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NFL and College Football Are Not the Same Game

The college game has its charms, but for those who love the strategy of the game, NFL football—thanks to roster sizes, familiar names, uniforms, overtime rules and, most of all, field dimensions—is unbeatable

For the past six years I have watched almost every NFL game and, aside from a few pre-draft projects, zero college football games. This is partly because covering the NFL is my job, but mostly because I enjoy pro football infinitely more than college. To me, comparing college to pro is like comparing a small town community theatre to Broadway.

But many people equate the two, in part because to viewers, the FBS college game looks like the pro game. Both take place in large stadiums under bright lights with players in shiny uniforms, broadcast to a national television audience. Such illustrious presentations makes it easy to forget that the NFL is comprised of the top 2% of FBS players (the NCAA estimates that 1.6% of draft-eligible college players are actually drafted each year).

I realize many fans watch football mainly for that glitzy presentation. They love the pageantry of football. The tradition. The sense of community. Most people say that in this regard, college beats pro. To those people, I say: you’re right. In fact, it’s really not that close. But there are those of us who like football’s pageantry but love its strategy. We see the game as a chess match, only where everyone’s pieces are not the same, those pieces are not confined to individual squares, they move not one at a time but all at once, and that movement usually doesn’t stop until someone scores or gets hit.

From a strategic entertainment standpoint, pro football annihilates college football. Here are the biggest reasons why:

Career lengths. In college, it’s 1-4 years. You learn a player’s strengths and weaknesses just in time for him to disappear. In the pros, guys stick around. A quality starter’s career goes 8-10 years. Pro football allows you to know the characters involved, like a TV show you love. College football’s characters, at most, give you a miniseries.

Number of teams. The NFL has 32, categorized evenly into eight divisions. This creates a clear formula for deciding the postseason. The Football Bowl Subdivision has 129 teams (130 if you count the transitional Liberty Flames), littered across 10 conferences with a handful of independents. It’s literally impossible to keep up with it all, which makes it impossible for AP poll voters and the college football playoff committee to make fully educated decisions.

Number of players on a roster. In the NFL, teams have 53 players, with 46 of those players active each Sunday. 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. Jared Goff once told me that at Cal, they had a bottom-shelf quarterback who was also a punter. He’d come in and get to punt against an unsuspecting defense that hadn’t even put a returner on the field.

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Jersey numbers. In the NFL, they mean something. 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. This continuity—while imperfect (see Packers running back Ty Montgomery, whom the league inexplicably allows to wear No. 88)—tells a story. You can glimpse the field and quickly surmise what’s happening. For coaches and signal-callers, this streamlines the vital process of identifying personnel packages. That leaves more time for strategizing.

In college, the jersey numbers are random. Any player at any position can wear anything. It’s chaos. Looking at the field is like poking your head into a noisy classroom and trying to make out what students are saying.

Length of game. For those who study film, the nightmare is putting on a game in which one team had 90 snaps. It feels like stepping out to mow the lawn and finding foot-tall grass. But foot-tall grass is what almost every college game presents. It’s all thanks to rules that call for the clock to stop any time a player breathes. Even people who only watch football on TV know that college games are unbearably long.

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Feet inbounds for a catch. In the NFL, it’s two feet, which makes sense. In college, it’s one foot, which doesn’t. If a player straddles the sideline as a he runs with the ball, his left foot on green grass and his right foot on the white, he’s out of bounds. But if that player jumps to catch the ball and comes down with that same left foot on green grass and that same right foot on the white, he’s inbounds, just as long as that left foot touched first. Why?

Overtime format. This one doesn’t really need explaining, does it? 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.

The width of the field. This is the granddaddy issue, and one people never think about. 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. This means the pro game always begins near the middle of the field, with relatively equal spacing on both sides. That makes for a crisp, tight game, with (initially) balanced formations and coverages. Watching it is like reading a typed manuscript. The college game, on the other hand, is loose and sloppy—like a fourth grader’s handwritten notebook. If the ball is all the way over on one hash, there are spread formations that can create indefensible amounts of space on the wide side of the field. (This is a big reason why spread system players sometimes translate poorly to the pros, where the field spacing doesn’t create free yards. The NFL’s middle-of-the-field hashmarks are also why pocket passing has always been, and will always be, king.) Because of the hashmarks, pro football comes down to men battling men. College football can come down to men battling men and space.

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