Daunte Culpepper of the Miami DolphinsThe college football season started last week with a great set of games, and continues this week with a showdown between no. 1 Ohio State University and no. 2 Texas. And the NFL season starts tonight, with a game between the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the up-and-coming Miami Dolphins.

The Steelers will be without the services of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, recovering from an emergency appendectomy. The Dolphins, under second-year coach Nick Saban, are attempting to return to respectability after a long drought. With Daunte Culpepper at quarterback, they should be better, even though the former Minnesota gunslinger is still recovering from knee surgery.

Tonight’s game aptly represents one of the great strengths of the NFL as a sports entertainment venture: parity.

Parity—the relatively small gap in ability between the league’s best and worst teams—in the past decade has made the NFL in some ways an even more exciting proposition than before. Only one team in the NFC, for example, has reached the playoffs the last two years in a row (the Seattle Seahawks).

Hence in week 1 nearly everybody starts out with both optimism and great concern: we can almost imagine that anybody might end up anywhere. There is great drama as teams struggle for position and some players and organizations rise while other perform less impressively than expected and fall into the also-rans.

It’s America in microcosm.