Can the best college team really challenge the worst NFL team? Let’s find out!

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 Realistic rating: 2.5

Every year, the question always comes up from talking sports heads, writers, and fans: “Could the [best college football team] beat the [worst NFL team]”? All the questioning is mostly facetious, but it’s become so prevalent, and such a matter of intrigue, that it begs the question… Why not actually do it and once and for all find out?

The biggest reason it wouldn’t happen (or be worthwhile) under current circumstances? The NFL team would have no incentive to play. Why risk injury? Plus, there’s no upside. If they win, they only do what they’re expected in crushing a bunch of college kids. If they lose, they’re eternally humiliated.

These aren’t unfixable problems.

Let’s say the NFL were to propose a rule in the next CBA that the worst team in the league must play the BCS National Champion in a game held the Saturday between the conference championship games and Super Bowl (i.e. the day before the Pro Bowl.)

The game would be held at the recently crowed BCS championship team’s home stadium. This location would be because the college team’s fans would be the ones most willing to come out and cheer for a team to win in such a game (don’t think many Texans fans would be pumped to cheer on their team to avoid a humiliating loss), and it would also give the college fans a kind of de facto homecoming celebration for the returning conquerors, as the BCS National Championship Game could easily have taken place across the country.

Here’s the kicker to incentivize the pro team to win*, though: If the NFL team loses, its No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft moves back five slots and becomes the No. 6. It’s a penalty significant enough for the team to prepare for the game and play hard while really not being draconian, especially considering the somewhat crapshoot nature of the NFL draft and the a recent quantification of draft pick value by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective.

*Players on the NFL team will be paid a pro-rated stipend based on their salary that season for their extra week of work. (Players on the NCAA team will continue to be “paid” with, well, more textbooks and knowledge.)

The NFL and NCAA could split the ticket, merchandising, sponsorship, and TV revenue 50/50. (A bulk of each league’s half would go to each representative in the game.) One could imagine such a game generating quite a lot of viewership, especially compared to the Pro Bowl audience the next day. Given the event-ization and unique nature of such a contest, it’s quite reasonable to suggest its ratings being on par with a typical NBC Sunday Night Football game, which sells ads at a rate of $500,000 per 30 seconds. One of the NFL’s many broadcast partners would probably pony up quite a bit for those kinds of figures.

The other wrinkle in this idea is that, due to the humiliation of playing in such a game and also the risk of downgrading a draft pick, it de-incentivizes NFL teams from tanking to get the No. 1 pick. (Although it should be noted that this side bonus is pretty minimal, as tanking in is nowhere near as prevalent in the NFL as it is in the NBA due to the fact that so many more NFL players are on shorter non-guaranteed contracts, and playing for that next paycheck.)

The thing to remember here is that the NFL team is going to win the vast majority of the time, so the draft pick penalty will come into play only once every couple of decades. (Although we can’t know that for sure since, you know, this game doesn’t exist yet.) Plus, if the NFL team is leading by a few scores early (a very likely possibility), they can just sub out their highly paid starters and minimize their injury potential.

**Addendum: This idea might work better for basketball, where the relative injury risk each game isn’t very high compared to football. All the principles are still in play, though. (Although since high draft picks are much more valuable in the NBA, the penalty for losing would have to be more along the lines of only 2-3 draft spots back.)

Bottom line: This idea will almost certainly never happen due to complaints from the NFL player’s union as well as some hypocritical NCAA stance on having “amateurs” be tainted by playing on the same field as “professionals.” That doesn’t mean this idea wouldn’t work in theory (and also be a profitable investment for the NFL and NCAA), though.