College football is officially back. In six days, the NFL returns with the defending champs against the Redskins. We want to settle an age-old discussion: what's the better game and experience: college or pro? Do you argue college for atmosphere or pro for the almost religious role it plays in fall Sundays? College for the rivalries or pro for the personalities? We couldn't make a difinitive case, so we recruited two experts: ESPN The Magazine senior writer Bruce Feldman, author of the acclaimed Meat Market, will be the pugilist for the college side. David Fleming, recently the author of Breaker Boys about the 1925 Pottsville Maroons and also a Mag senior writer, defends the pro side of the coin. Between 'em, they have decades of experience covering Saturdays and Sundays. Let 'er rip.
I'll start by saying I love the NFL. Love it more than basketball and baseball and every other sport, except college football. The NFL is a marvelously packaged product. But college taps into a different nerve. We can talk about Ohio State's trip to USC for months and not hash it out enough or about SEC speed or who has the best chance of slowing down the spread offense. And yes, I know the NFL has some interesting characters like T.O. and Chad Johnson but the college game is driven by quirky coaches like Bob Stoops, Steve Spurrier and Mike Leach, and the tones they set for their teams. Like I said I love the NFL, but I feel like 30 percent of the fans who are "rabid" about it are so mainly because they're starting the Ravens defense on their fantasy team on Sunday.
One of the few times that my job is actually difficult is about an hour or so before NFL kickoffs each Sunday when I have to wander through the sea of tailgaters in places like Pittsburgh (Iron City beer); Kansas City (ribs); Green Bay (brats) and New Orleans (jambalaya). The music's blaring, the smell of charcoal fills the air and everyone's playing touch football in between the endless rows of parked cars. I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to throw down my computer bag, pick up a brat and just be a fan for a day. Right about then, of course, some 5'9" guy pushing three bills with his head shaved and painted like a football helmet usually jumps out and blows back my hair with a moist J-E-T-S JETSJETSJETS! belch. And then I decide the comforts of the press box aren't all that bad after all.
We could argue atmosphere all day long. (Actually that's what I think they want us to do. Fight each other like a couple of trained cyberspace freaks whose identities are somehow intertwined and defined by the sport they just happen to cover.) And, well, here's how that would go: Bruce: "USC Song Girls." Flem: "Uh, the Hogettes?" Dingdingding.
Luckily for me, then, the quality of the experience comes down to the competitive nature of the games and, well, in that regard there's no comparison.
There are, indeed, a lot of quirky coaches in college, if by quirky you mean guys like Spurrier, Pete Carroll and Nick Saban who couldn't cut it in the NFL and slunked back to campus. Pro football is a different sport, really. It's faster, more violent and way more complicated and competitive, which is why the best player in college football usually fails so heinously in the NFL. (Whenever I see the Heisman trophy guy's pose I think what he's actually doing is stiff arming angry NFL GMs looking for their signing bonuses back.)
The NFL has a lot of serious flaws, no doubt, (one of them is called the Bengals) but most of them are concealed by the league's unprecedented competitive parity—something that is the envy of all other sports. Right now, 30 teams think they have a legit shot at the Super Bowl. Every year more games are decided by a touchdown or less. There will be between five and eight new teams in the postseason and, when it's all said and done, I think the NFL has really hit upon something cool by letting their champion be determined on the actual playing field and not by a, ah-hem, computer.
Plus, the first week of the NFL season actually means something. I don't care how much cuter your cheerleaders are, how much cooler your animal mascots are or how nostalgic we all get hearing middle-aged former frat boys slurring their fight songs. It won't be enough to cover up this little fact: Penn State opens up against Coastal Carolina.
That's not a football team, Bruce, that's a furniture store.
