Which is better, college football or NFL?

Originally Published: August 7, 2009
By LZ Granderson and Kieran Darcy | Page 2

LZ Granderson: The great Wilt Chamberlain said it best -- no one roots for Goliath -- and the NFL, my friend, is the Goliath of the football world. The players are rich. The coaches are rich. The GMs, owners, most everyone who is worth quoting in the NFL is, within the social pecking order, a Goliath.

It's college where you still find the Davids of the world. The kid who came from nothing and still has nothing, but gives everything he has on the field every Saturday for a chance at being a somebody, if for only one fleeting moment. If a pro misses an assignment, he's still rich and somewhat famous. If a college player screws up, he gets to go to class.

Sure, there are guys in the pros who care as much, if not more, than the 20-year-old at Michigan. And there are guys in college who are collecting a little somethin'-somethin' under the table from boosters and such. But by and large the NCAA -- from the place-kicker at D-III Grand Valley State to the backup center at USC -- has more players doing it for the love of the game than the NFL. Why do I say that? Because Division III is the largest of the three divisions sanctioned by the NCAA, and it's also the one that doesn't offer any scholarships to play.

Kieran Darcy: Hey, LZ, I'm the last person to root for Goliath. But this debate isn't about whether I'm rooting for college football or the NFL, it's about whether I'd rather watch college football or the NFL -- and frankly, college football can't carry the NFL's lunchbox.

The NFL is, without question, the most popular sports entity in our country today. Heck, the scouting combine has become one of the most talked-about events on the sports calendar. The NFL draft is expanding to three days next year -- pretty soon it'll be a weeklong affair, with the entire week declared a national holiday. And the NFL regular season? Please … Sundays have turned from the Lord's day into Roger Goodell's day.

I almost shed a tear after reading your Pollyannaish paean to Division III football -- but frankly, minor-league curling might get a better rating. Meanwhile, segments of our country go crazy if they don't get the NFL Network and there's a Thursday night game between the 1-12 Raiders and the 3-10 Chiefs. And with good reason.

Listen, I don't want to hate on college football. But the NFL is simply better. I'll give you three reasons, just to get the ball rolling:

[+] EnlargeSuper Bowl Coin Toss
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesThe Super Bowl is a spectacle like no other.

1. The players are bigger, faster and stronger. Why settle for watching the minor leagues? I want to see the best of the best.

2. Two words: playoff system. No inane polls, no complicated formulas. The NFL champ is decided purely on the field.

3. Super Bowl vs. BCS Championship Game: no contest. I'd even take the Super Bowl commercials over the NCAA's supposed national title game.

LZ: Ah, Kieran. It appears you have taken the quantity-over-quality approach, making you the Page 2 version of Michael Bay. If there are big booms every three frames, maybe no one will notice there's no plot, or in this case, no connection. Unless you think more people root for spoiled, rich athletes who bounce around from team to team (for more money or a fresh start after legal trouble) than the rural kid from small-town USA who picked Appalachian State and beat Michigan. And 30 years from now we'll be doing a documentary on that game, bringing that same kid back, and we'll all relive that incredible moment. Only a fraction of the country, i.e., Niners fans, give two cents about "The Catch."

The reason there is so much NFL on TV is because cable and online media is a 24-hour beast that must be fed, not because it's great entertainment and there is an overwhelming demand. Or better yet, that's more about fantasy football than the actual NFL. You say "bigger, faster, stronger," and I say, "Shawne Merriman is not a one-off." You say "playoffs and Super Bowl." I say that two weeks after the pro season is over, we're no longer talking about the NFL -- unless someone's been arrested -- but we're still debating the college champ. So stick that in your Brett Favre helmet and smoke it.

KD: Michael Bay, huh? Well, that doesn't really offend me. I happen to like special effects. (And, I'll admit it, I liked "Armageddon" too. Hate on me all you want, but you know when you come across "Armageddon" on cable you can't flip the channel right away. Especially when Bruce Willis is saying goodbye to Liv Tyler. "I wish I could be there to walk you down the aisle. But I'll … I'll look in on ya from time to time." C'mon!)

I hate to break it to you, LZ, but more people do root for spoiled, rich athletes who bounce around from team to team for more money or a fresh start after legal trouble. Actually, it's not so much that they're rooting for the player -- they're rooting for their favorite team … or their fantasy team … or, let's be honest, whatever team they've got against the spread.

I'm glad you brought up fantasy football, by the way -- just one more reason why the NFL trumps college football. Not only is the product on the field better, but fantasy gives you one more reason to be excited to watch just about any NFL game -- even that Thursday night game between the 1-12 Raiders and the 3-10 Chiefs. I'm sorry, but hardly anyone gets worked up for that weeknight battle between Tulane and East Carolina.

By the way, I loved the Appalachian State victory over Michigan. But I don't remember the "rural kid from small-town USA" -- in fact, I don't remember the name of a single player on either team in that game, great as it was. I am, though, quite familiar with Joe Montana and Dwight Clark. And even though I'm a Giants fan, I'll be telling my kids one day about "The Catch" long before I tell them about an FCS team's beating a mediocre Michigan squad one year.

LZ: You know, it doesn't surprise me that you like special effects, because the NFL has had plenty of them -- like the 2003 NFC champion Carolina Panthers. The HGH and steroids that a number of the players were taking provided plenty of special effects -- like a ticket to the Super Bowl. And how can we talk about special effects and not mention film? My favorite is "SpyGate: The Bill Belichick Story."

[+] EnlargeJerry Moore
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonAppalachian State's players carried their coach off the field after their upset of Michigan -- the type of upset the NFL can't replicate.

