Why College Football is Superior to the NFL

MarkC's picture
November 15, 2013 at 1:50a

(Disclaimer: this was written in week 8 for some friends.  The records have obviously changed, but the sentiment remains.)

Here is perhaps as common a sentiment as there exists among most readers of this site: sports are fun.  On this site alone (which was originally dedicated solely to Ohio State football, I believe), one can find articles and comments about wrestling, lacrosse, swimming/diving, competitive eating, and basically anything else in which people have found a way to compete.  One of the universal truths in sports (in my experience) is that any competition is more fun to be a part of when it is between two dominant programs.

This is the crux of why college football is more entertaining to follow than the pro game.  It’s more fun to watch two great teams battling than two teams with mediocre records.  There are simply more teams with good records in college football.  After 7 weeks of play, NCAA FBS football has 14 undefeated teams, 15 teams with a single loss, and 34 more teams with two losses.  In one less week of play, the NFL is down to 2 undefeated teams, 3 one-loss teams, and 7 two-loss teams.

Teams with less than 3 losses on the season
Conference Teams
B1G 10
Pac 12 9
Big XII 5
Conf USA 4
Independent 4
Mtn West 4
Sunbelt 2

Matchups of undefeated teams more than two weeks into a season are exciting regardless of who the teams are.  This is especially true in a sport like college football, where perfection is so critical to championship aspirations.  So goes the saying, “Somebody’s 0 has to go.”

This week features a matchup of undefeated teams: Florida State (5-0) at Clemson (5-0).  There are three more matchups of undefeated teams playing 1-loss teams:
• Central Florida (4-1) at Louisville (6-0)
• Texas Tech (6-0) at Oklahoma State (4-1)
• UCLA (5-0) at Stanford (5-1)

In total, there are 15 matchups in week 8 between teams with no more than two losses.  The NFL has three such matchups over the next two weeks combined.  Not to mention, the NFL started a week later than college football, providing less opportunities for losses.

Week 8 matchups of teams with less than three losses

Week 8 is not a fluke.  Week 9 has matchups like #9 UCLA (5-0) @ #2 Oregon (6-0), Penn State (4-2) @ #4 Ohio State (6-0), #16 Texas Tech (6-0) @ #18 Oklahoma (5-1), and #11 South Carolina (5-1) @ #14 Missouri (6-0) on the docket.  The same goes for week 10.  Who are the marquee matchups in the NFL?  Which matchups over the next few weeks are you eagerly awaiting?  Here are the only matchups of teams with less than three losses over the next two weeks:
• Cincinnati (4-2) at Detroit (4-2) – You probably only care if you are a Bengals or Lions fan.  Heard a lot of buzz around this 1:00 kickoff, have you?
• Denver (6-0) at Indianapolis (4-2) – Okay.  The whole Manning angle in a game between one dominant team and another decent team could be interesting.
• Miami (3-2) at New England (5-1) – This appears to be the best matchup of week 8 in the NFL.  Ooph.

College Football has great programs and dominant teams squaring off every week, not just in playoff scenarios.  The NFL, on the other hand, has revenue shared themselves into randomness.  Franchises rise and fall from season to season.  17 of the 32 teams in the NFL finished last season somewhere between 6-10 and 10-6.  The model of the NFL is to set up a system in which every team has an equal chance at a Super Bowl.  Everyone has exactly the same resources available to attract and cultivate talent.  The longer the league can keep teams from being eliminated from contention, the longer it can sell tickets and boost ratings.  By design, there are no dominant programs for whom 13-3 is considered a down season.  With the hard salary cap and rookie salary scale, the NFL has restricted competition to eliminate the culture of “haves” and “have nots” that permeates the college athletics world.

