College Football Climatology
Posted on September 9, 2013
Squarely at the intersection of two of my interests are football games that are played during adverse weather conditions. There’s something special about seeing two teams battle it out in the elements that can make a great game legendary. The Ice Bowl. The Fog Bowl. The Snow Bowl. The “Tuck Rule” game. These games stand out in football history and memories usually due to a combination of the weather and implications for championships.
Many of these examples come from the National Football League. As a fan of the Green Bay Packers I have been well-schooled on the lore of the 1967 NFL Championship Game, otherwise known as the “Ice Bowl”. The game was played during bitterly cold conditions with wind chills around -35°F (using the new version of the wind chill formula). The Packers, down by 3 points to the Dallas Cowboys, had just over four minutes to drive 68 yards for the winning score and a berth in the second Super Bowl. It says a lot that most people remember this game more than Super Bowl II itself! Of course, the Packers completed the final drive with Bart Starr diving into the end zone on a quarterback sneak with just seconds remaining on the game clock.
There’s something special about seeing two teams battle it out in the elements that can make a great game legendary.
There are also plenty of examples from college football. The picture at the beginning of this article was taken during the 1950 installment of the Ohio State vs. Michigan rivalry game with a Big Ten championship on the line. It was a late November game, played during a snowstorm, that featured very little scoring and 45 punts. Columbus, Ohio recorded 7.5 inches of snow for the day, with a high temperature of only 20 degrees – still the coldest maximum temperature for that date.
Of course I could go ahead and list or rank many of the “worst weather football games”. I’ve already briefly discussed two that stand out in the professional and college ranks. That concept had interested me originally, but many have already done that and the process would be quite subjective. I prefer numbers, and so I’ve decided to approach weather and football from a statistical and climatological perspective. With the new college football season beginning around the time I started this project, I decided to develop a climatology for locations where teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision play.
The football conferences have been in a state of flux recently, and there are a number of teams from the lower division (Football Championship Subdivision, FCS) completing their transition to FBS in the next few years. These include: South Alabama, Texas State, UT-San Antonio, Massachusetts, Georgia State, UNC-Charlotte, Old Dominion, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. For purposes of creating a complete climatology, I have included all of these teams regardless of whether or not they are currently considered full members of the FBS. The details are all below.
One hundred and twenty four stadium locations are included in the climatology. I looked at a total of 129 teams, but five of them regularly play their home games indoors. This includes Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, Tulane in the Superdome, and Idaho in the Kibbie Dome. Relatively new arrivals to the FBS – University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and Georgia State – also play indoors at the Alamodome and Georgia Dome respectively.
When compiling data for the climatology, I considered averages and normals from the 1981-2010 period which is the standard in the US now. I only considered data for years in which the entries were complete. Although there are some games every year very late in August or in the first week of December, I only used data from September to November as that is the core of the college football season and will be most representative. Obviously there are few climate locations situated directly on a college campus, so I simply used the closest station with complete records that I could find. In most cases there was an official observing station or cooperative observer in or near the same city in which a team plays its games. The greatest gap between a stadium and observing station that I used was roughly 15 miles between Miami’s (OH) Yager Stadium in Oxford, Ohio and a cooperative observer in Brookville, Indiana.
Situated nearly a mile and a half (7165 feet) above sea level amongst mountain ranges is Laramie, Wyoming, home of the University of Wyoming. It was settled in the mid-19th century along the Union Pacific railroad, and the university followed shortly thereafter in 1886. War Memorial Stadium, home of the Wyoming Cowboys, has the distinction of being the highest elevation stadium in the Football Bowl Subdivision. With that in mind, it’s not too surprising that the Cowboys ended up with the coldest stadium location by average temperature by a considerable margin. Laramie came in with an average September-November temperature of 41.5 degrees, followed at some distance by Pullman, WA and Washington State University at 47.6 degrees. It also was well clear in first place for the most number of sub-freezing days (in which the temperature did not exceed 32°F) at 9.2 on average. Roughly 8 of those came in the month of November, meaning that around 1 out of every 4 November days had a high temperature of 32 degrees or colder.
As you can see from the rankings above, no matter which measure you choose Laramie comes out on top as college football’s coldest spot. Average temperature is merely a simple average of the high and low temperatures on a given day. I also ranked the various stadium locations by average maximum temperature, as many of the games are played at some point during the afternoon hours, which is when the warmest conditions usually are. I didn’t consider minimum temperatures because they often occur very late at night, or close to sunrise, when football games are not played. Therefore, it could be argued that the average maximum temperature would be the most representative measure of coldest college football locations. Either way, it makes no difference to which stadium ends up in first place, and very little difference to the top five – the same stadiums are in slightly different order.
