Senior College Football Columnist

NFL may be unbeatable, but college football had a better year


The first College Football Playoff came with a lot of fanfare and didn't disappoint. (Getty Images)
The first College Football Playoff came with a lot of fanfare and didn't disappoint. (Getty Images)

It's Super Bowl week and once again resistance is futile.

What Marshawn Lynch didn't say sustained multiple news cycles. The Patriots' ethics are under scrutiny -- again. Media day was a story in itself.

We haven't mentioned Ray Rice or concussions or the hermit-like Roger Goodell.

Doesn't matter. The NF of L is irresistible. The Shield is Teflon. It doesn't mean the league is impermeable to decay.

It's why the college game is catching up.

This is not to suggest college football will ever surpass the NFL. The college version is the second-most popular game in America's sports landscape, but a distant second.

The NFL is ahead of colleges, building more fan-friendly stadiums (see Levi's). Ticket prices continue to rise. Those stadiums continue to be packed. Do you have to be reminded this week about the billions that will be wagered legally and illegally?

College football may never come close to the NFL, but it had a hell of a better year. The first College Football Playoff delivered on its promise to make its initial championship game an event, Super Bowl-like. It did it mostly with taste, class.

The playoff games sold out but the CFP staged them without selling out. The Rose Bowl seemed like the same old Granddaddy even when the circus was just passing through town. Alabama -- and in part the entire SEC -- fell stunningly in its ancestral homeland, the Sugar Bowl. Compelling stuff.

In the end, the first playoff produced some of the most watched cable TV programs in history.

The college game featured admirable -- even sympathetic -- figures: Marcus Mariota, Melvin Gordon, Mark Helfrich, Scooby Wright III, Laquon Treadwell.

Glitz, money, power aside, the modern college game is more palatable than the pros at the moment. That should at least by a concern to the NFL.

"I think it's reasonable when you have the College Football Playoff and results from the first year," said Ray Anderson, Arizona State's AD. "We can at least reduce the gap between us and the NFL. In the long term who knows which product may be more appealing to the consumer?"

Anderson is a busy man this week in the Valley of the Sun with a foot in both the college and pro games. He came to Arizona State last January from the NFL where he was executive vice president of football operations. For four years, he was the Atlanta Falcons' CEO.

At this moment, he oversees a top 45 college athletic budget. There's a $250 million renovation of Sun Devil Stadium that will make the venue one of the most accessible, technologically efficient in the country.

Anderson agrees that the college game has one big intangible going for it at the moment. Underdogs. The NFL doesn't have them. Not any real underdogs. Not Appalachian State-beating-Michigan underdogs.

Not Ohio State-level underdogs. Amazingly, that's how the season concluded. A program with the best of everything, the second-largest budget (next to Texas) and a $4 million coach became one of those sympathetic figures.

In the wake of that first CFP, one of the best underdog stories in the history of the game was missed. Cardale Jones made his first three career starts -- all with his team the underdog -- in winning the national championship.

The Buckeyes rehabbed their image, their conference and themselves after a) a bowl ban in 2012; b) an upset loss to Michigan State in 2013; c) a damaging loss to Virginia Tech in Week 2 of 2014 and d) an NCAA probation that ended 25 days before winning it all this month.

Top that, Nick Saban. The truth is, he can't. Not anytime soon. It's one of those stories that the NFL can't possibly replicate. There are 1,600 players in the NFL. The best of the best.

The rules seem to be legislated so that everyone goes 8-8. A slight deviation either side can mean disappointment or a Super Bowl.

Either way, everyone gets paid. Upsets? Underdogs? Not when an eight-point line is considered "prohibitive."

Meanwhile, a college superpower took a side road to a championship. A championship built on moxie, game-planning, hard work.

Underdogs? It was that kind of year. Little ol' Baylor won at least a share of its second straight Big 12 title. Mighty Michigan finally even got it with Jim Harbaugh right after the worst seven-year stretch of football it had endured in 50 years. Brian Bosworth cried his eyes out after waiting 20 years to get in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, Mum Marshawn is manipulating us all. You want him to talk? Pay him.

"The other thing that college has that the NFL needs to work on more is the pageantry," Anderson said. "The real solid, deep committed fan base year in and year out.

"They may have it in Green Bay, they may have it in Pittsburgh. I've never seen anything like the Ohio State folks and Oregon folks I saw at the national championship game."

That's something the college game should cherish, treasure and cultivate. The experience is still the thing. Overall, attendance is down -- slightly. But in every other metric the game has never been more popular. Never been more pure.

Concussions are a scourge but thank the lawyers and NCAA -- they both deserve credit -- reform is finally coming. When the biggest remaining issues are whether to pay athletes and academic fraud, well, they fall short of the NFL's morass.

"For purposes of what they produced on the field I think it was a fabulous year [for the NFL] ...,” Anderson said. "Off the field, it was a swirling disappointment."

College football still doesn't regularly produce -- nor necessarily welcome -- underdogs. The same brand names tend to rise to the top. If the BCS did anything, it gave rise to the unwashed -- Boise State, TCU, Utah. None of them have a championship yet.

The Horned Frogs came close to that playoff. But look who they were beat out by in the CFP. Look who was a better story.

Those huggable, loveable Buckeyes.

Feel better? You should.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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