They have real playoff experience


The caveat was issued right up front.

Sure, the era of the College Football Playoff has arrived. And yes, there are a handful of coaches scattered across the game's highest level who have not only survived but also thrived in that format in their time in the Football Championship Subdivision, before they moved up to their current gigs.

But each of the three win-or-go-home experts solicited for advice on how to deal with the new postseason setup stressed one thing above all else before they dived into preparation methods, how to keep players focused and everything else that comes with claiming a championship over the course of more than one week.

"I don't know if there's any perfect formula," said former Montana and current UNLV coach Bobby Hauck. "You just have to grind, and somehow you've got to make it to the finish line."

For the first time ever, in January a team is going to break that tape in the top classification in college football.

And though the comparisons aren't perfect between an FCS model that currently includes 20 more teams than the College Football Playoff, there are lessons that can be applied from one format to the other. Hauck (three championship appearances), Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson (two titles with Georgia Southern) and Wyoming's Craig Bohl (three straight championships with North Dakota State) all offered a bit of insight they'd love to have reason to use again at some point with their current teams.

Stock up on caffeine

The grind is spread over more weeks at the FCS level, but the month after the pairings are announced is going to wear out coaches trying to prepare for the semifinal. More importantly than that, the short turnaround for the title matchup will leave coaches scrambling and trying to use every available second to prepare for the title matchup.

"A lot of Red Bull, lot of coffee and a lot of Diet Mountain Dew," Bohl said. "Your mind is working, you've got this [first] game, but if you're able to get through it, what is the makeup of the other two teams? What do we need to do if we're really going to win a championship?"

Getting an advance scouting report on the two potential opponents might be a job for graduate assistants, and they might be the ones guzzling the energy drinks twice as fast with a double workload. Although Bohl stressed the importance of having all the information ready ahead of time for a team he expected to win, almost every ounce of that extra energy during a practice week needs to be locked in on the task at hand for players and the coaching staff.

"I was superstitious, so I didn't ever look ahead," Johnson said. "As soon as we would find out the result, we'd be back in there either Saturday night or Sunday morning, and we'd break it down. But I think once you get to that point in the season, we were more concerned with ourselves than the opponents. We tried to make sure that we were going to be ready to play as good as we could play."

Keep the players fresh

The players might just be looking at one extra game, but given the pressure and what's on the line, ensuring that a roster is healthy and fully charged for maximum effort is no small feat.

Hauck made it clear that it's not as simple for college coaches to manage their way through the postseason as it might be for NFL coaches, for example, because they're already dealing with time constraints that pull attention away from the field.

"People say the NFL plays that many games, but they don't have to practice like we do to get ready to go," Hauck said. "They don't have class, they don't have finals week. It's taxing."

As opposed to the more laid-back approach to a bowl game, there has to be at least some element of physical, full-contact practice for players to be ready for two of the biggest games they might ever be part of. That can be a difficult balancing act, given that there's no way to replenish an injured roster and attrition is likely to have had an effect by that stage of the season.

"There's got to be a real level of consistency and an understanding that there's almost two seasons," Bohl said. "There's your regular season and the playoff system, so you want to start strong, and you want to finish stronger.

"The teams that are going to be able to master that are the ones that are going to achieve greatness. But until you've experienced [it], it's a different animal."

Maintain perspective and stay level-headed

The buzz for a playoff has been building for years, and now that it's here, it's going to be almost impossible for a program to entirely tune out the hype.

But it's on the coaches to keep a level head on the sideline and send a message that this is just like any other game once it starts.

"I learned from [Nebraska coaching legend] Tom Osborne [that] the bigger the game got, the calmer and more consistent the coaches need to be," Bohl said. "You can say every game is important, and I get that. But there are going to be certain games that, you know what, if you just play well, you're going to win. Then there are going to be other games where you have to bring your very best. When the stakes were highest, he was the calmest. I always tried to take that into account."

From there, it helps to have a veteran team with respected leaders who can pass that message to the rest of the players. If they've been in big-time games before and can draw on that experience, even better.

"We had a lot of tradition and a lot of success there, so our guys were used to winning, and they didn't want to be the team that lost," Johnson said. "It was motivation in itself, and they knew what we were playing for. They had been there, and they understood what was at stake and what it felt like to win the thing."

That's not technically a feeling anybody will be able to draw on during the inaugural College Football Playoff this January. But soon enough, there will be one more expert to add to the panel, one who knows what it takes to win it all.