West Virginia first year head coach Dana Holgorsen has laid out the schedule for the month-long gap between his team's win over USF and the Orange Bowl match-up with Clemson, and it seems to be a balance between two extremes. Holgorsen gave his players the bulk of two weeks off for final exam preparation, with two practices at the end of each week to help keep some rhythm going. (The breaks also allowed WVU's coaches to hit the road for recruiting without missing practices – another advantage of playing in a January bowl.) The team will reassemble for more practices after finals this week, then get a break for Christmas at home before reassembling in Florida on Dec. 29.
Has Holgorsen hit on a good schedule? As history shows, there are numerous methods of approach to bowl prep – and none are guaranteed success.
Take, for example, so of West Virginia's bowl preparations. Following the 1981 season, the Mountaineers, under Don Nehlen for the first time in a bowl game, smashed Florida. The very next year, using much the same preparation scheme, WVU fell to Florida State almost as decisively. Other than the opponents, what was different? In reality, not much, although one photo in a newspaper gave rise to theories that still abound to this day.
A few days before the game, a photo circulated showing a couple of Mountaineers riding a scooter on a beach near Jacksonville. That one shot, taken during some free time for the team, gave rise to the theory that WVU wasn't preparing well – that it was taking it easy. That, in hindsight, "explained" the loss. The same thing popped up around the 1994 Sugar Bowl, when players were reportedly spotted out on the town in New Orleans the night before the game. None of those were ever confirmed, but they provided another "explanation" for the loss.
Fast forward a few years to the 2004 and 2005 Gator Bowls. Preparations for those games, especially the first one, were intense. WVU practiced long and hard before those games. They even went to Jacksonville on Christmas Day for the 2004 game, keeping the players away from home on the holiday. Some complaints of fatigue and dead legs, along with some grumbling about the schedule, were heard. Was it really the preparation schedule that was the cause of West Virginia's overwhelming defeat?
Of course, no discussion of this topic would be complete without last year's puzzling schedule, when WVU practiced fewer times than my college flag football team prior to the Champs Sports Bowl. That schedule also ended in a dispiriting loss.
So, if it's not the schedule, then what is it? The thought here is that if a team wins a bowl game, the prep gets overlooked – the focus remains on the game. In the event of a loss, though, "reasons" must be found – and often those don't have anything to do with the match-ups or play on the field.
Take, for example, West Virginia's 2008 Sugar Bowl win over Georgia. At one pregame function, WVU's team had dinner at an all-you-can-eat steakhouse. Head coach Rick Rodriguez joked afterward that some of his linemen might have gained 10 pounds, and that he had to get them out of the restaurant before they cleaned out the inventory. It was a funny story, but had the Mountaineers lost, there would be some insisting to this day that it was because they overate and were out of shape for the contest.
Those few instances should show that there's no magic formula for getting a team ready. One size definitely does not fit all. The trick, it would seem, is to keep a team in its comfort zone – to prepare a schedule that fits as closely as possible its regular season routine.
Of course, that's not 100% achievable, because there are no month-long layoffs during the regular season. There wasn't a stretch this year when the Mountaineers went a full week without practicing. However, Holgorsen has addressed that as much as possible by mixing in some early practices while also allowing his team time to study, rehab and rest prior to the final push. Then, just as in the fall preseason, the tempo and pace of practices will increase – hopefully to bring the team to a peak performance on Jan. 4.
If that happens, it's likely that the practice schedule won't be given a second thought. But if the Mountaineers come up short, there will certainly be some attention paid to "the long lay-off", and West Virginia's preparation schedule.