heartbreak of psoriasis.
Asked at home what challenges the extra week presents, he said, “The biggest one is the health of the player, the wear and tear that we have to be leery of.”
Some will say that these are 20-somethings in prime shape and conditioned like thoroughbreds who shouldn’t get tired. There’s something to be said for that.
Besides, many of the players aren’t even considering the possibility of being tired. They’re being carried along by the excitement of playing in games of this magnitude.
“Come on, man. We’re probably like a small one percent playing now, even including the NFL guys, too,” Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee said, mocking those who say they’re tired. “Just bow up and go out and play. We’re playing for the national championship, we’ll be fine.”
Team doctors and medical staff have scrutinized every player for weeks for both teams to make sure they weren’t getting that run-down feeling.
Oregon running back Royce Freeman might feel more worn down if not for the attention of the training staff.
“Our trainers are doing a great job, modifying how we work and everything, and how we are recovering,” he said.
But some still feel a mental toll. They spend the winters lifting weights and conditioning, slugging it out through spring practices and summer workouts — then seldom if ever take a day away from football for another six months.
“It’s been a long season,” Bennett said. “The coaches have done an incredible job of keeping people healthy and understanding this is a completely different situation than usual. They’ve kept us strong without breaking our bodies down.
“But you can still notice that it’s week 18.”