NCAA football teams work tirelessly to find any competitive advantage over their opponents. Coaches are willing to try anything to improve their team’s performance when the Saturday night lights are shining. In fact, achieving optimal sports performance often means players have to participate in some pretty unconventional activities. From ballet lessons to vats of pickle juice, out-of-the-box (and sometimes wacky) schemes have become commonplace in the world of college football. It is, after all, “a game of inches,” where the smallest things often make the biggest difference, on and off the field.
But along with those novel approaches, some of the winningest college football programs have turned away from gimmicks and back to a long-neglected fundamental: making sure their players get enough sleep. (Here’s why Saatva’s sleep consultant says sleep is the essential back-to-school supply.)
As lovers of both college football and shut-eye (sometimes one at the expense of the other!), we’ve put together a list of five programs that are going above and beyond in their dedication to quality rest, ranked according to how much they prioritize sleep. Let’s call them our “sleeper” picks.
#5 The University of Alabama
A gridiron powerhouse, the Crimson Tide has won five national championships in the last decade. That kind of dominance comes only from fastidiousness and discipline.
Not surprisingly, the University of Alabama leaves nothing to chance. The school has instituted an academic department—the Integrative Center for Athletic and Sport Technology—dedicated to the science of improving athletic performance through health, including cutting-edge sleep science. Players have used FitBits and other wearable devices to track their sleep and aid in injury prevention and recovery. Proof that the program is working? Alabama has won five national championships in the last decade and played in the title game the last four years. The Crimson Tide has things rolling in Tuscaloosa. (Learn what a professional sports trainer knows about sleep that you don’t.)
#4 Clemson University
Each night, players with the Clemson Tigers aim for exactly eight hours of “non-restless” sleep. The way they determine the difference between restless and non-restless? They’ve got a team-wide phone app that tracks their sleep quality. Now, coaches say, players compete with each other for how well-rested they are.
The tradition began in 2017, when the Tigers were favorites to win the national championship. That year, 35 teammates agreed to join an intensive sleep-monitoring program. Since then, every Tiger gets his stripes by keeping track of his sleep quality. Not only that, the players’ sleep “performance” is emailed to the coaches every morning. Talk about accountability.
#3 Oklahoma State University
The Oklahoma State Cowboys are getting more and more familiar with performing under the bright stadium lights of Prime Time. While there’s certainly less heat from the sun to sap their energy, night games also have their share of challenges. For one thing, playing after dark when your body is accustomed to early games can increase the potential for injury, say Oklahoma State coaches.
To help players make the transition, the Cowboys hired a “sleep coaching” company to develop customized “sleep plans” for the players in an effort to improve their fitness and focus. Now every player has a personal “sleep kit” that includes a sensor that goes under their mattress and records sleep quality and quantity, as well as sleep-promoting accessories like blue light blocker glasses. (Find out why Men’s Journal named Saatva best mattress for athletes.)
Better sleep means quicker reaction time, fewer injuries, and higher peak performance throughout the game. In a highly competitive conference like the Big 12, that extra burst of velocity and stamina to grind through fourth quarter fatigue can spell the difference between a major bowl or watching at home in your jammies in December.
#2 Northwestern University
One of the first programs in the country to take sleep seriously, the lovable “Cardiac Cats” of Northwestern University have been prioritizing sleep since 2012. In the past six years, they’ve won three bowls. That’s three out of their four total bowl victories ever, with their lone prior victory coming 60 years ago, in 1948.
Along with requisite sleep monitoring apps and services and making sure players have the right sleep setup in their dorms, the Wildcats take it an extra step. When Northwestern plays a team on the West Coast, for example, players and coaches shift their whole day—bedtimes, nap times, and meal times—to mimic the time difference on the West Coast. When they play teams in the Eastern time zone, they do the same thing.
Last year, doing this, Northwestern went 10-3.
#1 University of Houston
The Houston Cougars have focused more on the nuances of sleep than any other program on our list. It’s not just bedtime rest that grabs their interest: They’re huge proponents of naps too (who isn’t?).
The story goes that when he saw that his team wasn’t practicing with enough energy, Cougars Head Coach Tom Herman had 50 air mattresses installed in the team’s practice facility so players could catch a quick post-scrimmage snooze. Of course, the exhausted players took Herman up on the offer quickly. Naps increased exponentially, as did the team’s level of performance.
In another sweet touch (and stopping just shy of reading them a bedtime story), the night before an away game, Houston’s assistant coaches will literally tuck in their players to make sure they’re getting the requisite rest.
That’s the kind of can-sleep attitude we can get behind—and the reason why we’ve selected the Houston Cougars as our #1 NCAA “sleeper” college football team. When filling out your office pool, don’t snooze on the teams that invest in getting a good night’s rest.
What does sleep have to do with college basketball? Here, find out the connection between March Madness and sleep.