Consequently, there are no Super Bowls between undefeated and/or 1-loss teams.  In fact, there are not even Super Bowls between 2-loss teams.  The best combined record of Super Bowl participants over the past ten years was in 2004, when 14-2 New England defeated 13-3 Philadelphia.  The past three Super Bowl champions have had at least 6 losses on the season and participants of the last ten Super Bowls have averaged 3.95 losses.  Think about that for a second.  Prorated to a 12 game college football regular season, this would be like a BCS championship game between two 3-loss teams.  There were 13 teams in 2012 who finished the regular season 9-3: Oregon State, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Northwestern, UCLA, Central Florida, Tulsa, Ball State, Toledo, Fresno State, San Diego State, Arkansas State, and Louisiana Tech.  Imagine the ESPN propaganda machine attempting to hype a matchup of 9-3 teams throughout bowl season.  “They’re two totally decent programs who happen to have made it to the championship.  Oregon State.  Rutgers.  Feel the excitement!”

Records of Super Bowl participants over the past 10 years

NFL executives tout “parody” "parity" as a virtue.  As a fan of great matchups, I hear “mediocrity.”

Another advantage for the marketability of the college game is the concept of polls and the importance of those polls in selecting championship game participants.  Seeing that little number (rank) next to a team’s name demands instant credibility for that team.  It is completely arbitrary and subjective, but the game is important because ESPN tells you it is. There are 25 of those ranked teams.  Each week, there are a number of matchups between them.  Every one of those is promoted as a marquee matchup for the entire week leading up to the game.  Aps on smartphones, the ticker at the bottom of TV screens, the info bar at the top of any college football website.  Games involving those lucky 25 teams are tracked like Dexter vetting a potential victim.

Side note: want to know why the Big XII is more vulnerable than most people think?  Fewer marketable properties.  The Big XII has only 5 teams with less than 3 losses.  With only ten teams in the league, an open week for one of the marketable teams is disastrous for the conference’s contracted TV network(s).  Of the four teams in action this week with less than 3 losses, none are playing each other.  Those other 5 teams do not command market share without a great season the way Ohio State (2011), USC (2012), and Tennessee (2013) do.

In fact, the most marketable game FOX has to televise in week 8 would be a 3-3 TCU team (whose best win is over a Charlie Weiss coached Kansas team) against a 4-1 Oklahoma State team (whose marquee win is over the same Mississippi State team that just squeaked by Bowling Green 21-20 at home).  Let’s see if this game, a noon kickoff on FOX, even wins its timeslot in Oklahoma and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

(Editor’s note: Turns out, it was a noon kickoff on FOX.  And Oklahoma State’s marquee win would probably now be over a Texas Tech team that has lost its last 3 games, I guess.)

Which brings us to the final reason college football is so enthralling to follow.  The passionate regionalism of fan bases.  Sure, the vast majority of 11W readers are Buckeye fans.  But many of us are also fans of the Big Ten as a whole.  We watch the Rose Bowl, as the best from the Midwest takes on the best of the West.  We get fired up watching new Big Ten member Nebraska represent us in the Capital One Bowl, and feel angered as they blow the game to a team from the hated Southeastern Conference.  (Seriously, Nebraska led 31-23 halfway through the 3rd quarter and went fumble, 3-and-out, 3-and-out, interception on its next four possessions!)  Many of us rejoiced when Northwestern won its first bowl game since Harry Truman negotiated the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, showcasing speed its opponent from the Southeast could not match.  When one Big Ten team wins a marquee nonconference game, we all win.  It reflects positively on each program in the conference and is critical in shaping the narrative of the conference.  College football is big on guilt by association.

You don’t often get that sense of camaraderie among fan bases in the NFL.  Cleveland Browns fans will sooner root for Bernie Madoff than the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Maryland and Rutgers are joining the family next season.  One could look at these two teams’ schedules as a collection of nonconference games by two Big Ten programs.  Currently, Maryland (5-1) and Rutgers (4-2) are part of the Less Than Three Losses club.  Reds fans are likely not rooting for the Cardinals this postseason.  Few Blue Jackets fans have ever pulled for Detroit in the playoffs.  But many Buckeye fans will be rooting for their Midwestern and new Northeastern brethren throughout the season.

I recognize how lucky I am to be able to record and watch 10-15 college football games on any given Saturday.  No commercials in my household.  As an aside, have I mentioned I may have the greatest wife in the world?  She not only lets me get away with this, she even watches a few games of interest with me each week and knows what she is talking about.  She actually surprised me with an anniversary trip to Chicago complete with tickets to the Michigan State vs Northwestern game.

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