Staff Picks: Which version of the ‘NCAA Football’ video game franchise was the best?

Isolation and self-quarantine can leave a lot of time on your hands. If you’re not already blowing through your video game arsenal, you probably soon will be. Now is as good a time as any to revisit the old “NCAA Football” franchise. It was like Christmas morning every summer when it was released until its end following “NCAA Football 14.” Legal disputes over the use of a college athlete’s likeness are at the center of whether the game will ever make a return. 

While there are no definite signs yet the game will return, some of the old editions of the franchise still hold up today. Being a four-time Heisman-winning quarterback on Campus Legend will never not get old; neither will creating super conferences in Dynasty Mode. Certain versions of the game are, as you’ll read, particularly sentimental based on when players were in college. 

With sports, including college football, on hiatus for the foreseeable future, our staff of college football writers went back through the “NCAA Football” games and picked out their favorites. 

Ben Kercheval: “NCAA Football 07”

There’s a lengthy debate in the further regions of Reddit history over which edition of the game is better, and 06 commands a healthy portion of the votes. This is merited. It’s the first edition of the game to have a bunch of new features, including Dynasty Mode and Race for the Heisman — later called Campus Legend. The all-time great teams and FCS options were fun in single-game mode. Desmond Howard striking the Heisman pose on the cover was a nice change of pace from the current college football star turned NFL rookie. 

By all accounts, then, that should be my favorite version of the game. But it’s not, though it is close. The next year’s edition had, more or less, many of the same features as “06” with a few tweaks. The momentum meter was a nice touch, for example. The difference is personal and anecdotal. I used to play this game in college with my then-roommate all the time. I’d always choose West Virginia with Pat White and Steve Slaton — the Michael Vicks a la “Madden” for the “NCAA Football” franchise, if you will. I was pretty good, too, winning regularly. 

One time, however, my roommate charged in with a motivated look in his eye I’d never seen and told me to pick up the sticks. He then proceeded to whip my ass for a good two-and-a-half quarters (hint: play contain on defense vs. White) before I started to make my comeback. Trailing by four in the final minute of the game, I mounted an improbable, go-ahead scoring drive spanning the length of the field that ended in a White touchdown pass with five seconds remaining. My roommate slammed the controller on the ground, unleashed a tirade of expletives directed at yours truly so foul that Gordon Ramsay would blush, gave me the finger and stormed out of the room, shouting on the way out that he never wanted to talk to me me again. All the while I was crying from laughter. 

My roommate’s name is Jason and he’s going to be the best man at my wedding next year.  

Chip Patterson: “NCAA Football 2003”

The NCAA Football series contributed in a big way to broadening my horizons for college football beyond the regional scene. College football will always be a regional sport at its core, but as more games made their way to national television at the end of the 1990’s and beginning of the 2000’s, this young and impressionable sports fan in Raleigh, North Carolina, found himself invested in players, storylines and outcomes well beyond the footprint of the ACC. The 2003 game — in addition to having Joey Harrington, the GOAT, on the cover — was one of the first to really expand the dynasty mode’s offseason options with recruiting, and many, many hours of sleep were lost dividing up the recruiting points between (mostly) simulated seasons that stretched long into the future (or present).  

Barrett Sallee: “NCAA Football 14”

There’s no doubt that the last edition of the NCAA video game franchise is the best. Why? No, not for sentimental reasons — although it probably has been played more than any other edition due to the time that has elapsed. The real draw is an improved running game that resembles real football more than any other video game provided. Upgraded recruiting efforts in dynasty mode seemed cumbersome and unnecessary at the time. But as the years have gone by, it’s clear that developers were ahead of the country in the added details like topic-specific phone calls and more options on official visits. After all, that’s what we actually have in real college football now. The details of the game make it much more challenging and entertaining to build a team like Idaho into a national power. Kibbie Dome for life.  

Tom Fornelli: “NCAA Football 2001”

I’m not naive enough to think that NCAA Football 2001 was the best version of the game. It wasn’t. It came out on the original Playstation, and while the system was the most advanced for its time, much better versions came out shortly after. In fact, the 2002 version was the first available on the PS2, and it improved things a lot.

The reason that the 2001 version is my favorite is based more on the memories I have of playing it. This was before online play was a standard feature in gaming consoles. I had played the game since its inception but had been doing so against the AI. The 2001 version came out while I was in college, and nearly every day after finishing class, my friends would come over, and we’d play in our four-team dynasty. All four of us chose Big Ten teams to play as, taking Penn State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan (I was Penn State). The four of us went through at least a decade’s worth of seasons, and the recruiting battles were usually more intense than the games themselves.

One of my friends was so upset when I came in late on a 5-star running back he’d been working on and secured the commitment that he didn’t show up at my place to play or talk to me for a few days. He told us he was busy with other things, but we knew better. So did the running back. I mean, why play for Wisconsin when you can play for the six-time national champion Penn State Nittany Lions?

As the game and platforms grew more advanced, online play made it much easier to play other people online in leagues, but online play has never had the same appeal to me as those dynasty seasons did with NCAA Football 2001. There’s something about seeing your opponent react to you beating them that just can’t be replaced. 

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