So the five coldest college football locations can likely be considered to be a combination of Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington State, and Central Michigan. Minnesota makes the list having just recently switched from a domed to outdoor stadium in 2009. The change makes the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry game one of the coldest on average in the FBS. The Gophers and Badgers have been battling it out for the Paul Bunyan Axe since 1948, and have been contesting the rivalry game since 1890. 11 of the last 18 games (1995-2012) have been played in November, but only 1 of the last 4.
The Mid-American Conference (MAC) and the Big Ten Conference are neck-and-neck for the “coldest conference”. Both conferences feature teams that are tightly clustered geographically around the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest regions. In fact, their geographical footprint overlaps considerably which is why their averages are so close. By both average temperature and maximum temperature, the MAC (52.1°F, 62.0°F respectively) just barely edges out the Big Ten (52.2°F, 62.3°F).
College football games played in the snow are relatively rare. This is due in large part to the fact that the majority of the college football season wraps up prior to Thanksgiving, well before the heart of the winter season arrives. As you look at graphs of normal snowfall at various locations, it quickly becomes apparent that December, January, and February are usually snowier months than those months that feature the college football regular season.
For example, take the Colorado Buffaloes who play their games in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder averages 20.8 inches of snow from September to November, the highest total amongst FBS programs. Despite that, there has only been snow throughout a Colorado home football game on six occasions since 1949, according to their Sports Info Director David Plati. It makes sense when you figure that Boulder only averages 7.2 days with measurable snow during the season and that there are only around 6 home games per year. Even if measurable snow occurs on a game day, the snow could actually accumulate well before or after the game is played.
Because snowy college football games are a rare commodity, be sure to watch the ones that you can. These sort of games are most likely at Wyoming and Colorado, which lead the way in average number of days with measurable snow at 10 and 7.2 respectively. Other schools that average at least 5 days with measurable snow during the season are Colorado State (5.9), Air Force (5.9), Minnesota (5.8), Utah State (5.7), Buffalo (5.3), and Utah (5.1).
In contrast to snowy college football games, contests with rainy conditions are far more common. Even though autumn can be a drier time of year in many corners of the country, there’s usually at least a handful of games every week that experience a little rain. Since there are 91 days in September, October, and November, that means locations that average at least 26 days with measurable precipitation would essentially be averaging at least 2 rainy days per week. There are 50 such locations in FBS, or nearly 40 percent of the total number of teams. Measurable precipitation occurs when there’s at least 0.01 inches of rain (or snow once it is melted down). Leading the way in days with measurable precipitation is Boca Raton, Florida – home of Florida Atlantic University. Because there was no official climate station available from Boca Raton, I used data from nearby Fort Lauderdale. The average was 42.6 days with measurable precipitation, or nearly half of the days during football season.
The climatological odds of precipitation are not always stable at every location throughout the football season, though. Some locations experience more rain at the tail end of summer in September, and others experience more rain in November just as winter is beginning to arrive. As an example, let’s compare Florida Atlantic and Oregon State, which averaged the next highest number of days with measurable precipitation (41.5). From September to November, Boca Raton receives about 43% of its rainy days and 48% of its rainfall in the month of September. Meanwhile, Corvallis receives 50% of its rainy days and 61% of its rainfall in the month of November.
In fact, the Atlantic coast of the Southeast and the Pacific Northwest are two of the regions with the greatest differences in normal precipitation from the beginning of the college football season to the end. This quickly becomes apparent if you look at a map of normal precipitation in September and compare it to one from November, as is shown above. That contrast is something to keep in mind if you see similar numbers for seasonal averages from different regions of the country.
If you search for the wettest locations in college football, you will likely get a scattering of universities from around the country no matter which metric you choose. However, the driest locations are all from the southwestern corner of the country. This finding is hardly surprising given the predominately desert or ‘mediterranean’ climate regimes in the region. The driest location seems to be UNLV in Las Vegas, Nevada. During the college football season, Las Vegas averages less than one inch of rainfall (0.88″) and only 5 days of measurable rain. In other words, you’d have to be pretty unlucky to be playing football in the rain at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The next five driest locations by precipitation after UNLV are: Nevada (1.68″), San Diego State (1.73″), Fresno State (1.87″), USC (1.94″), and Arizona State (2.01″); the next five driest by least number of days with measurable rain are: USC (6.8), Arizona State (7.7), UCLA (8.0), San Diego State (8.1), and Fresno State (8.9). Although home games for these teams are usually not played in the rain, it can happen. Last year’s (2012) rivalry game, for example, between UCLA and USC was played in rain during the second half at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The rain began to fall at halftime, and UCLA actually fumbled on their opening drive of the second half; the ball was recovered in the end zone by the Trojans for a touchdown.
