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

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 (4×9=) 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.

Date Location Home team Away team
August 25 Aggie Memorial Stadium, Las Cruces, NM New Mexico State Aggies Wyoming Cowboys
August 30 Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, IN Purdue Boilermakers Northwestern Wildcats
August 31 Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, WI Wisconsin Badgers Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
September 1 Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, IN Notre Dame Fighting Irish Michigan Wolverines
September 2 AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX LSU Tigers Miami Hurricanes
September 3 Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, FL Florida State Seminoles Virginia Tech Hokies
September 7 Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas, TX SMU Mustangs TCU Horned Frogs
September 8 Kyle Field, College Station, TX Texas A&M Aggies Clemson Tigers
September 13 BB&T Field, Winston-salem, NC Wake Forest Demon Deacons Boston College Eagles
September 14 Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, TN Memphis Tigers Georgia State Panthers
September 15 Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, SC South Carolina Gamecocks Marshall Thundering Herd
September 20 Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA Temple Owls Tulsa Golden Hurricane
September 21 Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL Illinois Fighting Illini Penn State Nittany Lions
September 22 Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, AL Auburn Tigers Arkansas Razorbacks
September 27 Hard Rock Stadium, Miami, FL Miami Hurricanes North Carolina Tar Heels
September 28 Folsom Field, Boulder, CO Colorado Buffaloes UCLA Bruins
September 29 Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, KS Kansas Jayhawks Oklahoma State Cowboys
October 4 TDECU Stadium, Houston, TX Houston Cougars Tulsa Golden Hurricane
October 5 LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, UT BYU Cougars Utah State Aggies
October 6 Cotton Bowl, Dallas, TX Oklahoma Sooners Texas Longhorns
October 9 Centennial Bank Stadium, Jonesboro, AR Arkansas State Red Wolves Appalachian State Mountaineers
October 11 Bobcat Stadium, San Marcos, TX Texas State Bobcats Georgia Southern Eagles
October 12 Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, UT Utah Utes Arizona Wildcats
October 13 Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta, GA Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Duke Blue Devils
October 18 Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ Arizona State Sun Devils Stanford Cardinal
October 19 Albertsons Stadium, Boise, ID Boise State Broncos Colorado State Rams
October 20 Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TN Tennessee Volunteers Alabama Crimson Tide
October 23 Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Mobile, AL South Alabama Jaguars Troy Trojans
October 25 Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, WV West Virginia Mountaineers Baylor Bears
October 26 TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, MN Minnesota Golden Gophers Indiana Hoosiers
October 27 EverBank Field, Jacksonville, FL Georgia Bulldogs Florida Gators
October 30 Doyt Perry Stadium, Bowling Green, OH Bowling Green Falcons Kent State Golden Flashes
October 31 Glass Bowl, Toledo, OH Toledo Rockets Ball State Cardinals
November 1 Spectrum Stadium, Orlando, FL UCF Knights Temple Owls
November 2 Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, VA Virginia Cavaliers Pittsburgh Panthers
November 3 Ohio Stadium, Columbus, OH Ohio State Buckeyes Nebraska Cornhuskers
November 6 UB Stadium, Buffalo, NY Buffalo Bulls Kent State Golden Flashes
November 7 Yager Stadium, Oxford, OH Miami (OH) RedHawks Ohio Bobcats
November 8 Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, NC NC State Wolfpack Wake Forest Demon Deacons
November 9 Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NY Syracuse Orange Louisville Cardinals
November 10 Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, CA USC Trojans California Golden Bears
November 13 Scheumann Stadium, Muncie, IN Ball State Cardinals Western Michigan Broncos
November 14 Peden Stadium, Athens, OH Ohio Bobcats Buffalo Bulls
November 15 TDECU Stadium, Houston, TX Houston Cougars Tulane Green Wave
November 16 Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas, TX SMU Mustangs Memphis Tigers
November 17 Bill Snyder Family Stadium, Manhattan, KS Kansas State Wildcats Texas Tech Red Raiders
November 20 Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo, MI Western Michigan Broncos Northern Illinois Huskies
November 22 Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, MS Ole Miss Rebels Mississippi State Bulldogs
November 23 Martin Stadium, Pullman, WA Washington State Cougars Washington Huskies
November 24 Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI Michigan State Spartans Rutgers Scarlet Knights
December 8 Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA Navy Midshipmen Army 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.

Dr. Randy Olson is the Lead Data Scientist at Life Epigenetics, Inc., where he is bringing advanced data science and machine learning technology to the life insurance industry.

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