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Finally, college football

The sport that I've followed most closely since early childhood is professional football. But I hardly watched any NFL games last year while watching a lot of college games.

Although the anthem protests played a part in that (or, more accurately, the weak-kneed, politically correct league response to them), it was actually the continuation of a trend that had been underway for some time.

Because the college game is simply better.

• College football has the most meaningful regular season of any sport because just about every game matters.

To reach the Super Bowl an NFL team has to play four to five pointless preseason games, 16 regular-season games and then win two or three playoff games (and some owners are now actually recommending an 18-game regular season). A particular game isn't as meaningless in the NFL as in the NBA (82 regular-season games), let alone major league baseball (162!), but a loss here or there, even by lopsided margins, doesn't ultimately matter much either.

In contrast, college teams with national title hopes probably can't afford to lose at any point, let alone suffer the kind of blowout that the Ohio State Buckeyes did last year at Iowa (they went on to win the Big-10 championship game, which would usually secure a spot in the playoff, but that inexplicable 55-24 loss to the Hawkeyes kept them out).

Pac-12 favorite Washington lost a close one last week to Auburn in Atlanta, and will now probably have to run the table to make the playoff; ditto for Michigan, after losing by a touchdown at Notre Dame.

In college football every Saturday feels like single elimination, and this makes for an electric environment every week in places like Tuscaloosa, South Bend, and Columbus.

• College Football has the best playoff in all of sports, even if they took decades to finally get it right.

In the NFL more than a third of the teams (12 of 32) make the postseason, which means that some with 9-7 or even 8-8 records get in (and can then, if they get hot, even end up winning the Super Bowl, like the 2011 Giants). Again, this makes the regular season and any given game therein much less important.

In contrast, only four out of 129 Division I teams are chosen by the College Football Playoff (CFP) committee. To get in you have to beat good teams and look good doing it; if you lose it had better be to another good team in a close game, preferably on the road.

Last year the Wisconsin Badgers lost only one game, by six points to Ohio State, and were excluded from the playoff because their overall resume wasn't quite as good as those of Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, and Oklahoma. The unbeaten Central Florida Knights were left out because they hadn't played a tough enough schedule (and then got the kind of exquisite revenge that seems to only happen in college football when they beat Auburn in a New Year's Day bowl).

The college playoff field is a testament to excellence; the NFL to mediocrity.

• Better matchups. There were no games on the opening Sunday of the NFL that were as remotely appealing as the Notre Dame-Michigan and Washington-Auburn matchups that highlighted the opening Saturday of college football, or even Miami-LSU from last Sunday (Atlanta-Philadelphia probably came closest).

And those are all simply the appetizers that get served up before the conference schedules kick in.

The NFL has some longstanding rivalries--Bears versus Packers, Steelers versus Ravens, Cowboys versus the other three teams in their division--but they play twice every year, and sometimes three times (counting playoffs), which hardly creates the kind of anticipation of Alabama-Auburn in the "Iron Bowl" or Michigan-Ohio State.

• College football has genuine upsets. It seems like every year there are a couple games in which some pipsqueak, 30-point underdog goes on the road and knocks off a ranked opponent, or at least throws a serious scare into one, like last weekend when Appalachian State took Penn State into overtime at Happy Valley (exactly 11 years to the day when they beat Michigan in Ann Arbor).

Given all of the league-engineered "parity," the only thing that really counts as a shocker in the NFL is when the Cleveland Browns beat somebody.

• College football has better rules, in particular a more reasonable 15-yard penalty for that most capricious of calls, pass interference. In the NFL, quarterbacks all too often just heave the ball toward the end zone and hope for a flag that will give them a first down at the one-yard line (basically, a touchdown by penalty). In college, the teams on the field generally decide matters, rather than guys in striped shirts throwing yellow hankies.

College also has a much better overtime system, evidence for which can be easily found by cueing up the last play of the 2017 season.

• Finally, college has the best player of the year award.

Few remember who won the NFL's Most Valuable Player award last year (let alone any of its conference offensive or defensive awards), but the Heisman Trophy is forever, even if your name is Matt Leinart, Eric Crouch, or Johnny Manziel.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 09/10/2018

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