NCAA Football

How College Football's Realignment Craze Has Affected Travel Schedules

When Tulsa plays its first league road game as a member of the American Athletic Conference this October, the trip to Philadelphia to face Temple will be the culmination of months of preparation and planning.

And none of that will have anything to do with the Golden Hurricane's plan for the game itself.

"Battles are won in the planning stages," said Kyle Grooms, director of football operations for Tulsa, citing one of his favorite quotes from Sun Tzu's The Art of War. "It's not about where you play, it's about how you travel."

As one of a dozen FBS programs switching to or joining a new conference for the 2014-15 season, Tulsa and its realignment brethren face much more than a change in the level of competition. With new cities to visit, some of which require cross-country trips, the logistics associated with taking a college football team on the road can be as intricate and involved as scheming to stop the opponent's read-option offense.

Concern about travel depends on the program, though. West Virginia was one of the first teams to make a major move, both competitively and geographically, in 2012, but Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen has focused more on the who instead of the where.

“We were facing a significant upgrade in competition,” Holgorsen said. “A lot of people want to make geography a part of it, but I don't buy into that. I've never viewed it as a problem.”

Whether it will bother Tulsa will depend on how well someone like Grooms does his job. A former Tulsa player (who experienced the program's move from the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA in 2005) entering his fourth season handling all of the Hurricane's travel arrangements, he has had his work cut out for him of late. Including this season's American trips to Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and Temple, he'll have made arrangements for road trips to 11 different cities in the past three years just for league games.

“It gets easier the more you do it,” Grooms said.

Because C-USA went through a major overhaul in 2013—adding six schools while losing four—the Hurricane will take only one repeat trip (to Houston, in 2012 and this November) over a three-year span. And that's only because the American has become a de facto C-USA, with East Carolina and Tulane joining Tulsa in that league this year along with the four (Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and SMU) who joined last season.

Tulsa's move becomes official on July 1, the same as for most teams making a conference switch this year. Most notable are Maryland (ACC) and Rutgers (American) to the Big Ten and Louisville (American) to the ACC, though all told five leagues will feature new lineups for 2014-15.

And while the main motivation for the changes centers around improved competition and better exposure (i.e., TV money), one thing that hasn't seemed to factor into the shifts has been a regard for travel impact.

The massive realignment wave began in 2011 when Colorado and Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Pac-12 and Big Ten, respectively, but it was the next year when things got really wacky in terms of geography. That's when Missouri and Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC, a move that resulted in Missouri getting lumped into the SEC's East Division with the likes of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

The Big 12 responded by adding TCU and West Virginia, the latter sliding over from the Big East and initiating a mass exodus from that league over the next two years that affected nearly every league in FBS.

For West Virginia, moving to the Big 12 meant far more travel than before when it came to league road games. In their last Big East season, in 2011, the Mountaineers' average conference away game was 422 miles from Morgantown. The first slate of Big 12 road games, in 2012, were an average of 1,018 miles from home.

The conference switch wasn't even a possibility when Holgorsen left Oklahoma State for West Virginia in December 2010. He came to the school to be an offensive coordinator in the Big East, then was tabbed as the head coach before the 2011 season and led the Mountaineers to a league title and a blowout win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. During that 2011 season was when West Virginia announced its move, sending Holgorsen back to the Big 12 where he'd spent nine of the previous 10 seasons as an assistant.

“I had a lot of familiarity (with the Big 12), having been there before,” he said. “I thought I could pass that on to the players. I was able to hit a home run with some of the boosters when it came to recommending some of the best restaurants.”

Holgorsen said he was more worried about how his players would handle facing better teams in bigger stadiums than anything to do with travel. While in the Big East his team had short 60- or 90-minute flights to games at Rutgers or Syracuse, but they also bussed the 300-mile trip to Cincinnati. As a result, having to fly more than two hours to get to cities in Oklahoma or Texas wasn't a big deal, he said.

“Sometimes we would bus five hours; it doesn't take five hours to get to Lubbock,” he said.

The key to minimizing travel and road woes is to stick to a routine, Holgorsen said, noting that whether playing at home or away the goal was to always be at the team hotel by 5 p.m. the day before a game. He said kickoff times, dictated by TV, can cause the most trouble because you have less control on when you're able to return from a road game.

