Monday, August 21, 2006

Rah! Rah! Rah!

Football is not a contact sport. It's a collision sport. Dancing is a... contact sport. ~Duffy Daugherty

With the football season upon us, ESPN decided that they should have a couple of writers, Ivan Maisel and Len Pasquarelli debate the merits of college football versus NFL football. Frankly, I've found this to be a regional issue. In many parts of the country, a football fan is a football fan. The more they can get, they happier they are. If they can watch a game every night, it doesn't matter if it's the Chicago Bears against San Diego Chargers or Eastern Michigan meeting Wayne State.

In the South, though, college football is king. One local radio station started the countdown to college football season in January. It's not that people won't watch pro football; it's just that they consider it a poor substitute for Alabama vs. Auburn or Texas vs. Oklahoma. Personally, I can go with that.

I grew up in Ohio, so I was (and am) a Buckeyes fan. I lived near Cleveland, so I was a Browns fan, which was easier in those days, because they were a good team. Even then, though, if I it was Thanksgiving Day, and I could choose between a college game and a non-Browns NFL game, I'd probably go with the college teams.

In the debate between Mr. Maisel and Mr. Pasquarelli, it's obvious the latter has the bigger chore. Some of his reasons that the NFL is better are just lame. For example, he cites the Super Bowl because it determines the best team. Of course it doesn't do this any more than the BCS bowl does. Pittsburgh winning the Super Bowl is akin to having the BCS championship between the number 6 team and the number 2. Pittsburgh didn't beat everyone else in the playoffs. They got hot when it mattered. That's the nature of playoffs. He also cites competitive balance, or as the rest of us call it, mediocrity, as a good thing. The idea of giving lousy teams cake schedules so they can have a chance to make the playoffs is sad (Mr. Maisel nicely summarizes this: “NFL motto: Excellence just gets in the way”).

At any rate, I've got my reasons, most of which Mr. Maisel mentions, for preferring the college game. I don't have 20 reasons (even Mr. Maisel has to stretch some to get that many), but I have a few.

First and foremost, there's the matter of offense. In my early years of watching NFL games, I used to wonder why they lined up in the same formation over and over. Basically, every team ran a split-back, two-wide-receiver, one-tight-end offense. It wasn't until the AFL came along that we saw I-formations, backs in motion, and shifts before the snap. NFL purists were, of course, dismissive of all this tricky stuff. Ironically, most of the AFL stuff was adopted when the leagues merged. Once that was settled, every team ran I-formation football until Bill Walsh came along. Now everyone wants to run the “west coast offense”, whatever that really is.

In college, there are teams with wide-open passing attacks, hard hitting running games, even the occasional wishbone and wing-T formation. A college coach may face four or five totally different offensive schemes in a season. Better, a college fan is going to see all manner of different sorts of games thanks to all this variety.

Secondly, there's a wonderful sense of urgency to almost all college games. Big-time schools are fixated on a national championship or at least a BCS bowl. Lower divisions want to win their conference and make their playoff. Either way, each loss has a huge impact. NFL teams can lose five, six, or even seven games and still make the playoffs. Every team has an off week, but many take a couple of more off during the season. Unfortunately, they do this while facing an opponent.

Oh, sure, college teams always schedule a couple of cream puffs during the season, but they still need to win the game. In fact, they need to win those games big or lose points with poll voters. So, there's never a game that isn't meaningful.

Then there's rivalries. The NFL used to have rivalries: Cleveland and Pittsburgh; Washington and Baltimore; Washington and Dallas. But, as more teams have been added, and as divisions have been shuffled, and even as the fortunes of teams have ebbed and risen, the idea of a rivalry seems to fade. For example, as long as Washington and Dallas were fighting for their division title every year, their games were intense. Once each went into the tank, the rivalry aspect of the games dimmed.

Now, for years Alabama was one of the national powers, winning national championships and SEC titles with annoying regularity. Auburn, on the other hand, while no weak sister, was seldom at the same level. But come the Auburn-Alabama game, the records didn't matter, the standings didn't matter, and the polls didn't matter. All that mattered (and matters now) was who won that game, known as the "Iron Bowl" (primarily, I think because it was played in Birmingham for years). In recent years, Alabama has been on hard times, relatively speaking, but what really irks their fans is that Auburn has been beating them regularly. In fact, if Mike Shula wants to keep his job, he'd better start beating the Tigers.

At Texas, despite success in recent years, which culminated in a national title last year, people were upset with Mack Brown because he had trouble beating Oklahoma. Believe me, in the NFL, Washington fans would have been more than happy to lose to Dallas twice in one year if the Redskins still got to the Super Bowl.

And what about the Super Bowl, Mr. Pasquarelli's lynch-pin reason for the superiority of NFL football? Well, when people start tuning in more to watch the commercials than to watch the game, it says something about how good that game is. Last year's farce of bad officiating was just a new twist. Most of them have been dull or just badly played. NFL players have said that the Super Bowl is an anti-climax to them; the stress is making it to the game. Once there, the pressure's off. Not so the collegiate national championship game. For all the faults of the BCS (and it has many), the teams that get to the championship all want to look like they deserve to be there.

I complain a lot about the over-emphasis of football in colleges, but I have to admit that I'm still sucked in by the games. Maybe it's the enthusiasm of the players that does it most of all. Players seldom do choreographed dance routines in the endzone when they make a big score; they jump up and down like idiot kids having a great time.

And an idiot fan like me can't help but get caught up in it.

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