November 14, 2008

Rocky Mountain High: Altitude an impact?

In the old Big Eight Conference, all of the member schools were pretty similar.

Whether you played in Stillwater, Columbia, Ames or Manhattan, you were dealing with a team from a campus based in a largely rural state devoid of a super-metropolis in (or on the edge of) the Great Plains.

But one campus didn't fit that mold: Colorado. Based in a mountain state more associated with the West than Midwest, the CU campus sits at the foot of the Flatirons and is just northwest of Denver. With an altitude of 5,344 feet, it was more than 4,000 feet higher than any conference foe.

That always set the Buffaloes apart from the rest of the league. And while the school had strong rivalries with schools such as Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas, they were also a little bit different than the rest. After all, it was the only school with the Rockies in their backyard.

And while the inception of the Big 12 has brought giant cities into the conference map, the geography and topography amongst the Texas schools are largely the same as its former Big Eight brethren. The lone exception to that is Texas Tech, based in Lubbock, which has an elevation of 3,200 feet. In fact, after CU and Tech, only three other schools hit four-figures in the altitude category: Nebraska (1,219 feet), Oklahoma (1,170) and Kansas State (1,020).

So every other school in the league contends with what Oklahoma State (913) is facing this weekend, which is two opponents: The Buffaloes and the higher elevation.

But does it really matter?

"I don't think so," said head coach Mike Gundy. "I'm sure there is some scientific reason for that question. When I played up there I don't really remember it being much of a factor. I didn't really run around though. I turned and tossed the ball to one or two guys and threw a few passes to a big guy and that about wrapped it up for me. So I don't know if I'm a good example. But I don't really remember it affecting our team that much. But I'm sure there's something about it's harder to get air and adapt to it. But it's not going to change before we get there. So our guys need to prepare like normal and get ready to go play."

Real or imagined, the altitude has been a factor for any team going to play sports in Colorado. In the pros, the Denver Broncos built a huge mental edge because of it through the years. In baseball, opposing pitchers psyche themselves out with nightmares of giving up eight home runs a game to the Colorado Rockies.

There's much argument as to whether altitude really is a factor on visiting teams going to a significantly higher altitude than they're used to. Many think it's a huge factor, while others just don't buy it. But at the very least, it's something opponents going to Colorado - its lowest point is 3,315 feet - have to contend with before playing.

This question led researchers at Oxford University to conduct a study to figure out if altitude really affects sports teams. So they paired up with FIFA (Soccer's international governing body) to see if there was anything to it. After collecting data from 1,460 soccer matches over a 100-year span, the study revealed that teams from higher elevations tend to score more goals and prevent more goals both at home and on the road, to the tune of half a goal every 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) of elevation difference.

So it's not much of a difference. But it's enough to swing things in the way of the home team, in this case the Buffaloes.

"There are so many variables in an international football match that determine the winner that you have to look at data from a large number of teams and individual games to isolate one particular factor," said Dr Patrick McSharry of Oxford's Department of Engineering Science. "In this new analysis of over a thousand games I found that, perhaps surprisingly, whatever altitude a match was played at the high altitude team had a significant statistical advantage."

So, combined with a team usually getting three points due to home-field advantage, is the Folsom Factor worth that and, say a field goal extra, for the Buffaloes? It's difficult to say how those results from soccer translate to football, but it's at least worth noting.

One player who knows what the higher elevations in Colorado are like is quarterback Zac Robinson. He is from Littleton, a suburb of Denver, and played high school football in the thinner air.

"You see teams go up there every now and then who struggle with the altitude and things like that," Robinson said. "I think we are in great condition as a team. It seems like every time we are in the fourth quarter, it is the other teams that are huffing and puffing, yet we are pretty fresh. I'm not really worried about the altitude for the team. We've done a great job conditioning up to this point. I don't think it will play too big of a factor."

Defensive coordinator Tim Beckman believes OSU's conditioning program will have the Cowboys ready tomorrow night.

"I think it will be a little bit of a factor," Beckman said. "It's a late game for us. Both teams have played a lot of football this year. I think it will be OK. I have never played in Colorado, so that will be a new situation for me as a coach. I'm sure it will be a factor, but Rob Glass has those guys in great shape. The kids will be ready to play."

And the pregame music? Pump some John Denver.

Altitudes of Big 12 campuses(in feet)
Colorado: 5,344
Texas Tech: 3,202
Nebraska: 1,219
Oklahoma: 1,170
Kansas State: 1,020
Iowa State: 942
Oklahoma State: 913
Kansas: 840
Missouri: 705
Texas: 501
Baylor: 455
Texas A&M: 367

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