Look, Kieran, the reason you can't remember a single name from the Appy State-Michigan game is because college football is about team; it's about the school and rivalry and history. It's about rallying around the idea that each player is playing for something greater than himself, and that only by being a great teammate will you have your name etched in the books as an individual. That's why college football rivalries last for decades. That's why UCLA fans would rather walk through a snowstorm naked than put on clothing that says "USC." The players who sign up to play with those schools understand the history and respect it. The people who take over sports bars to watch their alma mater, or tailgate outside the stadium, understand and respect that history. It's the connection to that history that makes watching college games an experience.

The NFL? It used to be like that, but now it's all about self-promotion. Celebrating tackles that have no impact on the final score. Celebrating touchdowns when you're down 30 in the fourth. Those are the antics you routinely find on your tube watching the NFL. You have guys changing their names and doing reality TV and all kinds of me-me-me stuff. If a guy gets noticed in the NCAA, it's because he's up for a Heisman, not because he's on Twitter between downs or his girlfriend's publicist is issuing statements about their relationship.

And the fact that you can't remember that Michigan's Jake Long -- the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft -- played in that game, along with seven other future NFL players, only supports my argument that the NFL draft is just time-filler.

KD: All right, you got me on Jake Long -- although you can't tell me it's memorable to watch an offensive lineman play. (And I know you had to look up the fact that there were seven other future NFL players in that game!)

I hear you on history and rivalries; college football is chock-full of those. But the NFL has tremendous history and rivalries, too. I'm a Giants fan. I get to watch my team play three bitter rivals -- the Cowboys, Redskins and Eagles -- twice apiece every single year. Bears-Packers, Broncos-Raiders … the list goes on and on. I'll take NFL rivalries over college rivalries any day.

The NFL's got plenty of tailgating, my friend. And NFL fans take over sports bars all over America -- heck, there's a Pittsburgh Steelers bar in practically every nook and cranny in this country!

The self-promotion, the excess celebration -- yeah, it's gotten out of hand, in all sports. But how about running up the score? At least NFL teams don't have to do that to improve their poll position.

Yes, I could do without Chad Ochocinco's name change, and his constant tweeting. But you know what? Maybe that'll keep me entertained during that monthlong snooze college football's top two teams take from the end of the regular season until the BCS title game.

LZ: Running up the score? How about leaving in Tom Brady in the fourth quarter, up 30, to run up the score? Or Brett Favre's giving up a sack to help Michael Strahan, his buddy, get the sacks record? What about barely playing your starters in Week 17 because, for a number of teams, the games do not matter? When do you ever hear of a college coach resting his starters in November because the game doesn't matter? Face it, buddy, the college game has flaws, but the NFL is flawed.

KD: Noooo! No more mentions of Brett Favre, please! That's the one thing college football surely has over the pros -- NFS. No Favre Speculation.

If I recall correctly, my favorite team played its starters in Week 17 a couple years back, against the 15-0 Pats -- and it ended up paying off when they later knocked off Belichick's boys in the Super Bowl. Hopefully Tom Coughlin has started a trend.

I've got one more arrow in my quiver -- and it's called parity. Or, more appropriately, hope. At the beginning of each new season, every NFL team (perhaps with the exception of the Detroit Lions) has hope. The balance of power in the NFL shifts every year. Just look at last season -- the formerly hapless Arizona Cardinals go all the way to the Super Bowl, while the Dolphins and Falcons bounce back from wretched 2007 seasons to make the playoffs. How cool is that?

USC, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas … seems like the same teams are always at the peak of the college football landscape. I'll take hope over predictability any day.

LZ: Parity -- oh, is that the word we're using instead of "dilution"? Look, it's called a cycle, and every team sport has them. The reason the Spurs got david Robinson and Tim Duncan is that they were terrible the season(s) before getting the top pick in the draft. The Yanks were wretched at one time, as were the BoSox, and the same is true in the NFL. That's just the way it goes, and NCAA football is no different -- just ask fans of Auburn, Michigan and Nebraska. Of course, in college it's usually because players graduate or go professional. Not because the valuable players on the team are cut to save a buck. Or go to jail after shooting themselves in the leg.

KD: Man, you just had to bring up Plaxico, didn't you? Hit a Giants fan where it hurts.

[+] EnlargeChad Pennington
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesChad Pennington led the Fins to a lightning-quick turnaround in 2008.

Yeah, every team sport has cycles. But the NFL's are a lot quicker -- and I love that. I mean, who would have thought the Dolphins would go from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 and winning their division in 2008? Who would have thought the Falcons would go from 4-12 in 2007 to 11-5 and a wild-card berth, behind a rookie quarterback, in 2008?

Meanwhile, let's take a look at the college football rankings -- specifically, the top five teams in the country at the end of last season, courtesy of the USA Today poll: Florida, USC, Texas, Utah, Oklahoma.

The top five teams in the country in USA Today's preseason poll for this season? Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, USC, Alabama.

'Nuff said.

LZ: Well, there's one more reason watching college football is better: Doing so gets people thinking about college. It worked on me. And I'm sure it's worked on a lot of people who had never heard a discussion about college at home or in their neighborhood. When you follow Michigan as a kid, you begin thinking about going there when you're older. When you follow the Oakland Raiders, all you think about is losing.

KD: A nice sentiment to end on, LZ. But in terms of pure entertainment, I'll take the NFL any day of the week.

So enjoy those early-season college cupcake games. I'm counting down to Thursday, Sept. 10 -- Titans at Steelers -- to get things rolling. I can't wait to cheer on my Giants, and see what teams emerge from their division cellars and make dramatic turnarounds in a single year (maybe even the Lions?). And I know I'll have a clear-cut champion on the field in Miami on Feb. 7, 2010, at the conclusion of Super Bowl XLIV.

Plus, I know the commercials will be better, too.

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

Kieran Darcy | email

ESPN Staff Writer
Kieran Darcy is an staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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