Monday, August 14, 2006
Updated: August 15, 12:15 PM ET
Comparatively speaking, it's tough to compare
By Pat Forde
On one side of the great debate, we have Mr. College Ball Himself, Ivan Maisel, wearing Bear's houndstooth and arguing that 32 bowl games are better than a single undisputed national champion.
On the other side, we have Mr. NFL Himself, Len Pasquarelli, wearing Lombardi's horn-rims and quoting from the Pete Rozelle "Parity Is Beautiful" playbook.
The neutral ground between these two rhetorical gunslingers is no place to be caught during a duel at 20 paces. But as a fan of football on Saturdays and Sundays, I'm trying to see it both ways. While Carville and Rove blaze away at each other from their partisan perspectives, let's examine this debate semi-objectively.
Issue: Quality of play
The last time we saw Vince Young play college football, he was literally unstoppable. Threw with aplomb and looked as though he might never be tackled again. He was God In Cleats.
Now, most everyone agrees he's nowhere near ready to be a starting quarterback on the pro level. God In Cleats has become God With A Clipboard. That's how big the step up is from one level to the next.
Issue: Variety of playing styles
They call it a "pro-style offense" for a reason: They all look and act pretty much the same. In 2005 in the NFL, the difference between the worst running team and the best was a mere 76 yards per game. In passing yards, the difference was 137 yards.
In college last year, the difference was 273 yards per game on the ground and 286 in the air. You can see offenses as diverse as the Navy wishbone (82 percent of all its plays were runs in 2005) and the Hawaii run-and-shoot (67 percent of all its plays were passes, plus many of quarterback Colt Brennan's team-high 99 runs were on scrambles out of designed pass plays). Not only that, but teams can thrive with imbalance in college: Navy has been to three straight bowl games and Hawaii has had four winning seasons in the past five.
When you see a player getting out of a luxury SUV in the NFL, you don't wonder how he can afford it.
Issue: Fashion police
If a guy's sock falls down in a college game, nobody gets fined.
In the NFL, they're fabulous.
In college, they're nonexistent.
Issue: Emotional attachment
For alums, college football Saturdays are a refreshing sentimental bath. We go to campus to catch a nostalgic contact buzz with the days when our lives were simpler and more naive (and, in most cases, a lot more fun). We tend to have a visceral tie to the university that educated us, and we can reconnect to that through the university's sports teams. We've invested something in the place.
Most NFL fans are invested in some way, too, but they don't always get much return on the investment. In the carnivorous cash machine that is the NFL, almost every franchise is willing to move (or at least threaten a move) if it doesn't get enough municipally funded luxury boxes. Civic blackmail is every owner's hole card, and the teams aren't afraid to play it. If Tom Benson could even consider pulling the Saints out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, you know you're dealing with a soulless enterprise.
Issue: TV analysts
Tony Kornheiser will be in the "Monday Night Football" booth this year. For reasons that escape me, nobody would dream of putting a sportswriter in a college booth.
Advantage: NFL. (Yes, this is a sportswriter talking. But why is it considered an innovative idea on one level and unthinkable on the other?)
Saturday night in Nashville, Saints backup quarterback Adrian McPherson was injured by T-Rac, a Titans mascot (and five-time Pro Bowl mascot, we're told). Seems T-Rac was driving a golf cart on the field when the Saints were coming out after halftime and he ran over McPherson. Most people who have been to NFL games were surprised, all right -- surprised that something like this hadn't happened before.
College games are not theme parks populated by Stupid Mascots Gone Wild. And if you are going to be run over by a mascot on a college field, it's more likely to be a real animal (Ralphie, Bevo, Traveler).
In college, they try to pretend sex appeal isn't being sold on the sidelines. In the NFL, there is no such denial of the obvious.
Issue: Cheerleaders, Part II
To the best of my knowledge, no USC song girls have ever been arrested and accused of having sex with each other in a nightclub bathroom stall, then punching another woman in said bathroom.
Issue: Upward mobility
If you're a fan of one of the worst teams in the NFL, have faith. The fast-cycle nature of the game dictates that your time will come. Only 12.5 percent of the league's 32 teams have failed to make the playoffs this century.
If you're a fan of one of the worst teams in college football, get used to it. Despite the fact that there is a higher percentage of postseason opportunity in college ball than in the pros, 23 percent of Division I-A's 119 teams have failed to go bowling this century.
Part of the allure of college football is its tradition, and part of that tradition is the stability of its flagship programs: Miami, USC, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, Alabama, Penn State, Florida State ... they've consistently been in the picture for decades. You can expect to see their familiar uniforms and stadiums on TV every fall, with big games attached. In a world of constant change, it's good to have a few schools you can count on -- or root against, depending on your viewpoint.
The flip side of the NFL's upward mobility is its downward mobility, with periods of greatness interrupted by long lulls of mediocrity. Teams are good one year and gone the next, gutted by salary caps, schedules, draft order and free agency. Every NFL team might one day go 8-8, but the NCAA will never see all its teams go 6-6.
Issue: Fight songs and marching bands
"Hail to the Redskins" is swell, but it's dying of loneliness. Bands have been drowned out in the NFL by piped-in Metallica and Guns N' Roses before kickoffs, on third down and between every possession -- which, given the deafening, overwhelming and impersonal nature of the pro game, is more apropos anyway. If you want pregame chills, show up in Tiger Stadium, Notre Dame Stadium or Eddie Robinson Stadium when the band hits the field.
College 7, NFL 6: Excuse me while I give Maisel a Gatorade bath and carry him off the field on my shoulders.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.