Though popular theory states that the bye week in college football offers certain intrinsic advantages, the truth is actually more complicated.
Indeed, though having a week off definitely can be a good thing for a team, it often all comes down to timing as to whether or not an extra seven days of rest truly helps or hurts a squad grappling with a full 12-game schedule.
Though we can’t really track factors such as momentum, peak performance and injuries, we are aware that they are real-success determinants.
The other thing these often under-the-radar dynamics share is that they are all affected by uncontrollable scheduling nuances such as the placement of the bye week.
So, when is the best time for the football gods—those deities who dictate the week off—to grant your collegiate-gridiron team a bye?
To answer this stimulating question, we’ll present four key elements each bye week needs to have, in terms of placement, to be most advantageous to its beneficiaries.
If all the stars align and all four criteria are met, the week off truly could be the benefit it is advertised as; if not, you really must question the usefulness of your team’s in-season college football holiday.
Later in the Season
The advantages of having a bye week later in the season as opposed to earlier are pretty clear, and they start with allowing injured players to lick their wounds for an extra seven days before having to hit the field again.
It’s pretty clear that early-season injuries aren’t going to be the issue they would be eight or nine games into a 12- or 13-game season.
The other big upside is that, since we’re dealing with what is virtually a brand-new team each year—due to graduation, the NFL draft and limited eligibility—having a bye placed later in the season would plausibly allow a team to gel early in the year without interruption.
And then once the bye came, later, the team would have already established the chemistry necessary for success, a connection that would not be hindered by an extra seven days off.
You could argue that this theory is null and void in the case of programs that run timing-based offenses such as those at Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Washington State.
Really, you could make a case that the offenses that need to “click” and “establish rhythm” to churn out obnoxious numbers of yards would be better served to not have a bye week at all...or a halftime for that matter.
One of the real disadvantages to having the bye week very early, say in Week 2 of the season, is that, given a loss in the opener, the team suddenly has two full weeks to deal with what is suddenly a climate of total defeatism.
Dealing with this negativity can be catastrophic when you’re managing—due to the cyclical nature of personnel in collegiate athletics—what is a new team, which needs to have momentum built on the belief they can win the other 11 games on their schedule.
To demonstrate the consequences of early-season byes versus those later in the season, we turn to Southern Miss in 2012, a team which actually lost all its games but began the losing streak with a 49-20 loss to Nebraska in its opener in Lincoln.
This loss, though expected, was followed by a bye in Week 2 and then a game at home in Hattiesburg against East Carolina, a contest which the Golden Eagles dropped 24-14, setting up a run of 11 losses in 11 weeks.
It would be impossible to say that the bye week ruined the entire season, but if Southern Miss could have moved its bye later into its campaign, perhaps it would have had more time to identify what the problem was in 2012 and then manage at least a single win.
On the flip side we look at Ohio State, which had the benefit of a Week 11 bye just after a blow-out victory over Illinois and before a final two-game stand at Wisconsin and then back in Columbus versus Michigan.
The placement of the week off in this case definitely allowed the Bucks to catch their breath and get healthier before winning out and reaching 12-0 but, it’s irresponsible not to point out that they still had to win each of their final two ball games.
After a Win
Expanding on the concept of the inherent disadvantages of a Week 2 bye that directly follows a loss, the same principal can generally apply to any defeat going into the extra week off.
On one hand, the week off gives the coaching staff an opportunity to address what went wrong in the most recent defeat, but on the flip side, the team is left with a losing taste in its mouths for 14 full days.
The question is, does that create fire in the belly or despair in the heart?
This obviously depends on a number of different factors including the nature of the loss (e.g. blowout, nail-biter, we didn’t show up, etc.), who the team lost to (i.e. over-matched foe, evenly-matched opponent, etc.) and what the loss meant (e.g. the hunt for a title is now over; it was meaningless; it cost you, but you’re still in the mix; etc.).
Regardless, you can’t totally diminish the argument that coming into a bye week after a win is preferable to marching into 14 full days off after suffering a loss, any loss.