“It just affects you on the back end,” he said. "It might take you an hour or two to load everything up, and then you still have to get home."

Tulsa's Grooms echoed Holgorsen's routine sentiment, as he plans for a hotel arrival between 5 and 5:30 p.m. the day before away games. Any earlier or later can mess with the routine and lead to too much idle time or a cramped schedule.

“We want to make it so that we plan the same way whether we're playing in San Diego or New York,” he said. “We want to keep it the same no matter the distance or destination.”

Tulsa announced its move to the American in April 2013 but didn't find out which teams it was going to play until February of this year, and when those games would be wasn't finalized until March. That put extra importance on what Grooms called his “spring recon trips,” when he visits three or four hotels in each road city to find the best place to stay and start working out a travel package.

If planned properly, players will have little exposure to the inner workings of a road trip. That's how UTSA senior offensive lineman Nate Leonard has seen it.

“We're so secluded when we go on the road, if we don't look outside we wouldn't know where we are,” said Leonard, who has started as the Roadrunners' center since the school began its football program in 2011. “The bus ride is the only time we know our surroundings.”

In Leonard's career he's seen UTSA go from being an independent in the FCS ranks to part of the now-defunct WAC and now to C-USA. He's played road games as far west as California and as far east as West Virginia, with a trip to Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton this season. He admits that travel can “take you out of your comfort zone,” but it's hard to complain about the opportunity.

“Playing football all over the country is a dream come true,” he said.

All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise specified.

Distances based on TravelMath.com figures.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Jameis Winston Reportedly Purchases Insurance Policy Worth Up to $10M

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has reportedly purchased an insurance policy that will pay him between $8 million and $10 million if an injury or illness forces him out of the first round of the 2015 NFL draft. 

Yahoo Sports' Rand Getlin provided the news, noting that Winston is the first returning Heisman Trophy winner since Sam Bradford in 2008 to purchase a similar plan. 

He provided more details: 

According to Getlin, an insurance policy of this nature has a steep premium of $55,000 to $60,000 per year. While it isn't known how Winston himself will cover that cost, Getlin notes that most collegiate athletes who take this route use financing. 

You don't have to go very far back in history to find an example of how this sort of plan can be beneficial. 

USC wide receiver Marqise Lee purchased a total disability insurance policy last August, and when he slipped to the second round in the 2014 draft after suffering an MCL sprain, he collected somewhere in the range of $5 million.

Most likely, nothing comes of this. Players such as Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel had insurance plans that didn't pay off. Still, when it comes to Winston, who is projected as a top-10 pick after an electrifying redshirt freshman season, it's better safe than sorry. 

Moreover, as Getlin noted, this likely means that Famous Jameis won't be staying in Tallahassee past his sophomore season: 

It has always been assumed that Jameis would throw his name into the 2015 NFL draft hat, but his father, Antonor Winston, recently told AL.com's Jeff Sentell there was a different plan in place: 

"We want Jameis to succeed with one more year in baseball and two more years in football," he said. "We've never strayed from our plan that he is going to be in college until he gets that degree."

Taking out this kind of policy suggests otherwise, however. 

Either way, the two-sport athlete can feel safe knowing that his future is protected from an unpreventable injury. 

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Clemson Football: Why Wayne Gallman Will Be Tigers' X-Factor in 2014

The Clemson Tigers ranked No. 10 in total offense in 2013. Much of that was because of a passing offense that averaged 333 yards per game and ranked No. 9 overall.

On the ground, the Tigers weren't quite as successful. Clemson finished No. 56 in rushing offense and last year's top two rushers on the team are now gone.

No problem, Clemson fans, the Tigers should be a much better rushing team in 2014. Freshman Wayne Gallman will team with senior D.J. Howard and a pair of juniors in C.J. Davidson and Zac Brooks.

With that said, Gallman will be Clemson's X-factor on offense as the Tigers look to break in a first-time starter at quarterback.

In 2013, Howard, Davidson and Brooks combined to rush for 614 yards, while Gallman redshirted.

The Post and Courier's Gene Sapakoff notes that Gallman has impressed head coach Dabo Swinney and the Associated Press indicates he led the team in rushing in the team's annual spring game.

