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‘Strategic Entertainment’ vs. Entertaining Entertainment: The Flip Side of the NFL-CFB Debate

As you may have read elsewhere, college football and pro football are not exactly the same. But the two levels' differences are what make them great—and particularly appealing to certain types of people.

As I read my MMQB colleague Andy Benoit’s treatise on why the NFL “annihilates” college football from a “strategic entertainment standpoint,” one thought kept racing through my head.


When I awoke and wiped the trickle of drool from the corner of my mouth, I thought a little more about Benoit’s carefully reasoned analysis of why the NFL’s narrower hash marks make for a more precise dhsiqhohwiodfhiuewoihaoucn;duibcbadubxibu….


When I awoke again, it occurred to me that I don’t want strategic entertainment. I want entertaining entertainment. That’s what college football provides. To use Andy’s own words, it is “loose and sloppy.” To put it in terms Andy and his analytical ilk will appreciate, those are features—not bugs. (Benoit also compared college football to “a fourth-grader’s handwritten notebook.” Great line, but there sure seem to be a lot of NFL coaches leafing through said notebook to borrow schematic innovations.) To Andy, “comparing college to pro is like comparing a small town community theatre to Broadway.” It’s actually more like comparing a particularly plain episode of NCIS to Avengers: Infinity War. One gets the job done. One is a spectacularly wasteful, probably unnecessary, overly long thrill ride that you’ll be quoting for the next 20 years.

It’s not that one brand of football is necessarily superior to the other as a product. It’s that they appeal to different personality types. Unlike Andy, who admits to not watching college football, I do watch the NFL. I don’t watch it as closely in the regular season because I spend most of Sunday working, but I can dig deep into the playoffs. These games, which feature the best playing the best, are usually pretty dull compared to decent college football games. It’s no wonder the NFL has clock rules that allow the game to end as quickly as possible. Die-hard college football fans wish games would last forever—and Arkansas and Ole Miss once played a seven-overtime game that almost did last forever.

It’s probably better for business for college football and for the NFL that both feel like separate products. Millions of people love both but favor one over the other. Andy laid out the arguments for the people who like the NFL better. I would absolutely hire those people to build a bridge. Their love of precision and order would come in handy. The people who like college football better? That’s who I’m inviting to the cookout.

Let’s go point-by-point through Andy’s arguments to explain why those who love fun embrace college football more and those who remind the teacher that she forgot to assign homework embrace the NFL more.

Career lengths

“In college, it’s 1–4 years.”

It’s actually three to five years thanks to the NFL’s age limit and the NCAA’s redshirt rule. Other than recruitniks, who start following players in high school, this is plenty for the reasonable college football fan. We love the constant churn. It keeps things from getting boring. As we’ve established, that’s not something the NFL is worried about.

Number of teams

“The NFL has 32, categorized evenly into eight divisions. This creates a clear formula for deciding the postseason.”

This is true. So no group of NFL fans can whine that their team has to play nine conference games while other teams only have to play eight. No one can argue about the relative strength of the conference/division because everyone with a legitimate claim on the championship will get a chance to play in the tournament. No one can claim that a regional bias played a role in determining the champion.

This sounds awful. What the hell do NFL fans talk about all day? Hashmark width?

Number of players on a roster

“In the NFL, teams have 53 players, with 46 of those players active each Sunday,” Benoit writes. “In college, the rosters can stretch into triple digits. Some don’t even have unique uniform numbers. It’s a wonder they don’t spill over into the marching band. There are more players than an opponent can prepare for.”

That last line is exactly correct. In 2014, favored Georgia absolutely wasn’t ready for walk-on/part-time grocery bagger Mike McNeely. 

Why would anybody want to see a heartwarming story like that when they could watch the Turk trample young men’s dreams on cutdown day on Hard Knocks?

Jersey numbers

“In the NFL, they mean something,” Benoit writes. “Numbers in the 20s, 30s and 40s are running backs on offense and defensive backs on defense; those with 60s and 70s play in the trenches; teens and 80s are wide receivers, etc.”

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If the NFL is the thinking fan’s game, then it shouldn’t be that difficult to deal with the occasional fat guy wearing a single digit. What Andy fails to understand is that an unusual number in college also typically tells a story. Sometimes it pays tributes to legends of the past. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner wore No. 98 to honor Wolverine great Tom Harmon. (NFL fans should know Harmon. His son, Mark, stars on NCIS.) At LSU, the hardest working player on the team is granted No. 18. In most cases, the story simply is “This guy is a DUDE.” That’s why first-year Florida State coach Willie Taggart refused to assign single-digit numbers until after spring practice. He wanted players to compete for them.

Why does Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a candidate to be the first player drafted in April, wear No. 10? Because he’s the best player on the field and he can whatever number he damn well pleases.

Length of game

We’ve covered this. You only want things to end quickly when they’re unpleasant. Hence the NFL’s clock rules.

Feet inbounds for a catch

“In the NFL, it’s two feet, which makes sense,” Benoit writes. “In college, it’s one foot, which doesn’t.”

Please, Mr. NFL Man, tell me all about how the NFL’s definition of a catch is better than someone else’s definition of a catch.

Overtime format

“This one doesn’t really need explaining, does it?” Benoit writes. “In an NFL overtime, you keep playing football. In college, you play red zone ball. Imagine if the NBA instituted half-court only rules for its overtime.”

Or imagine if World Cup matches got decided by penalty kicks or hockey games got decided by shootouts? Oh, wait.

This happened in a college overtime. 

So did this.

College overtime is superior, especially since the NFL chickened out and instituted the weird you-get-another-chance-if-they-only-kick-a-field-goal rule. The NFL’s overtime used to be kind of awesome because of its ability to crush souls based on a coin toss. Now it’s just wishy-washy.

The width of the field

“This is the granddaddy issue, and one people never think about,” Benoit writes. “Yes, in a literal sense, pro and college fields are the same width (53 1/3 yards). But in a strategic sense, they’re wildly different. Hashmarks dictate where the ball is spotted. In the NFL, they’re 18 feet, 6 inches apart. In college, they’re 40 feet apart.”

Andy is absolutely correct here. This is the biggest differentiator between the two games. I’ve actually pitched a story about what college football would look like with NFL hashmarks and what NFL football would look like with college hashmarks, but it was dismissed as too wonky. Basically, our editors feared it would put people to sleep.

But the width makes a huge difference. Play the 2007 Appalachian State–Michigan game on an NFL field, and Michigan wins 21–7. Someone would have had to air drop smelling salts into the Big House to get everyone up and to their cars, but a football game would have been played.

Instead, they got this…

You decide which you’d rather watch.