The race for the national championship is turning into a marathon.
As Division I-A college football moves to a 12-game schedule this fall without including additional bye weeks, players and coaches wonder how teams will react to this season-long endurance test.
"It's going to be tough,'' Florida State linebacker Buster Davis said. "You have to be well conditioned to go through a season like that."
Some teams will have to be in better shape than others.
Every Big Ten program will go through its entire regular-season schedule without a bye week. Penn State coach Joe Paterno criticized the switch because of the way it could affect players on the field and in the classroom.
"When we had a week off, you could always kind of gear in some things and make sure your kids got a little rest and take a couple of days off so they can get caught up with term papers and do different things,'' Paterno said. "We don't have that now. If you go 12 games for 12 weeks in a row, that is not going to be easy. I would prefer, obviously, that we had an open date.''
At least Paterno's team doesn't have Purdue's schedule. The Boilermakers' Nov. 25 trip to Hawaii will mark their 13th regular-season game without an open date.
Purdue coach Joe Tiller sought advice from NFL coaches on how to prepare a team to play that many weeks in a row.
"Some guys might have a bye in Week Two of the NFL and (then) play 14 straight,'' Tiller said. "They've experienced this, and we have not. I've been trying to get some ideas. A lot of it has to do with practice schedules and practice tempo. We'll give it a go and try some things that will be different."
Tiller isn't the only coach adjusting his practice schedule to make sure a team doesn't tire itself.
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville is holding morning workouts on Tuesdays and Thursdays to give his players more time to rest. The Tigers traditionally have conducted all their practices in the afternoon.
Auburn, Alabama and Vanderbilt are the three SEC schools without an off week on their schedules.
"We felt like after taking Monday off, our players would be fresher (if they) go Tuesday morning early for your regular-season practice, then they have that afternoon off for academics and study hall,'' Tuberville said. "The next day, they don't come back till 3:30 (p.m.). It makes them more of a student, so to speak."
No time to rest
Every Big Ten football program will play at least 12 games this season (Purdue has a 13-game schedule) without a bye week. The following schools from other BCS conferences also won't have any off weeks this year:
Altering the practice times also produces a necessary change in routine for players as they adjust to this 12-game schedule.
Miami quarterback Kyle Wright cited the daily drudgery of a football season as one reason why the 12-game schedule could wear a team down mentally as much as physically.
"The season gets long," Wright said. "It's like 'Groundhog Day' for six months straight. You have the same routine, the same time of meetings each week, the same time of practice. When you travel, you wear the same thing. You eat the same food. That's just the grind of the season."
And it's a grind that probably won't get any easier in the near future.
Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson doesn't expect the NCAA to give up the financial benefits of a 12-game schedule. When he announced the switch last year, NCAA President Myles Brand noted that the extra money from a 12th game could help support athletic departments that are struggling financially.
Brand also cited historical evidence to indicate a 12th game shouldn't hurt a student-athlete's academic performance.
"When you look at the revenue potential of the 12th game, I don't see it going back,'' Johnson said. "The only other thing I could think that would change that is maybe if they get a playoff, (they'd) go back to 11 games and maybe start the playoff on the 12th game, so the playoff system wouldn't be so long. That's the only thing I could see changing it."
With no playoff system on the horizon, coaches better get used to a 12-game schedule. And at least one coach wonders why some of his peers are making such a fuss about the additional game.
South Carolina's Steve Spurrier grew accustomed to pro football's longer seasons while coaching the United States Football League's Tampa Bay Bandits and the NFL's Washington Redskins. He believes major college programs shouldn't have much trouble adjusting to a 12th game.
"I think it's easy to play 12 games," Spurrier said. "The Division I-AA guys, when they get in the playoffs, I think they play 14 or 15. It's no problem at all for them. I watch basketball, girls' basketball, and they'll play four straight nights at the SEC tournament. I don't hear them? complaining that they're playing too much."
Many players also don't mind the extra game.
They share the sentiments of Florida State's Davis, who understands the rigors of the 12-game schedule but still can't wait to start it.
"I don't care if you put 15 games on the schedule," Davis said. "I want to play football. It doesn't matter who we play and how many games we play. I just want to play football."