According to ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson, offensive coordinator Chad Morris hopes that he has the running back stable that will take his offense to the next level.

Gallman, along with Davidson, bring speed to the table. However, Davidson is more one-dimensional than Gallman.

At 6'1", 205 pounds, Gallman has excellent size and can run between the tackles or bounce it outside and go the distance at any time. That's something the Tigers lacked from the running back position in 2013.

For a player blessed with outstanding speed, Gallman is also a very physical runner.

This spring, Morris couldn't hide his enthusiasm regarding Gallman, telling Adelson that the running back is "probably as dynamic and electric a back as I've seen. He can turn speed to power so fast. There's a lot of great things going on with our backs."

The Tigers' current depth chart has Howard and Brooks ahead of Gallman and Davidson. However, the Tigers head to Athens, Georgia, on Aug. 30 to face a Bullogs defense loaded with talent and eight returning starters.

Clemson will need a playmaker—or two—in the backfield, and Gallman is that guy.

Howard has been injury-prone throughout his career and Brooks has never topped 246 yards in a season.

Clemson, with Cole Stoudt making his first career start at quarterback, will need plenty of speed and versatility on the field to get through the first month of the season when the Tigers not only face Georgia, but defending national champion Florida State, too.  

Gallman can provide that in bunches.

The biggest question regarding Gallman is how he will fare in pass protection. Young running backs generally struggle in this area, and Stoudt—while a pretty good athlete—isn't quite as nimble as former quarterback Tajh Boyd.

If Gallman wants to take the starting running back job, he must succeed in protecting the passer.

Clemson will most certainly use a running-back-by-committee approach early in the season. Talent usually wins out, though, and Gallman is the most talented runner Clemson has. He will remind some fans of former Tiger star C.J. Spiller.

For the first time in his seven-year tenure as head coach, Swinney will look for his defense to lead the team. However, at the end of the day, offense always wins for Clemson.

Gallman is Clemson's next offensive star.

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Penn State Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season

It's no secret that the Nittany Lions have depth issues, forcing players into action earlier than they probably should be.

Last year, Christian Hackenberg started from day one, and he was joined by fellow freshmen Adam Breneman, Richy Anderson and Brandon Bell as newcomers taking significant snaps for the Nittany Lions.

2014 will provide depth issues of its own and a new crop of freshman will get early snaps. Here's a look at which players have the best shot at not only seeing action but also potentially earning a starting job among their new teammates.

 

 

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The Opening 2014: 10 Sleeper Recruits to Watch in Beaverton

The Opening is set to take place July 5-10, and it will be an intense event. While the pool of 162 players is filled with elite prospects, several sleeper recruits will be in attendance.

The stars will come into the event commanding all of the attention, but a few unknown commodities have a chance to steal the show. A few 3-star quarterbacks will have a platform to outshine several stud passers in Beaverton, while a 3-star offensive lineman could show he deserves to be ranked higher after a good performance.

Plus, an undersized defensive back is capable of holding his own versus some of the nation's top receivers.

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Jameis Winston Surprises Sleeping Teammate by Falling on Him on Team Bus

Jameis Winston should really let the people who block for him get their rest. However, the temptation to mess with a sleeping teammate is just too much.

Offensive lineman Cameron Erving apparently fell asleep during a bus trip. The Florida State quarterback saw that as an opportunity to wake up his teammate in epic fashion.

As Winston said on Instagram, he "had to do it." That's understandable. Most of us would probably have done something to mess with Erving as well.

[Jameis Winston, h/t College Spun]

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Elite 11 2014: Power Ranking This Year's Finalists

College quarterback stars of the future will converge in Beaverton, Oregon, this July as another edition of Elite 11 competition comes to a close. A group of 18 finalists earned the chance to emerge as the best of the bunch in a national showcase.

We tossed out the star ratings and focused on game film to rank each contender.

From celebrated commits to late-rising recruits still searching for offers, here's a look at who is aiming for a shot at stardom in an event that once featured Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston, Tim Tebow and Matthew Stafford.

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Don't Write off Injured Alabama DL Elisha Shaw Just Yet

"I've just got a feeling in my soul that I have another play left on that field."

That's what's motivating Elisha Shaw, a defensive tackle from Tucker (Ga.) High School.

