How many college football teams can you watch in-person in one football season?

Published on March 21, 2018 by Dr. Randal S. Olson

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10 min READ

The college football season once again came to an end back in January, which now leaves us college football fans with nothing to do but post football memes online and feign interest in other sports until August rolls around again. This year, I've decided to jump the gun and start planning ahead for the 2018 college football season. With the 2018 college football season schedule already announced, we can start planning our vacations to see our favorite teams, rivalry games, and stadiums.

But what if we did something a little different this year? What if we embarked on a trip that was a little more... epic in scope?

Ohio State's stadium, nicknamed "The Horseshoe," is a must-visit for any college football fan

If you've followed my blog over the years, you'll know that I'm no stranger to planning epic, once-in-a-lifetime road trips. This time, I'm going to make a trip that allows us to watch as many different college football teams in-person as possible during the 2018 regular season. If you don't care about how I made this trip, skip down to the "Optimized college football trip v1.0" section.

Rules of the trip

The best place to start when planning a trip of this magnitude is to set a few ground rules. In this case, I'm going to make a handful of assumptions:

  1. We only care about Division I FBS teams for this trip. 130 teams are enough to work with already.
  2. We especially care about Power 5 conference teams. Most of the best college football teams are in the Power 5 conferences, so when push comes to shove, we prefer seeing a Power 5 team over any other.
  3. We want to see as many big rivalry games as possible. Big rivalry games are unique and fun to watch.
  4. We will attend a maximum of one game per day. Without advance knowledge of what time the games are taking place, it's impossible to schedule multiple games per day.
  5. We will need to fly between every game. Sometimes driving between the games may be possible---especially between Saturday and Thursday games---but for the most part we will need to hop on a plane to make the next game on time.

We these rules in mind, we can now formulate a plan on how to create this trip.

How to optimize the trip

If you're familiar with college football, optimizing this trip is no small feat: As of the 2018 season, there will be 130 Division I football teams with 51 days of games scheduled over a 3 1/2 month period, typically on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Each of the 51 days have somewhere between 1 and 77 games scheduled on that day, and it's our task to choose a series of 51 games that allows us to see as many teams as possible.

The challenge comes when we calculate the number of possible trips we can choose: On August 25, there are only 4 games to choose from. Easy enough. On August 30, there are 9 different games to choose from, for a total of (4x9=) 36 possible trips. On August 31, we add another 5 games to choose from and we're up to (4x9x5=) 180 possible trips. By day 51, we're up to roughly 1.6 x 1032 possible trips. That got out of hand quickly, didn't it?

Even with a computer, solving this problem in a brute force manner isn't practical. On my computer, I can evaluate about 1,000 different trips per second. Even if I spread this program across 1,000,000 more computers, it would take about 5 x 1015 years to compute every possible trip. Unfortunately the 2018 college football season would be over by then, and even worse, humanity isn't even expected to survive nearly that long. Therefore, we need to find a smarter way to optimize this trip if we want a chance of going on it before the Human race goes extinct.

In my previous posts, I described a genetic algorithm approach to optimizing trips similar to this one. In this post, I'm going to take the same kind of approach: At first, I'll create 500 random trips and evaluate them according to how well they meet rules #1--#3. After that, I'll take the best of the initial trips, make copies of them, and make small random changes to the copies, for example by picking the UCF @ UConn game on August 30 instead of the Wake Forest @ Tulane game. Finally, I'll throw out all of the old trips that I started with. After I repeat this evaluate-rank-copy-modify-delete process 500 times, I'm left with an optimized trip that maximizes the number of Division I FBS teams that we can see in the 2018 season. And this time we only had to wait a few minutes.

Optimized college football trip v1.0

After a few minutes of running, my algorithm output the optimized trip below. Although this trip isn't provably optimal, it provides an itinerary that will take us to 48 different stadiums, watch 90 different teams (including 47 of the top 50 Power 5 teams), and witness 6 of the biggest rivalries in college football---all within the restrictive 51-day regular season schedule.

I've provided an interactive map of the trip below.

Optimized college football trip v1.0

Click here to see an interactive version of the map

From the Red River Showdown to the classic Army-Navy Game, this trip will have you visiting many of the nation's iconic stadiums and watching some of the best games that college football has to offer.

Boise State's Albertsons Stadium is one of the many unique stadiums you'll visit on this trip

If you'd like to look up each game, I've provided a table below. In some cases, the teams are playing on a neutral site and the Home/Away designation doesn't apply.

