After a weekend-plus of college football that saw the Oregon Ducks get knocked off by Stanford and the Alabama Crimson Tide emphatically declare its continued dominance with victory over the ever-dangerous LSU Tigers, the college football season is reaching its zenith. With six undefeateds nationally ranked and four of them in the top five, things are really heating up as conference championships come into view.
It's a great time of year to be a college football fan. It really is.
But to me, as much as I love me some college football, the most exciting NCAA action this time of year has nothing to do with the gridiron. Call me crazy if you'd like, but I'm much more excited to see what college basketball has in store.
As you may noticed, the 2013-14 NCAA basketball season tipped off last week, and tonight on ESPN, the action officially, officially begins, as a quartet of highly ranked and highly hyped teams/players takes the floor at the United Center in Chicago. To start the festivities, top-ranked Kentucky and freshman phenom Julius Randle take on the No. 2 team in country, Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans. That insanely awesome 1-2 game, which tips off at 7:30 EST, is followed by another absurd match-up between fourth-ranked Duke and fifth/sixth-ranked Kansas, both of whom are led by their own highly heralded freshmen — Jabari Parker for Duke and some kid named Andrew Wiggins for the Jayhawks. You may have heard of him.
Tonight's games alone provide enough ammunition in my belief that, no matter how much I enjoy the traditions, games and brilliance that define college football, college basketball is and always will be better than college football. Here's why.
1. The Schedules
How often this year have we seen the No. 1 and No. 2 teams duke it out on the field this college football season? Or even two top five teams going at it? It's something that basically doesn't happen until the BCS title game, barring a few exceptions here and there. College football teams can only schedule 12-13 games a season, and they are beholden to their conference schedules, meaning there simply aren't that many chances to see top-ranked teams take on one another outside of conference play.
Meanwhile, thanks to early-season tournaments and larger schedules with more out-of-conference games, you get match-ups like tonight's, with four of the top teams in the nation taking on one another nice and early. We won't have to wait until March to see some truly marquee match-ups, and we don't have to rely on conference greatness for those battles to take place.
It's not college football's fault, per se, because the sport simply doesn't lend itself to the same type of schedule. But that doesn't make it any less true. College basketball schedules give us more great match-ups, plain and simple.
2. The Mid-Majors
Let's face the facts — if you aren't one of the big boys in college football, your chances of cracking the BCS are slim. And while the impending four-team playoff system that goes into effect next season helps those odds slightly, they're still not great. If you aren't from the SEC, Big 12, Pac 12, Big Ten or the like, your chances of a national title are pretty much over before they even start, barring something miraculous. The mid-majors, as they're billed in college basketball, have no chance in college football. Just ask the Boise States and TCUs of the world, who fielded dominant teams but never earned a real chance at BCS glory.
That is not the case in college basketball. All a mid-major needs to get national attention is either a star player and/or a veteran squad that has been through the wars and continues to win. Yes, like college football the spotlight shines on the schools that play in the big conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Pac 12, Big East, etc. — but the Creightons, Butlers, VCUs and the like get their respect. And their stars. And thanks to a true playoff format, they get the same chance as anyone else at a national title. Sure, more teams from major conferences make the dance, but the mid-majors aren't considered afterthoughts and also-rans in the same way they are in football.
3. The Postseason
Speaking of the big dance — there is simply nothing better in the universe than the NCAA Basketball Tournament. If you disagree with me, well, I don't know what to tell you other than you're an insane person. The NCAA Tournament gives you everything you could ever want (and then some) — great match-ups, huge upsets, buzzer-beaters, a true playoff format, stars being stars and unexpected stars being born. You name it, the NCAA tournament has it. An ever-expanding field — now sitting at 68 — gets to duke it out and settle things on the court, fair and square.
There are no computers pitting one vs. two. There are no excuses or what-ifs. The top 68 teams have to play their way to the title by beating multiple teams over multiple rounds. College football does not work that way. One loss in the regular season can derail all hopes. Two losses all but assures there's no chance to hoist the crystal ball. And while that certainly makes college football's regular season the most important regular season in sports, it also makes a mockery of the postseason. Right now, only a handful of conference championship games matter, and as it stands today, only one bowl game is worth a damn thing — the BCS title game. Next year, three bowl games will matter. And that's it. The rest of the postseason is just a nice ribbon to wrap up the season with — nothing more.
Meanwhile, every single contest matters in the NCAA Tournament — the two play-in games, the 32 first-round match-ups (I refuse to call them the second round), the round of 32, the Sweet 16, Elite 8 and Final Four. It's survive and advance — not a one-shot deal.
Sure, there are always arguments on the teams that get left out — but if you aren't definitively one of the 68 best teams in the country, if you have to debate and argue your merits, then you aren't really worthy of the tournament anyway. Sixty-eight teams are an awful lot. You can get a much better, truer representation of the "best team" out of a field of 68 — certainly a much better and worthy champion than one selected from a field of two … or soon to be four.
There are debates once the tournament is over on who deserves to be crowned champions. The last team to cut down the nets is the one that ran through a gauntlet of games against the best of the best in a month-long playoff setting. No undefeateds get left out. No one-loss teams are left to wonder if they could have beaten the crowned champion. It's all settled on the court, just as it should be.
So as we all watch how the college football season unfolds with bated breath, don't ignore the beauty that is early-season college basketball. College basketball is, in fact, better than college football, after all.