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Can A Great College Football Team Actually Beat A Really Awful Pro Team?

Fans think the Ohio State Buckeyes could take down the Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns are a bad football team. The Ohio State Buckeyes are a very good one. But could one of the best college football teams really compete with one of the worst in the NFL?

Fans seem to think so. A Public Policy Polling survey released last week reveals that 62 percent of respondents believe Ohio State would beat the Browns.


The Browns are 0-5 this season after getting blown out by New England on Sunday in Tom Brady’s return to the Patriots. In all, Cleveland has been outscored 148-87. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are the No. 2 ranked college team in the country after a 5-0 start— three of those victories were by 45 points or more.

But what about the hypothetical matchup? Would the Buckeyes really have a shot at beating their in-state professional counterparts?

No. Not a chance.

Consider: There are 128 college Football Bowl Subdivision (college football’s top level) programs competing today. These teams are allotted 85 scholarship positions, all of which are generally used. That’s 11,000 players. Add in your walk-ons and players on academic scholarships, and you’ve got as many as 15,000 players competing at the highest level of college football.

The NFL draft has as many as 256 players drafted each year—or 1,024 over a four-year span—and that’s out of a pool of at least 15,000, as many others from non-FBS schools declare for the draft. This leaves just under 7 percent of college players being selected in the NFL draft according to our napkin math; bump it up to a little over 9 percent if you discount non-scholarship players. The actual percent drafted likely is even lower—and not all drafted players make the NFL.

NFL rosters, meanwhile, are in the ballpark of 65 players: 53 active, 10 practice squad, and a varying handful on injured reserve. There are 32 teams in the NFL, meaning somewhere around 2,080 players are in the league in any given year.

There are 15,000 in college and around 2,100 in the pros. Meaning, on the whole, the talent level in the NFL is more than seven times greater than that of college. Clearly, not all teams are created equal, however, as Ohio State’s 85 are going to be considerably better than, say, Louisiana-Monroe’s roster, so the math is a bit exaggerated.

Still, the talent jump is dramatic, as only the biggest, fastest, and/or most talented college players make the pros. So the “worst” player on a pro team would have been a big contributor, at the least, on his college team. But how/where do these talent differences manifest?

In the trenches.

“When you matchup the interior lines (of college teams) against regular NFL teams on either side of the ball, it wouldn’t even be close,” Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who also led one of college football’s top programs at USC, told PFT. “It’s not the receivers. It’s not the running backs. It’s what would happen up front that would be tremendously shocking to a college team.”

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]When you matchup the interior lines (of college teams) against regular NFL teams ... it wouldn’t even be close.[/quote]

These matchups don’t happen in football, but they used to, sort of. Starting in 1934, a team of college football all-stars played against the reigning league champions each year. In the early days of the game, the college players actually won some of the matchups (their final record was 9-31-2).

Of course, there might be explanations other than a straight-up better-played game.

“The game must be one that truly has something at stake, not an exhibition like the old College All-Stars vs. Defending NFL Champions that were played in Chicago,” former college standout and current NFL analyst Charles Davis told NFL.com. “The college kids occasionally won that game as the vets rarely took it seriously.”

And as professional football matured, the games generally became less competitive. Participation issues and insurance costs played parts in the series ending after the 1976 game. The debate isn’t limited to football, however, as Davis’ point is applicable to the famed 1992 Olympic Dream Team, comprised of 11 NBA superstars. And Christian Laettner.

As a warm up to the Barcelona Games, Team USA faced off against a group of college all-stars—and lost. Some players admitted to taking their younger opponents for granted, though it would come out later that coach Chuck Daly, through substitution choices and lack of coaching, essentially threw the game to teach his star-laden team a lesson.

Retired NBA star Grant Hill, who was on that college all-star team, claims his side won fair and square. “I’m not buying it,” Hill said of the idea that the game was fixed. Either way, the Dream Team took the lesson to heart. “The next day, we couldn’t get the ball over half court,” Hill said.

The collegiate vs. pro question also is posed around whether college basketball’s best could beat not an Olympic team, but your standard—or awful, really—NBA team. And while CBS Sports’ Sam Vecenie made an interesting argument how, at one specific point in time a couple years ago, the University of Kentucky might have had a chance against the abysmal Philadelphia 76ers, he doesn’t believe the upset could actually happen. For his part, Kentucky coach John Calipari—who has coached in the NBA—thinks the notion of his squad defeating an NBA team is absurd.

Perhaps the only sport where the question has some validity is baseball. Major League Baseball teams regularly play against college teams during the MLB preseason, and the college teams sometimes win these games. But MLB teams rarely play their starters for more than a few innings—if they play them at all—in many preseason games. Still, The Wall Street Journal reports that MLB teams went 63-3-1 against college teams between 2006 and 2014, though Division II University of Tampa knocked off the Philadelphia Phillies during spring training in 2015.

The University of Tampa defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in a preseason game last year. (Photo via Getty Images)

Was the loss just an anomaly? Well, that season, the Phillies went 63-99, good for the worst record in all of baseball.

But it was just an exhibition. And maybe in a similar scenario, Ohio State could hang with the Cleveland Browns. If the pros were taking the game seriously, however ...

“(The NFL is) about: I’ma line up and beat you one-on-one,” said San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o, who played for Notre Dame in college and is perhaps best known outside football for his bizarre fake girlfriend saga. “You put those college schemes in front of a group of guys who can just dominate one-on-one matchups all the time?

“It’s not gonna work, bro.”

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