DateLocationHome teamAway team
August 25Aggie Memorial Stadium, Las Cruces, NMNew Mexico State AggiesWyoming Cowboys
August 30Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, INPurdue BoilermakersNorthwestern Wildcats
August 31Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, WIWisconsin BadgersWestern Kentucky Hilltoppers
September 1Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, INNotre Dame Fighting IrishMichigan Wolverines
September 2AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TXLSU TigersMiami Hurricanes
September 3Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, FLFlorida State SeminolesVirginia Tech Hokies
September 7Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas, TXSMU MustangsTCU Horned Frogs
September 8Kyle Field, College Station, TXTexas A&M AggiesClemson Tigers
September 13BB&T Field, Winston-salem, NCWake Forest Demon DeaconsBoston College Eagles
September 14Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, TNMemphis TigersGeorgia State Panthers
September 15Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, SCSouth Carolina GamecocksMarshall Thundering Herd
September 20Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PATemple OwlsTulsa Golden Hurricane
September 21Memorial Stadium, Champaign, ILIllinois Fighting IlliniPenn State Nittany Lions
September 22Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, ALAuburn TigersArkansas Razorbacks
September 27Hard Rock Stadium, Miami, FLMiami HurricanesNorth Carolina Tar Heels
September 28Folsom Field, Boulder, COColorado BuffaloesUCLA Bruins
September 29Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, KSKansas JayhawksOklahoma State Cowboys
October 4TDECU Stadium, Houston, TXHouston CougarsTulsa Golden Hurricane
October 5LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, UTBYU CougarsUtah State Aggies
October 6Cotton Bowl, Dallas, TXOklahoma SoonersTexas Longhorns
October 9Centennial Bank Stadium, Jonesboro, ARArkansas State Red WolvesAppalachian State Mountaineers
October 11Bobcat Stadium, San Marcos, TXTexas State BobcatsGeorgia Southern Eagles
October 12Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, UTUtah UtesArizona Wildcats
October 13Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta, GAGeorgia Tech Yellow JacketsDuke Blue Devils
October 18Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZArizona State Sun DevilsStanford Cardinal
October 19Albertsons Stadium, Boise, IDBoise State BroncosColorado State Rams
October 20Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TNTennessee VolunteersAlabama Crimson Tide
October 23Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Mobile, ALSouth Alabama JaguarsTroy Trojans
October 25Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, WVWest Virginia MountaineersBaylor Bears
October 26TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, MNMinnesota Golden GophersIndiana Hoosiers
October 27EverBank Field, Jacksonville, FLGeorgia BulldogsFlorida Gators
October 30Doyt Perry Stadium, Bowling Green, OHBowling Green FalconsKent State Golden Flashes
October 31Glass Bowl, Toledo, OHToledo RocketsBall State Cardinals
November 1Spectrum Stadium, Orlando, FLUCF KnightsTemple Owls
November 2Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, VAVirginia CavaliersPittsburgh Panthers
November 3Ohio Stadium, Columbus, OHOhio State BuckeyesNebraska Cornhuskers
November 6UB Stadium, Buffalo, NYBuffalo BullsKent State Golden Flashes
November 7Yager Stadium, Oxford, OHMiami (OH) RedHawksOhio Bobcats
November 8Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, NCNC State WolfpackWake Forest Demon Deacons
November 9Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NYSyracuse OrangeLouisville Cardinals
November 10Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, CAUSC TrojansCalifornia Golden Bears
November 13Scheumann Stadium, Muncie, INBall State CardinalsWestern Michigan Broncos
November 14Peden Stadium, Athens, OHOhio BobcatsBuffalo Bulls
November 15TDECU Stadium, Houston, TXHouston CougarsTulane Green Wave
November 16Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas, TXSMU MustangsMemphis Tigers
November 17Bill Snyder Family Stadium, Manhattan, KSKansas State WildcatsTexas Tech Red Raiders
November 20Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo, MIWestern Michigan BroncosNorthern Illinois Huskies
November 22Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, MSOle Miss RebelsMississippi State Bulldogs
November 23Martin Stadium, Pullman, WAWashington State CougarsWashington Huskies
November 24Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MIMichigan State SpartansRutgers Scarlet Knights
December 8Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PANavy MidshipmenArmy Black Knights

This trip is a still a work in progress, and there are a couple areas that I'd like to improve upon. For one, there are several iconic football stadiums that this trip misses out on, The Big House among them. I'd like to find a way to incorporate those stadiums into this trip without missing out on any more teams. I'll make sure to keep this post updated as I make progress.

That's all for now. Do you have any ideas on how to improve this trip? Leave your thoughts in the comments.