9 Reasons College Football Is Better Than the NFL
Thank God we don’t have to pick between one or the other. The debate over whether or not college ball is better than the NFL has been raging for years, but the widespread popularity of fantasy football, in addition to outrage over the BCS system has seemingly tilted the scales towards the NFL in recent years. However, there are still a number of factors that might still give college football the edge. Here are nine of them.
1. Fan Base Loyalty
It would be foolish to say that NFL teams don’t have rabidly loyal fans. They do. But allegiance to an NFL team is generally just driven by geography. If you grow up in Ft. Worth, you’re going to be a Cowboys fan, in Milwaukee, you’ll live and die for the Pack. It’s certainly a practical system. Why would you want to cheer on a team far away if you don’t have to?
In college ball, you often have to cheer on a team that far away for reasons that are unflinchingly rigid. Allegiances to college teams are driven by whether or not you or a relative attended that university. For lack of a better phrase, it’s “in your blood.” And that allegiance breeds generations of fans that feel a connection to their team that few NFL fans feel.
At the end of the day, the fans, not the teams, are the ones that make the rivalries fierce and games dramatic, more so than in the NFL. Beyond that, watching your team away from home, either at a stadium or even a bar brings a sense of camaraderie throughout all these displaced fans that have only their alma mater in common. It runs deeper than just being from the same town.
2. Players Have an Expiration Date
There’s a very good reason you don’t see more explosive trick plays and open-field work in pro football. The players on the field are each individual corporate assets on a balance sheet for the team. And like any other business asset, they must be protected to ensure they earn the most they possibly can over the short- or long- term. It makes sense from a business perspective to have an Emmitt Smith-type player running between the tackles for the last four years of his career cause, though he’s old, he’s still selling jerseys.
In college football, everyone has an expiration date four years (or so) stamped on them from the moment they play their first down. Most won’t go pro. All of them are on the way out the second they start playing. And they are used accordingly. Quarterbacks run the option, running backs lay down monster blocks on reverses, and spectacular d-backs are returning punts, because if these players don’t get it done in four years, it’s not getting done. And you see that with not only their passion on the field, but their performances as well.
3. Tenures for Coaches
None of these aspects exist in a vacuum. Coaches have such long tenure at institutions because they not only coach, but recruit. They are the face of a program during their prime and sometimes, for tradition’s sake, long after (see: Paterno, Joe.)
While that level of comfort and security could breed complacency from coaching staffs, more often than not, it breeds a type of loyalty coupled with the freedom of not constantly being second-guessed by management, the media, and fans. Don’t get me wrong, these guys are still under the microscope, but university faithful, and consequently, the media, aren’t quite as quick to make heads roll after a dodgy play call or mediocre season.
What’s this mean? It means coaches reside with a team long enough to breed familiarity. Familiarity among the fans, but more importantly, familiarity with the players and the system. A coach that feels secure can not only draft gameplans, but develop a long-term recruiting strategy tailored to the type of team he has or wants. This is what allows us to see game-changing coaches that emerge on the college level who are later emulated, once proven, on the pro level. Bill Walsh and Steve Spurrier come to mind almost immediately, and if you want to go way back, Mr. Knute Rockne was probably the biggest innovator the game has ever seen. Could they have been as innovative and free if they weren’t granted the security of tenure? Perhaps, but it would have been an obstacle.
4. Lack of Parity
Parity sucks. Parity’s great in the sense that “every team has a chance”, but that’s where its virtues end. With parity, teams are less spectacular, teams are better matched, and consequently, the play is less exciting. Parity means that punt returns are stopped after five yards, that linebackers never block field goals, and that a running game is effectively neutralized by an opposing defense.
This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but the underlying elements all remain true. A critic of my approach could say that without parity, the big dogs always win and maintain a certain hierarchy in college football that changes more dynamically in the NFL, which is totally true. A lack of parity means there are Davids and Goliaths. But occasionally, the underdogs make a miracle happen (hello, Appalachian State!) that resonates so profoundly that it serves as a reminder of why it’s not always best when teams are evenly matched week-in and week-out.
5. Bowl Games
I understand that even at the college level, it’s not the YMCA. Every team shouldn’t get a trophy. But when you’re dealing with a field of more than 100 Division-I schools, instituting a winner-take-all approach isn’t the way to go. I don’t want to discuss the merits of a playoff here (though, for the record, I’m for the top 16 going to a playoff and the next 30 or so playing in lower-tier bowls). But I will discuss the merits of the bowls versus a strict playoff system.
