Shortly after the shellshock announcement that Texas and Oklahoma would leave the Big 12 for the SEC, the scorned conference reloaded with the planned addition of four teams that span nearly the full breadth of the country. The farthest-flung, Brigham Young and Central Florida, are 1,900 miles apart — 2,300 miles by car, for one of the longest conference road trips imaginable. But the new-look Big 12 will fit right in within the college football landscape: Every Power Five conference except the SEC already has member schools in excess of 1,000 miles apart.1
Conference realignment has tested and made a mockery of the limits of geography. Lines that were once drawn around proximity to campus and in the supposed best interest of student athletes have rapidly warped and been redrawn around media markets and potential revenue. The primary power brokers of the sport — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — each hold billion-dollar TV rights contracts, and the addition of new member schools reopen those already lucrative agreements. Superconference blueprints are freely available online.
This all contributes to ever-increasing airline miles for teams, which are traveling more than ever. But how much does all this travel matter? Does it affect the outcome on the field? To find out, FiveThirtyEight analyzed travel distance data from ESPN Stats and Information Group for conference matchups from the 2005 through 2019 seasons2 to appraise how much and to what degree teams are on the move.
From 2005 through 2019, road teams that traveled less than 200 miles won 42.9 percent of the time, the highest win percentage of any 200-mile increment analyzed. For comparison, teams that traveled more than 1,000 miles won 38.2 percent of their games. And though it’s a small sample, teams that traveled more than 2,000 miles surprisingly won 41.3 percent of the time.
The 2021 season has been a strong showcase for road warriors. Both in and out of conference play, road teams that traveled in excess of 1,000 miles have won at the fourth-highest rate of the past decade: 38 percent of the time across the board and 46.7 percent of the time in conference play. The most notable of these long road victories was then-No. 11 Oregon’s stunning win at then-No. 2 Ohio State in September, for which the Ducks traveled over 2,000 miles, flying across three time zones.
Other underdogs are also finding success away from their friendly confines. Out-of-conference underdogs have won 18.8 percent of their games played 1,000 or more miles away, good for the second highest rate of the playoff era. In conference play, underdogs have won 31.6 percent of those games, also the second-highest mark of the playoff era.
Conversely, teams that traveled fewer than 200 miles have won just 35.9 percent of nonconference matchups this season, the second lowest single-season mark of the past seven seasons, and just 44.1 percent of the time in conference play, the fourth-lowest of the playoff era.
So how many schools are affected -- and which are affected the most?
A Reddit analysis of the 2021 Football Bowl Subdivision schedule found that 41 teams are averaging trips of at least 600 miles3 for away and neutral site games. Each conference features at least one team that will travel more than 2,500 total miles to road and conference games this season.
Hawaii players earn their frequent flyer miles
FBS teams with the most miles traveled per conference, 2021 season
|Texas State||Sun Belt||868.0||979.0||5,208|
|West Virginia||Big 12||844.2||945.0||5,065|
Of course, Hawaii leads the field -- as it does every season, surrounded by that pesky Pacific Ocean -- with an average trip to away games of 2,852.9 miles. And Hawaii’s frequent flyer miles skew things for the Mountain West, making it the most traveled conference; its schools average 901.9 miles on trips to away games. In the non-Mountain West division (and excluding independent schools), the conference with the longest average road trip is the Pac-12, with 706.1 miles.
The share of conference games at the FBS level that required a trek of 500 or more miles increased from 36 percent in 2005 to 40.3 percent in 2019, and they jumped from 28 percent to 36.5 percent among Power Five teams. The share of conference games that required a journey of 1,000 miles also increased: from 6.7 percent to 7.6 percent at the FBS level and from 2.2 percent to 4.1 percent at the Power Five level.
And that means that there are fewer backyard brawls now. The share of games that required a road trip of fewer than 200 miles dropped from 20.1 percent to 18 percent at the FBS level and from 21.3 percent to 17.3 percent at the Power Five level.
There’s plenty of research to suggest that travel effects and circadian rhythms affect team performance. It turns out that it’s usually difficult to travel long distances and then play at peak levels. Have road warriors turned a corner this season? Only time will tell if the trend continues. But as conference power grows and market capital remains king, thousand-mile, multi-time-zone-crossing trips will continue to be the expectation within college football. It should make for some well-traveled athletes, if nothing else.
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