Few college football coaches know the mental and physical grind that comes with navigating a long postseason better than Chris Klieman.
The Kansas State coach was formerly at FCS juggernaut North Dakota State, whose teams routinely compete for national titles in a division where that means playing 15-plus games per season.
“It’s a grind to play 16 games or 15 games a year,” Klieman said. “We did it for eight straight years. But when you’re competing to try to win a championship, you kind of find a way to get through it. We protected the guys in practice the best we could.”
The College Football Playoff is considering expanding from four to 12 teams to determine its champion, reserving six spots for the highest-ranked conference champions along with at-large selections. The FCS typically has a 24-team playoff, minus the conference championship games that are part of the fabric in the Bowl Subdivision.
Still at least a couple of years away, CFP expansion would get a broader pool of teams involved beyond some of the usual suspects like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma.
It also begs the question of how many games is too many for college players who are still juggling school and facing more wear and tear on their bodies.
Sports medicine Dr. Todd May has seen in his former job working with Marines where fatigue led to more injuries in training, including heat illnesses and stress fractures. Being tired, he said, can lead to more mistakes and perhaps overextending on a play.
“I think the coaches will manage the contact accordingly but the mental fatigue that these guys are going to have to work through, I think that’s going to add to the difficulty,” said May, who works for Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City. “And that’s where we’re going to see the injuries go up. It may or may not be contact.
“But I think you’ll see injuries go up just a little bit just from the mental fatigue, not from the, ‘Hey I’ve been pounding on my buddies that much longer.’”
Klieman could be a strong resource for his peer in terms of managing practice and contact drills to keep the team as healthy as possible. It’s an annual challenge for North Dakota State, where he was an assistant before leading the perennial power from 2014-18.
The Bison would cut down some of the hitting in practice and focus more on things like mental walk-throughs with some extra rehab and recovery sessions built in, especially after Thanksgiving when it’s playoff time.
“Science will tell you you can’t keep hitting these guys and expect them to be fresh and ready to go,” Klieman said.
The Bison went 16-0 in 2019 under coach Matt Entz and 15-1 in 2014. A 15-game season is almost an annual affair for the top teams in the FCS when there isn’t a pandemic.
At the major college level, few teams have tackled that challenge even since the four-team playoff began in 2014. No FBS team has played 16 or more games in the modern era.
That could change in the coming seasons.
Alabama and Clemson have already played 15-game seasons, thanks to the double whammy of a league title game and the four-team playoff.
A 12-team playoff, coupled with the league title games, could extend that season to 16 or even 17 games if the conference championship games don’t become a casualty of CFP expansion.
Alabama, which has won six national titles since 2009, went 14-1 in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Georgia was 13-2 in 2017, falling to Alabama in the national title game. Another SEC team, LSU, went 15-0 in 2019.
At the major college level, Clemson has been the king of the marathon seasons. The Tigers have had four seasons stretch to 15 games over the last six years.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney figures the expansion is good financially and perhaps for the fans, “but I don’t think that’s what is best for the player.”
He said he worries about players losing open weekends and playing even more draining, high-stakes games. For instance, what if that nailbiting, 35-31 win over Alabama in the national title game to end the 2017 season had been a semifinal?
“Now you sit there and look at these guys and say, ‘All right, guys, we got one more,’” Swinney said. “You’re just spent. You’re exhausted. … People say, It’s just one more game. To me, that is a total lack of appreciation for what it takes to win a game, to prepare for a game, to play in a game of that magnitude.”
Sports medicine Dr. Robert Cantu said coaches could minimize injury risk from the extra games by reducing, or even eliminating, full-contact drills in practice. The Ivy League has cut out such drills during the season, while the NFL limits teams to 14 padded sessions during the 18-week regular season.
“Obviously you increase the risk of the players by extending the season, not only the total number of blows that they’re going to take to the head but the chance for getting a pretty big one,” said Cantu, who is medical director and director of clinical research at the Cantu Concussion Center at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts.
There doesn’t appear to be a study specifically on the potential health impact of extra college games. A study led by Dr. Avinash Chandran, director of the NCAA Injury Surveillance Program at the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention, found the injury rate in preseason was higher than either the regular season or postseason. The study used injury data from the 2014-15 to 2018-19 academic years.
Sports psychologist Tony Kemmochi figures the extended schedule with win-or-the-season-is-over games amid academic obligations like final exams could take a mental toll on the younger athletes.
“A lot of family holidays happen around that time, too,” said Kemmochi of Intermountain. “Maybe some people are thinking that this is just a few extra games where for every single game there’s so much more that are we are requiring out of athletes’ life.
“It’s important that if we ask more, that we provide more. What do they need? How can they make this work?”