As was mentioned before, your loyalties may lie with the Akron Zips or the Florida Gators. It’s not really up to you. The beauty of the bowl system is that any respectable team in a given year gets to play for SOMETHING. If you’re an NC State Wolfpack fan in a semi-successful year, you get a playoff game. You may not get a chance to play for the championship, but that’s something that’s done all year, not just at the end of the season. If you couldn’t make your case in 11 weeks, you probably don’t deserve to play for the championship. But you get to play for something. You get a national spotlight, even if it happens to be on December 28.
In short, college football allows dozens of teams to end with a bang, rather than a whimper. I could give a shit about the equality of it all. It makes for compelling football night after night for three glorious weeks in December and January.
6. Stadium Experience
Fan of college football or not, it’s very hard to argue that the NFL has a better stadium experience than almost any top-50 Division I school. Student sections ensure that a constant noise level will be maintained all games. Traveling fans for the visiting team (see item #1) almost always constitute a significant portion of the crowd, especially in conference games.
Then you’ve got the fight songs, the bands, the cheerleaders, a lack of corporate sponsorship everywhere you turn, and odds are, a really, really old stadium with a lot of history. Granted it may not have a retractable roof and sushi on every mezzanine, but the older I get, the more I begin to think that the NFL offers those things because it lacks the intangible features of a live college game on a Saturday afternoon in October.
7. Player Values
It’s reasonable to believe that most top-tier college players are looking to make the leap to the NFL, but past experiences dictate that very few would make any future trades for the ability to be the best they can be at the college level. In the NFL, holdouts are common, “injuries” are suspect, and coaches appear to be just as often PR people for their players’ misdeeds as they are football strategists.
Now, every NFL player with a bad rap played in college, so I can’t say that college football breeds a different class of player. However, with the firm hierarchy in place, scholarships on the line, as well as family to disappoint by getting kick out of school (for some reason, this seems to be more a deterrent from bad behavior than any jail cell) players seems to tow the line and put the team before themselves more often than they do in the “me-first” NFL.
The fact that these programs exist in an “academic” atmosphere brings more order to the kids playing than media scrutiny, paychecks, and agents combined. There is a reason that overly-qualified quarterbacks return for their senior years. Often, it’s not because it’s a good career decision. It’s normally not. It’s out of obligation and responsibility to their teams and programs, which aren’t even solidified by a contract.
8. The Traditions
For being so steeped in American culture, the NFL hasn’t exactly developed a rich pageantry of tradition despite being around for generations and generations. Thanksgiving Day is huge, obviously. Super Bowl Sunday has become a spectacle that more closely resembles an amusement park than a football game, preseason is painful, and the Pro Bowl is a waste of everyone’s time. However, Monday Night Football is a standing date I never miss, so add that one to the list.
In college, however, one can’t watch a game for five minutes without experiencing the history of one side or another. The march across campus in the morning, fight songs, flashing your signs, push-ups and cannons after touchdowns, horsebacked warriors, and cheerleaders in sweaters. College football lost its stranglehold on New Year’s day a decade or so ago, but they’ve still got the Tournament of Roses parade. Notre Dame has the same aura it had 40 years ago, albeit with a weaker recruiting class.
At pro games, the fans are largely the same from town to town. Change the jerseys and San Francisco fans could feel like Carolina fans could feel like Broncos fans. The Midwest is a different breed, I’ll give their NFL towns that. But if you find yourself in the Swamp or in Madison on a Saturday and you’ll be knee deep in a legacy that may not be older than the NFL, but seems much more important.
This is what college football is all about. Every rivalry could be construed as a micro-season construed as a micro-season every year. 2-4 going into rivalry week? There’s hope for you yet. Knock out the team from across the way, win the jug/cup/platter/ax and you get to brag all season and off-season, even if your team sucks. That’s a nifty little consolation prize.
Oakland-KC, 49ers-Cowboys, Cowboys-Anyone, Giants-Philly. The NFL’s biggest rivalries are big events, but they don’t hold a candle to what goes on in damn near EVERY game in the SEC for two months. There’s more bad blood in generations of Michigan-Ohio State feuding than there is in every NFL rivalry combined. And there are so many serious rivalries in college football that it can captivate a fan for an entire season, versus the handful in the NFL.