The 6'4", 295-pound defensive tackle was once rated as the top defensive tackle in the state of Georgia and the No. 3 defensive tackle in the nation in the class of 2014. 

Then, things changed.

In August 2013 while at practice, Shaw injured his neck while making a tackle. It was a scary injury for Shaw, but at the time, it wasn't something that he thought would end his career.

"After I went down, my neck was really stiff so they put me in a neck brace," Shaw said. "I thought it was the sort of thing where they'd give me some pain relievers and it would be something that healed in a week, and that'd I'd come back and be ready to go."

He didn't.

During a checkup shortly after the injury, doctors discovered that Shaw had injured plates in his neck. He confirmed the specifics of his injury that were reported in February by The Crimson White—strained ligaments in his C1 vertebrae, bulging discs in C3 and C4, and an improper curve in his neck. His doctors advised against him continuing his football career.

"The doctor came into the room and said, 'I'm sorry son, but you will not be able to play football anymore'," Shaw said. "That's when it happened. That's when everything changed."

It changed in a hurry.

Shaw sat out his senior season recovering for injury. His star value sunk, the offers dried up and his options after high school dwindled.

"It never sunk in because, you know, something you work so hard for, you won't let it get by you that fast," Shaw said. "You won't just let it go."

One school didn't let him go.

Alabama.

According to ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough, Shaw "signed" with Alabama on national signing day in a ceremony with his teammates at Tucker High School. It wasn't the signing day ceremony he had in mind. Instead of signing a national letter of intent, Shaw agreed to a scholarship at Alabama under a medical exemption as part of an agreement with the staff.

He said:

That meant the world to me because my loyalty to Alabama was real. Alabama was my very first offer. I had no rankings, all I had was a day at their camp. They had faith in me through everything, and when this obstacle came up, they were there. I really appreciated that. I needed that in my life, because it was really hard. It was like a part of me had died. In life, you get stuff like that. The goal is to never stay down.

He isn't.

Shaw will arrive in Tuscaloosa this August, and hopes that his "career-ending injury" doesn't end his career after all. He has stayed in game shape throughout his injury, checking in at the same weight he was when his career was cut short.

"My only doctor is the man above," Shaw said. "I train everyday like I have a game next week. I'm still gridin' and still chasing that dream. When I get to 'Bama, I'm going to try to my best to get back on the field. Whatever it takes. I'm going to talk to the doctors and see what I can do."

 

If Alabama's doctors clear him, how risky would it be for Shaw to resume his career following his "career-ending" injury?

"This is a very tough injury and one that is going to give varied opinions from doctors," said Will Carroll, sports injuries lead writer for B/R. "Obviously, his doctors at Tucker were a bit worried. It's a serious injury, but if Alabama's doctors (some of the best in the world) clear him to play, they'll also be monitoring him closely. Certainly this is something that could cause problems in his cervical spine down the road. Although it elevates the risk, it does not put him in imminent danger."

He'll be on a medical exemption scholarship when he arrives, which doesn't make it impossible for him to see the field at Alabama. But, in order for him to play for the Crimson Tide, it would take some work behind the scenes.

John Infante of the Bylaw Blog confirmed that players on medical non-counter scholarships can come off and play at the same school, but that scholarship would be counted back every year in which he received aid. That could create a violation if it puts the school over the 85-player limit in any of the years in which received the scholarship.

"His best bet would be for Alabama to have an open scholarship this year and he essentially would not yet be on a medical scholarship," Infante said. "Otherwise, Alabama would either need to take the violation (which normally carries a two-for-one penalty so they would lose two scholarships at some point down the road) or try to argue for a waiver, probably on the basis that their doctors did not have adequate time to evaluate Shaw’s injury. Or, he transfers and tries to play somewhere else."

Shaw recognizes that playing again after such a devastating injury is a long shot, and even if it doesn't work out for him on the field, he still intends to pursue a career roaming the sidelines.

"I want to know my options," he said. "If the doctors tell me that they really think I shouldn't play, I'm going to continue to train with the team and push toward coaching."

He has options because Alabama believed in him, and that's not something that he takes for granted.

"They could have just thrown me away and moved on to the next," he said. "They stuck by their word."

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand, all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.com and all college statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com.

 


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