Tempe, Arizona (Arizona State) can be very hot in the afternoon during the college football season. The September-November record high in Tempe is a scorching 114 degrees (September 2, 1950). Highs have reached 110 degrees on 33 occasions in September, through 2012. The normal high for the month of September is 99.5 degrees. When you examine the rankings for most number of 90°F days, it is well ahead of any other college football location. Tempe averages 46.9 days with a high of at least 90 degrees. Next on the list is Tucson, home of the Arizona Wildcats, but it averages nearly 11 fewer instances. Tempe averages more than double the number of 90°F days than the sixth place location – Waco, Texas. This is probably the reason that you see many early season Arizona and Arizona State home games played in the evening, after the typical warmest time of day.
However, if you look at a ranking of college football locations by average temperature, you’ll see that Arizona and Arizona State are further down the list. This is because arid, desert locations typically see a much greater diurnal temperature range (difference between the high and low temperatures) than locations with greater average amounts of moisture and cloud cover, and especially those that are near large bodies of water.
Because college football games are usually played during the warmer half of the day – starting around noon and wrapping up by midnight – examining a list of locations ranked by maximum temperature may be a little more representative of the average game time conditions. Despite the differences in the average and maximum temperature lists, it should come as no surprise that the warmest locations during college football season are from some combination of Arizona, Hawaii, and the Florida peninsula. I have provided both below so you can take a look at the information for yourself. There is also a listing of the locations with the most number of 90 degree days on average. I should point out that as a big Oklahoma Sooners fan, I’m obligated to turn that Texas logo upside down.
One weather condition that can have a profound impact on a football game is wind. It certainly plays a role in the kicking game, as a kicker has to account for crosswinds and head coaches have to account for a headwind or tailwind in deciding whether or not to attempt a field goal. If you’re ever in a stadium early enough to watch warmups, you will often see kickers testing their range, both against and with the wind.
Brian Burke wrote an article at Advanced NFL Stats that looked at weather effects on NFL passing games. He noted that in strong wind conditions (sustained winds generally greater than 15 mph) teams passed on about 7% fewer plays, and ran on about 7% more than in light wind conditions. The adjusted yards per pass attempt also were lower on windier days. In other words, it seemed that teams were attempting slightly fewer passes, and the passes that were attempted were over shorter distances on average. Below is a highlights package from one of the windiest NFL games that I can remember watching, and it makes it pretty clear that the wind can have a significant impact on the game. Or you could look at the fact that the Bears and 49ers combined to go 9-27 (33%) passing.
Using a document (link here) titled “Climatic Wind Data for the United States” from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), one could come up with a good estimate for the most windy and least windy locations in college football. Average wind speeds for a variety of locations are listed by month. Few of these locations are very close to a college stadium, so some subjectivity and judgement has to be applied to find stadiums that are fairly close to locations with a valid wind climatology.
Many people have heard the lyrics “OOOOk-lahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain” from the musical Oklahoma. I heard it plenty during my time at the University of Oklahoma, including during football games. The lyrics certainly ring true in the climatology, as the highest average wind speed for locations that are relatively close to a college campus was 12.3 mph at both Oklahoma City (close to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State), and Cheyenne (close to Wyoming). After that it was 12.0 mph at Boston (Boston College) and Lubbock (Texas Tech), and 11.0 mph at Buffalo (Buffalo) and Honolulu (Hawaii). As anyone who has lived there can tell you, the Plains are a windy place, so it’s not surprising that there were a few southern Plains locations that were leading the list.
Meanwhile, the least windy places were pretty consistently from the interior south or lower-elevation areas of the interior west. The lowest average wind speed somewhat close to a college stadium was 4.3 mph at Ozark, Alabama (near Troy). Next was 4.7 mph at Fort Campbell, KY (Western Kentucky), 5.0 mph at Mountain View, CA (Stanford and San Jose State), and 5.3 mph at Fresno (Fresno State).
There are probably an infinite number of ways you could parse the college football climatology. I just laid out some basic information in this article, but in the interest of full transparency I have made the Excel file with the numbers for every FBS school available. Perhaps you want to dig a little deeper, or maybe I didn’t discuss your favorite team enough. Either way you can download the Excel file by clicking here. Remember that all the averages and normals are just for the months of September, October, and November.
Of course, this is a basic climatology. It could be expanded to include a number of different things, such as days with thunderstorms or lightning frequency, to give two examples. Perhaps I will eventually add to this climatology. In the meantime, hopefully you’ve learned something from the article – even if it’s just that Georgia State is transitioning to Division 1 football.∗