The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association)

Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver, Geno Lewis

Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver, Geno Lewis

(Aspen Photo /

College football in the US is big. Spectacularly big. In fact, for a long time it was even bigger than the National Football League with the NFL struggling to compete against the popularity of college football during its first few seasons.

Whilst the NFL has morphed into something unfathomably huge over the course of the past few decades, that’s not to say the popularity of college football has dwindled and faded as a result. College football – managed, funded, and controlled by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) – is bigger than it’s ever been, and in many ways, it’s just as important to American sports as the NFL.

True, the ins and outs of American Football’s top league do require some getting used to. We’re sorry to say that NCAA College Football is, in fact, even more complex and convoluted. But never fear: we’ve come up with a short summary guide of the NCAA that will allow you to familiarise yourself with the workings of college football in the United States of America.

Below, you’ll learn all about the history of college football, how the league structure works, what happens during the course of a regular season, what sort of relationship it has with the NFL, and which teams have been the most successful. Right, let’s get started!

NCAA History

UCLA’s mascot, Joe Bruin

UCLA’s mascot, Joe Bruin (Jose Gil /

Before we go diving head-first into the particulars of college football, it’s important to establish exactly where it came from and how it came to be the revelation it is today. College football can be traced back as far as 1869, when Rutgers University played Princeton University. The game was played using a round ball (similar to the style of ball now used in typical football or, as the Americans call it, soccer). Each side had 25 players on it, which is somewhat unimaginable now in a modern day American Football world where teams field 11 players. Rutgers won the famous first game by 6 points to 4.

American Football began to evolve slowly but surely, and by 1876 there were several teams involved, whilst the pitch dimensions were narrowed and the players on the field were reduced. A crossbar was also introduced onto the posts.

In the 1880’s the rules began to change considerably. Teams were only allowed to field 11 players during a game, and the Downs system was introduced, which is still in place today. Within twenty years, more than 250 teams were participating in American Football and the game was beginning to look vaguely like the sport so many Americans have grown to love in the modern day.

Over the course of the next century, football stadiums were designed and built, the Forward Pass was introduced (1906), and in 1910, the NCAA became the official governing body for college football. The number of games and teams participating in the NCAA has fluctuated and alternated as the years have progressed, all the while seeing college football become bigger, bolder, and better.

NCAA’s Relationship with the NFL

USC Trojan, WR Marqise

USC Trojan, WR Marqise (Photo Works /

For several years, college football was bigger than the National Football League. Whilst many schools do continue to pull in larger crowds than some teams in the NFL, the National Football League is still considered the highest standard of American Football in the United States.

Since 1936, an annual draft has taken place, where NFL teams attempt to recruit the best players possible from other NFL teams, the free agent pool (a group of players who are not engaged in any contractual obligations with any other clubs) and colleges. The first ever draft took place in Philadelphia with Jay Berwanger being the first player to be officially selected.

In the modern day, every team competing in the NFL is assigned one draft pick in each of the 7 rounds. They are also given 32 additional compensatory selections.

Every year, there are a total of 256 draft slots available. The order in which teams are eligible to draft players depends on where they finished in previous seasons and how highly they are ranked in terms of ability. The draft usually takes place over the course of two days.

Listed below are some of the college players drafted into the NFL who are considered among the very best draft picks ever made.

  • Joe Montana – Graduated from Notre Dame and was selected by the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Bo Jackson – Graduated from Auburn and was selected by the Los Angeles Raiders.
  • Tony Gonzalez – Graduated from California and was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs.
  • Anthony Munoz – Graduated from Southern California and was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals.
  • Jim Brown – Graduated from Syracuse and was selected by the Cleveland Browns.
  • Reggie White – Graduated from Tennessee and was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles.
  • Roger Staubach – Graduated from Navy and was selected by the Dallas Cowboys.
  • Tom Brady – Graduated from Michigan and was selected by the New England Patriots.
  • Dan Marino – Graduated from Pittsburgh and was selected by the Miami Dolphins.

NCAA Teams

You only need to take one look at a map of America (and consider how popular American Football is) to realise that there are a lot of schools in the country who run college football programs. In fact, over 650 different school teams take part in NCAA college football, and all of these teams are spread out across four separate divisions:

Division I: Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) & Football Championship Subdivision (FCS)

These two divisions are the top level of college football in the United States. Originally, Division I was one big league, but in 1978 it was split and divided into two separate divisions. Initially, these were called Division I-A and Division I-AA, but were renamed as Division I: Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Division I: Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) respectively in 2006. Members of Division I typically have the largest student bodies, the biggest American Football team budgets and also tend to offer the most scholarships to students.

Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) is made up of 11 Conferences:

  • Atlantic Coast Conference
  • AAC
  • Big 12
  • Big Ten
  • Conference USA
  • Mid American Conference
  • Mountain West
  • Pac-12
  • Southeastern Conference
  • Sun Belt
  • Independents

Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) is made up of 14 Conferences:

  • Big Sky
  • Big South
  • Colonial Athletic Association
  • Independents
  • Ivy League
  • Mid-Eastern
  • Missouri Valley
  • Northeast
  • Ohio Valley
  • Patriot League
  • Pioneer League
  • Southern
  • Southland
  • Southwestern Athletic

Division II

Division II represents an intermediate level of college football in the United States. The schools who compete in Division II are willing and able to offer players and students football scholarships, but not to the same extent as those schools who compete in Division I.

Division II is made up of 16 Conferences:

  • CIAA
  • Great American Conference
  • Great Lakes
  • Great Northwest
  • Gulf South
  • Independent
  • Lone Star
  • Mid America
  • Mountain East Conference
  • Northeast 10
  • Northern Sun
  • Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference
  • Rocky Mountain
  • SIAC
  • South Atlantic

Division III

Division III represents the lower level of college football in the United States, and largely consists of schools who do not offer scholarships to players – either due to financial restrictions or due to budget being spent elsewhere.

Division III is made up of 29 Conferences:

  • American Southwest
  • CCIW
  • Centennial
  • ECFC
  • Empire 8
  • Heartland
  • Independent
  • Iowa
  • Liberty League
  • Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference
  • Michigan
  • Middle Atlantic States
  • Midwest
  • Minnesota
  • New England
  • New Jersey
  • North Coast
  • North Athletics
  • Northwest
  • Ohio
  • Old Dominion
  • Presidents’
  • So. Cal.
  • Southern Athletic Association
  • Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference
  • USA South
  • Upper Midwest
  • Wisconsin

Regular Season

West Virginia Marching Band Performing at Halftime

West Virginia Marching Band Performing at Halftime

(Aspen Photo /

The NCAA college football division that everyone tends to take note of is the Division I: Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), as this is the league where NFL scouts will pick out players to bring to their teams in the future.

During the course of the season, every team in the FBS needs to maintain the best winning record possible and attempt to reach the playoffs and reach the College Football Playoff National Championship game, which is where the NCAA Division I FBS college football champion is decided.

Different conferences have slightly different rules in terms of fixtures and the number of teams in participation, but every conference has its own Conference Champion come season end.

The way the playoffs work has changed since 2014. In the past, the 6 conference champions in the Division I: FBS, along with 4 additional college teams, were drafted into the BCS Bowl Games. These Bowl games were seen as rewards for teams who played well during the course of the season. If a college football team made it to a Bowl game, it was a reasonably trustworthy indication that they were a team of high quality and may have coaching staff or players that teams in the NFL might want to recruit come draft day.

The big Bowl game that everyone always paid attention to, however, was the BCS Championship Game. The teams ranked first and second in the BCS rankings (compiled by a combination of human polls and computer algorithms) were placed into the BCS Championship game. Whoever emerged victorious in the BCS Championship Game was recognised as the ultimate victor of college football.

College Football Playoff National Championship

The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA

The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA

(Byron W.Moore /

After the regular season is over and the standings are finalised, a committee selects its top 25 teams and ranks them in whichever way they deem suitable (wins, points scored, best defences, etc). After heated debate, discussion and analysis, the committee then trims this list from 25 to 4. The remaining 4 teams are entered into the playoffs – the National Semi-Finals. The aforementioned Bowl games also survive from the old system. These Bowl games rotate as hosts of the National Semifinals. The winners of the National Semi-Finals then go into the College Football Playoff National Championship match, where the winner of the NCAA Division I FBS is decided.

Naturally, the absolute most a team can do is win as many games as possible by as many points as they can. In most cases, teams can still lose one or two matches during the course of the season and still end up making the final four and earning the chance to compete in the College Football Playoff National Championship.


The WVU Mountaineer Cheerleading Squad

The WVU Mountaineer Cheerleading Squad

(Aspen Photo /

It’s not exactly simple is it? Nevertheless, it’s safe to say college football is one of the most popular sporting events in the United States of America, attracting millions of fans to stadiums and viewers to TV screens year upon year upon year. It is college football where the future NFL heroes are made and sporting legends are created. Also, college football lies a little closer to the heart for many Americans. It is here they can cheer on their home-grown heroes and fellow classmates, rather than the multimillionaires who play in the NFL. UCLA & USC, for example, are great examples of college football teams with a huge fan following where many fans have no actual connection to the university other than just wanting to support their local team.

We hope you’ve found the above information useful, and are now a bit more clued up on the convoluted complexity that is American college football. The more you read up on the subject, the easier it’ll become to understand. Fortunately, given the popularity of college football, there are news stories being published on the sport every single day.