OK, Dave, I will concede that many great players in college stink in the NFL. Are they exposed or do they just not fit in a different system? Maybe it's both. Is that the point here? Should it be? Sure Wolfgang Puck charges more for his fancy meals than what you get at your neighborhood pizza joint, but America loves pizza and we love hamburgers and we love variety. How much difference is there from scheme to scheme in your world? Not that much, but we've got Texas Tech and Missouri and Florida and West Virginia and Wake Forest. And by the way, you can have Bill Callahan back.
FWIW, Big Ten defenses seem to have a better ability to deal with Tom Brady than some of your guys do. And I don't remember Fast Willie Parker eating up the ACC. And by the way, your genius Charlie Weis doesn't look so smart these days, although he did snag a ton of cash out of the ND folks so maybe I shouldn't be bringing that up.
And that last point you made, I think works for MY game more than yours. The first week of the NFL doesn't mean anything. In fact, didn't the Giants go 0-2 last year and give up like a 1000 points in their first two games??? Michigan lost to Appalachian State in the opener and it goes down as an upset for the ages. You'll never get that in any regular season NFL game because no one remembers them. Those games just don't have as much weight on them.
I'm so upset right now I don't know what to write. I mean, I'm freaking out. But do you mean to tell me, Bruce, that Wolfgang Puck has stopped making hamburgers? You know, those little mini things with Gorgonzola cheese and that weird bar-b-que style sauce? And if not, then that's totally uncool to mess with me like that.
All culinary kidding aside, you make a very good point about the level of variety, risk and innovation in the NFL which is somewhere between nonexistent and inconsequential. I studied the history and evolution of the NFL playbook last season and, swear to god, most of the stuff in the NFL dates directly back to Paul Brown's original schemes in the 1940s and 1950s when he had a real innovator on his staff named Joe Paterno. I'm kidding about JoePa, of course. But you had to think about it, didn't you?
You know the kind of innovation I'd like to see in college football? I'd like to see someone invent a way to stop the sport from being monopolized every year by USC, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State and all the other football factories that rob the macro-style variety out of the college game. I'd like someone to invent a machine that allows me to go back in time and turn the channel before I sit down to watch the 2007 George Foreman Grille Bowl. (Wait, I think I just invented a new product.) I'd like an invention that adds a little character to the satellite dish Michigan plays its home games in. And, finally, I'd like someone to invent a way to help small school football programs, like Mount Union College, get the props they deserve (perhaps we should have a Third Party in this debate?)
We've had that kind of innovation. Did you see Boise State knock off Oklahoma? It's really not monopolized by the heavyweights any more. Utah won a BCS bowl, too. It happens. Look, now Navy and Air Force are better than Notre Dame. Teams can rise up. Wisconsin is now one of the top two Big Ten programs. Missouri has a much higher profile than Nebraska. Heck, South Florida barely existed a few years back and they've been ranked in the top 10. That's innovation!
Wait a sec. If Wisconsin is so awesome and their product so compelling why was a couple busted last season having sex in a Camp Randall Stadium bathroom during a home game? I know: they were probably NFL fans and, having seen football in its highest form each Sunday—the best players and the most compelling games in the most popular league—after eight minutes of amateur ball they looked at each other, put down their fried cheese ice cream bars and headed for the toilets.
I hate to keep harping on this (not really) but let's look at a few early season matchups: the NFL opens with the defending Super Bowl champs hosting the Redskins; oh my gosh, then you've got what could be a potential playoff round (if, in some cases, you changed the bothersome Conference format) with Tampa Bay in New Orleans; Houston at Pittsburgh; Jacksonville in Tennessee; wait, Dallas at Cleveland; Carolina at San Diego and Minnesota at Green Bay.
And this South Florida school you speak so highly of? Yes, they have assimilated into 'big time' college football quite well. They open with Tennessee-Martin. That's not a football team, Bruce, that's a country singer.
I could go on forever with this. But I won't. Not if you answer this one question: If you're getting an operation tomorrow, would you rather have a professional doctor do the procedure or an amateur one?
Case closed. I think I've proven my point.
After it's all said and done there's only one thing better about college football…