Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows quite well how teams and players get long-term benefits from the extra practices that accompany a bowl bid.
He cites the dramatic rise of former Tiger Kevin Dodd as evidence.
Dodd was a backup in 2014, when he capitalized on the extra attention he received during workouts leading up to Clemson’s Russell Athletic Bowl victory over Oklahoma.
The next season, Dodd recorded 12 sacks and 23 1/2 tackles for loss while helping Clemson reach the College Football Playoff championship game. He’s now a member of the Tennessee Titans, who selected him in the second round of the draft.
So as Clemson prepares for its second straight playoff appearance, Swinney is reserving at least some of the Tigers’ practice time to working primarily with underclassmen who haven’t played much this season.
“We’ve got a bunch of young talent on this team, a lot of guys that haven’t been coached a whole lot since fall camp,” Swinney said. “And so (we) get the varsity out of the way and take this young group with however much longer we’ve got in the season and really try to shorten the learning curve and build a good foundation with a lot of these guys who we’re counting on in the spring.”
The trick is figuring out how much time to spend focusing on next season versus preparing for the actual bowl game.
NCAA rules allow bowl teams to practice or hold other athletic activities up to four hours per day or 20 hours per week between the end of the regular season and a bowl game. While coaches often refer to the “15 extra practices” that come with a bowl invitation, there is no specific limit to the number of practices a team can hold during bowl preparation.
Teams that don’t reach bowl games are limited to mandatory weight training, conditioning and review of game film between the end of the regular season and Jan. 1. They get a maximum of eight hours per week for those activities, including no more than two hours per week of film viewing.
Coaches agree these rules give bowl teams a major advantage because they essentially get a head start on preparing for the following season.
“These 13 or 15 practices can’t be bought,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “They have to be earned. And with that, it gives you an extra spring ball.”
Learning how to handle that extra practice time can be a matter of trial and error.
ESPN analyst and former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said lessons learned from a 38-6 loss to Colorado in the Cotton Bowl that capped the 1995 season affected his future bowl preparation. For the rest of his career, he devoted at least the first handful of bowl practices to developing freshmen and reserves while giving his starters time to rest.
“My whole focus (before the Cotton Bowl) was to win the game, it wasn’t as much on development,” Bellotti said. “I learned from that because we weren’t a crisp, fresh team. We’d worked too hard.”
Because many of the bowl practices occur when classes aren’t in session, it becomes an ideal time for players to concentrate on improving their games.
“Exams are done and you get plenty of sleep, all your focusing on is football and you really put your mind to just football,” Ohio State defensive end Sam Hubbard said.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said some of the early bowl workouts “are pretty much like camp practices,” and his staff tells each player what to focus on during these sessions. Mason said seven of Vanderbilt’s Independence Bowl practices were devoted to fundamentals.
North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren mentioned the benefits of studying film with players who have been on the scout team all season.
But the magnitude of certain bowls can make it tougher to find development time for younger players because there’s so much emphasis on the game itself.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio alluded to that balancing act last month when it became apparent the Spartans wouldn’t become bowl eligible and he was asked about the long-term drawbacks of missing out on extra practices.
“There wasn’t really a lot of preparation going into the young players,” Dantonio said of the Spartans’ bowl practices the last few years. “We’re trying to do everything we can to win those games, a Rose Bowl or Cotton Bowl. The focus has been on that.”
Balancing a program’s long-term and short-term goals during bowl practices can prove difficult, but it’s a choice every team wants to have.
“There are some teams, some guys who don’t get these extra reps to improve,” Tennessee offensive guard Jashon Robertson said. “It’s very important to take advantage of these extra reps and get everything you can out of them.”