For students the nation over, this week, finals week, represents the one, final hurdle between them and a nice, long vacation away from school. Whether an actual vacation, or simply a brief respite away from cramped apartments or dorms, scrounging for laundry money or gas at a parent's home complete with home-cooked meals and laundry that magically gets done.
Pressure-packed and stressful, finals are universally dreaded and universally felt. For bowl-bound college football players, the pressure increases exponentially as football obligations continue, and must somehow be balanced along with academics, sleep and eating right. Both for football, and in preparations for finals.
Fortunately for Utah players, head coach Kyle Whittingham has been through the process a few times. More specifically, for about a decade. Like everything else, Whittingham has a very definite process and plan for handling bowl season, as his players will attest.
Prepping for the Utes' unlucky bowl opponent is indeed carefully balanced with time for studies and academics, especially during bowl week.
"We had the week off, got back to it last week, and this week, we're going to change it up a little bit," explained Whittingham of the Utes' bowl prep schedule. "This week is finals, so we're going to back off, or change the schedule enough that the players have the time to do what they need to do in order to take care of their business in the classroom."
During bowl prep, Utah football practices are being held Thursday, Friday and Saturday with lifts and meetings peppered in throughout weekdays, partially to accommodate finals.
Despite all Whittingham's best efforts, finals week is still posing a challenge for Ute players.
"I've never been to a bowl before, so all of this is new to me. It's going to be tough with finals and all that coming up, but we have a good schedule set up," said juco transfer John White. "I've never really had to juggle both [finals week and football], so I'm going to have be really focused and organized."
Fortunately for the Utes, their bowl isn't until December 31, which will allow for some time to enjoy the bowl experience. For others, however, finals week and game week intersect at an opportune time. To kick off bowl season, for example, former MWC mate Wyoming is scheduled to play Saturday, December 17, falling a matter of days, or even hours after completing finals for the semester.
Even seasoned veterans acknowledge getting over the finals hump in the midst of bowl preparation.
"It's always a tough week, but it's something, after four years that you kind of adjust to," said senior Matt Martinez. "At first, it was a challenge, but like I said, you figure out how to make it work after a while."
Until a player does figure out exactly how to juggle obligations, there is always the danger of the pressure becoming a distraction. Or, depending on the player and his goals and perspective, it's entirely possible that his football obligations are the distraction to successfully preparing for finals.
However it's viewed, all involved would rather figure out how to juggle the responsibilities than miss out on a bowl.
"There's just nothing like going to a bowl. It's always fun and intense, because you have all the good stuff before that you get to do with your teammates, and the other team," said senior Tony Bergstrom. "You do have all the school stuff kind of in the way, but it's nothing that would want to keep you from going [to the bowl]. That experience is just something, as a player, you don't want to miss out on."
Having juggled academics with football all season long, it seems that most would be accustomed to having little time and prioritizing tasks and time, but as Ute players will attest, it isn't easy.
It apparently doesn't get much easier during the month of December.
"It's something I had to kind of get used to at first, and I learned a lot going to last season's game," said sophomore Brian Blechen. "With both going on, it can sometimes be a lot, but we're used to juggling a lot of balls, and managing our time. If you don't know how to do it, you learn pretty fast how to use your time, and manage everything. Last year, as a freshman, it was kind of a lot. This year, I'm just happy to be excited to get to play another game."
Though finals week can is part of an annual right of passage for deserving teams, it doesn't come without stress, and a cost of some type.
Again, with the bowl date put off until New Year' Eve day, Utah has plenty of time to tailor a game plan, and learn it's opponent, which is a big positive according to most.
On the flip side, the location and time/date of Utah's bowl create some potential conflicts and problems such as logistics and travel plans.
Utah will continue to practice three days a week up until the time it leaves for the bowl itself, and Utah players will have December 24, and December 25 off in order to visit family and enjoy the holidays before needing to back with the team in El Paso, Texas, home of the Sun Bowl, on December 26.
Finals will be long since over by the time Utah takes the field to square off against Georgia Tech, but the product on the field may indicate that the stress of academics/finals may have proved too much during bowl prep.
Unless Kyle Whittingham gets his way, and his plan/process are fully executed, and implemented.
"The bowl has a lot of positives for us, including extra practices, but at the same time, we've got to get ready for the game," said sophomore Dave Kruger."At Utah, we have a pretty good prep for the bowl game, and we also have a good schedule and plan from the coaching staff coming in, so that makes it a little less stressful. But [finals] is still always going to be a hard week."