To illustrate, Michigan State went into its 2012 bye week directly off a narrow Week 10 loss to Nebraska and, after mulling it over for a full two weeks, hosted Northwestern and got nipped by the Wildcats 23-20.
Did the Spartans absolutely lose because of the bye week? Well, that would be impossible to prove, but that said, the defeat to the Huskers did smolder in their helmets for seven extra days.
On the proverbial other side of the coin, we stick with the Big Ten and look at Penn State’s 2012 slate, which included a Week 7 bye sandwiched between a home game against Northwestern and a road trip to Iowa.
After besting the Wildcats by 11 points in Week 6, the Nittany Lions were able to build on the momentum—and remember, this was a young team with plenty of off-field distractions—and travel into Iowa City in Week 8 to beat the Hawkeyes 38-14.
Before a Difficult Opponent
From a purely psychological approach, there may be no more dangerous bye week than one placed before an opponent that a team is supposed to blow out.
This scenario emits an air of relaxation and ease that, in quantities of 14 days, is dangerous to the momentum and overall mental state of a football program with any measure of winning in its future.
Yes, we basically have two weeks off before beating the snot out of Rice and then seven days before we have to get serious against Texas.
That’s just an upset waiting to happen.
To illustrate, Notre Dame’s bye week in 2012 came rather early, in Week 5, but was sandwiched between a huge win over Michigan and then a compelling test against a solid Miami (Fla.) team in Chicago.
The Irish ultimately came off their week off and blew the Hurricanes out 41-3, and you could argue that in the same way. While the timing of the bye helped spur this victory on, it could have spelled disaster if it had come in between the Pitt and Boston College games later in the season.
On the flip side of this we find Stanford, which also had an early-season bye in 2012 but fell to an opponent they were supposed to handle easily after a week off.
In this case the No. 21 Cardinal shocked the world by beating No. 2 USC 21-14 in Week 3, took Week 4 off and then tragically fell to unranked Washington 17-13 in Week 5.
Stanford’s bye week may have been far more advantageous had it been placed in Week 6, after Arizona and before its game with Notre Dame.
Before a Road Game
The logic here is precisely the same as in the case we presented for the advantages of having a bye before a difficult opponent as opposed to an overmatched foe.
Basically, if your team has the mental comforts of knowing they have two full weeks in their own beds, then complacency can quench the burning thirst necessary to keep guys fired up from August all the way through early December.
Though it’s rarely discussed, momentum and peak timing are both huge in all sports, and college football is no exception.
And the placement of bye weeks can throw the delicate equilibrium of “normalcy” and “routine” off the rails.
A case that illustrates this theory in real life comes from Oklahoma’s 2012 slate, which oddly had two early-season byes scheduled in both Week 3 and Week 5.
The Sooners opened up 2012 with a narrower-than-anticipated win over UTEP followed by a blowout victory over FCS Florida A&M before taking a week off coming into their Week 4 game against K-State in Norman.
Oklahoma wound up losing to the Wildcats 24-19—a loss that ultimately cost the Sooners a trip to the BCS—and though it would be ludicrous to assert that the outcome would have been different if it would have been a road game, you have to wonder.
Yes, would the Sooners would have gotten their “bumps up” more if they were playing away rather than in the safe confines of Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, where they had only lost one home game since 2006?
Even if the Sooners all swore up and down that the home record wasn’t in their heads coming into the game, it’s impossible to prove that it wasn’t, especially given that they were playing a K-State team that really couldn’t be that good.
Representing the opposite side of the argument, UCLA’s 2012 bye week was placed in Week 8, just after a seven-point win over Utah and before a roadtrip to Arizona State.
The game against the Sun Devils represented what was the beginning of a two-game series against Arizona State and Arizona, which would decide whether or not the Bruins would be in position to play USC for the Pac-12 South title in Week 12.
Though again, it’s impossible to say that the bye week followed by a road game equaled an absolute win over the Sun Devils, isn’t it interesting to consider what the mental state of the still unproven UCLA team would have been with two weeks in L.A. as opposed to the reality of what was one at home and one on the road?
And this argument becomes all the more compelling when you remember that the Bruins beat Arizona State 45-43 with a FG as time expired.