If you promise someone from Texas a barbecued meal and then give them a plate of wet ribs with corn bread, expect to get a confused look and possibly a lengthy dissertation. While you were technically accurate – what you presented them was barbecued meat from a grill – it isn’t what they consider to be “barbecue.” They want brisket, light on the sauce, with plenty of char. What you’ve presented them is a Memphis variety of barbecue that, no matter how tasty, isn’t “their” barbecue. They’ll eat it, and they might even enjoy it, but it will never be their first choice.
In this regard, football fans are very similar to hardcore barbecue aficionados (and in many cases, are barbecue eaters). While I’ll watch any type of football (hey look, Calgary and Edmonton are playing on the CFL Game of the Week!), college football is my prime cut of meat. Even if you give me a rack of the best prepared ribs the NFL has to offer, I’m still more likely to watch a mediocre brisket of Northwestern at Boston College.
Much of this love of college football is ingrained in my upbringing. Fresno didn’t have an NFL team, but we did have the Fresno State Bulldogs, who were the proto-Boise States of their day. We loved them, and packed Bulldog Stadium past capacity every week.
If my area had an NFL team, I’d almost certainly be more of an NFL fan. But there are still things I think I’d love about college football no matter what:
– College fans travel to games, while it’s rare to see more than a few, scattered fans of opposing teams at NFL games. (The exception to this rule is when teams that are geographically close play – such as the Giants, Eagles or Redskins, or when Dallas fans turn their game at Arizona into a de facto home game because Phoenix is where old Cowboys go to die.) Having fans of the other team in the stadium is good – it gives you new people to meet while tailgating, someone to engage with your cheering/booing during the game.
(The fact that the majority of college fans who travel are older alums with the kind of money that lets you travel to road games means that you aren’t likely to have any problems with them, either. Not to stereotype, but rich guys wearing deck shoes and driving a Winnebago while rocking out to the new Eric Clapton album aren’t going to start a drunken brawl because their team lost.)
– I enjoy the variety of having so many college teams. Every year, some team starts the season 7-0, but no one knows anything about them since they weren’t ranked in the preseason. To me, that’s charming – in an age where everyone knows the most minute detail about the third-string middle linebacker for every NFL team (either for gambling or fantasy football purposes), it’s nice to be surprised or in the dark about teams even late in the season.
This variety extends to the play on the field. While there are wrinkles, pretty much all 32 NFL teams run the same basic style of offense, and one of three base defenses (the 4-3, the 3-4 and the Dallas Cowboys 2010 defense of “try not to get hurt by accidentally tackling someone). The differences are in the wrinkles, which I can appreciate but not love. I’d rather watch a college game, where you might have a spread option attack go up against a West Coast offense, or a power I running team take on a pro-style offense. Pro football might be the ultimate chess game, but watching two people play chess is not a lot of fun. I’d rather the differences be obvious and easy to digest.
– You can’t top the individual traditions in college football. Sure, some pro teams have their “things” that they are known for, but for everyone one cool thing that the Cowboys do before a game, there are 10 things in college football that are as cool or cooler.
– Marching bands are cool. I don’t feel like I need to expand on this. (In fact, based on my high school years as a sousaphone player – it’s not a tuba, damn it! – and the incriminating photos in my old town’s paper, the less said about this the better. Moving on…)
– Quick: what’s the best rivalry in the NFL right now? Chances are you said something involving the Patriots – many of you would say Jets vs. Patriots, while some of you would say Colts vs. Patriots because you haven’t watched football in five years or are from Indiana. This proves a big point about the NFL – rivalries are, almost always, dependent on the specific team’s current state of affairs. Teams are rivals of the Patriots because a) they have been very good over the past 10 years and b) their coach is an insufferable lout.
But this will change over time – Bill Belichick will retire, and eventually the Patriots will regress. And when this happens, the “huge” rivalry games teams have with them will stop. Back in the late-1980s through the mid-1990s, the Colts vs. Patriots game would have been bottom of the barrel dreck that would only attract die-hard fans from either team to watch. In 10 years, it might be again.
You can’t say the same about college football. Rivalries are built naturally, either through geographic proximity, or because a trainer from one team stole the earthenware jug the other team was using for water back in 1903. These are both reasons for a rivalry that will last longer than both teams being good or one coaching being a jerk (and not the same type of jerk as your current coach, either).
I love college football despite its many flaws. The lack of a playoff system is infuriating, and the random nature of penalties and punishment is maddening. And I’ll acknowledge the many reasons that the NFL is, on the surface, superior to college football. When you watch an NFL game, you are watching the best players in the world in the NFL, who play at a level only a fraction of college players will ever achieve.
And yet I don’t care. College football is a messy, but so is good barbecue. And while I can appreciate a good rack of ribs as much as anyone, give me a fat slab of college football brisket any day of the week.
Counterpoint – Pro Football
by Scott Jones
College football is for amateurs.
– Richard Manfredi still prefers MLS soccer to college soccer, but wishes the Galaxy would lighten up on their tailgating policies already.
– Scott Jones is a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs – a pro team that brags about having a college atmosphere.