American football is enjoyed on more than one tier. While fans of the pros have the National Football League, fans of college football have their own leagues. Most schools of any size will at least have one sport; football is a popular one because a successful football team, particularly in the southern states, is a huge boon on prestige and enrollment. In some schools, it's the only men's sport - the federal Title IX requires equal amounts be spent on men's and women's athletics based on gross expenditure so a top-tier football program is a major resource hog by that standard even if the whole point of running it at that level is that it's a profit center for the school and the black from football makes up for the red most if not all of the other sports operate in. A collegiate football player's career begins in high school, with National Signing Day. Prospects, rated on a scale from one to five stars, are selected by the colleges of their choice and are given scholarships. College football players are not allowed to be directly paid, and schools face harsh punishment if they are found to have paid their players, directly or indirectly. The University of Southern California was found guilty of providing "improper benefits" to football player Reggie Bush in 2004 and 2005, and as a consequence USC was required to forfeit all the games in which Bush appeared after receiving the gifts, including the 2005 national championship gamenote . The player himself was scrubbed from team records and university promotional materials. Many other schools have suffered similar fates, most infamously Southern Methodist, which is the only football program to have received the NCAA "death penalty", for over a decade of widespread payments to players. The combination of penalties (including two canceled seasons and 55 scholarships lost) and stigma (few players wanted to play for SMU after the scandal) was so damaging that it took 22 years before SMU, a former powerhouse, had its first winning season since the scandal (by which point none of the current players had even been born when the scandal broke), and the school still hasn't come anywhere near its former prominence.note College football is played mostly on Saturdays, but there is at least one game every week on Thursday and Friday and often also Tuesday and/or Wednesday, and the opening week of the season sees the remaining two days of the week represented as well.note As with high school football, the playing season is basically the same as the fall semester, but some schools will play a defense vs. offense team scrimmage in the spring to make sure the players are keeping themselves in shape. There is a "bye-week" for most teams to give them some mid-season rest, although some teams use a Thursday for this purpose instead, while others, such as Penn State, play the entire season through without a break. Virtually all college football games are sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA is divided into four divisions: Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly I-A), Division I Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA), Division II, and Division III. Each division, in turn, is divided into conferences of about a dozen teams who play most games amongst themselves. A handful of teams (most notably Notre Dame) are independent of any conference. Division I FBS is the highest level of play and garners the most national attention. There is no officially sanctioned national football champion at this level, with the most widely acknowledged champions being chosen in polls of sportswriters or coaches, with a sole "national champion" being unofficially crowned if both polls agree and a split national championship if they don't. (Originally the sport was primarily played in a number of regional conferences that no one particularly bothered to organize into a coherent whole; the AP didn't start crowning a "national champion" until the 30s.) A number of "bowl games" are played between high-ranked teams at fixed sites in late December and early January, but they don't form any sort of organized tournament. (Originally the bowls were exhibitions; there wasn't even any polls taken after the bowls until the 60s.) The term "bowl game" comes from the earliest bowl, the Rose Bowl Game, which was named after the bowl-shaped stadium where it's played (which in turn got its name from Yale University's stadium, the Yale Bowl; the Rose Bowl was designed as simply a bigger version of the Yale Bowl...and in better climate since it's Pasadena, California). There have been a few systems that have attempted to pair up #1 and #2 ranked teams in a championship bowl game; complaining about the systems is in some circles as cherished a pastime as football itself. Currently, the system is known as the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which rotates a "BCS National Championship Game" among the sites of four major bowl games functions as a theoretical national championship, and cuts down dramatically on split titles since many of the polls are contractually obligated to vote the winner of that game #1 in the final ballot. Very few actually like the BCS (more on that below), and there has been much debate about a better system, and part of the deadlock was about the large sums of money these bowl games made. Starting with 2014 season, there will be a four team playoff system in FBS football that will crown the National Champion, although this too has already garnered its share of critics before it has even been implemented (see below). The lower divisions of the NCAA actually have national championship tournaments, and have for decades, but these divisions get little interest except from students and alumni of the participating schools themselves (along with NFL scouts, as many successful pro players have come from the lower-division schools), and sometimes not even then. The rules of collegiate football are very similar to those detailed on the page about American football, so we won't go into them here save for the most basic explanation: 11 guys on offense, 11 guys on defense. Scoring is almost the same as in the professional leagues as well—the defending team can score a point on a blocked PAT and college overtime rules are complicatednote . There are a few different rule changesnote , but nothing enough to disrupt the basic flow of the game. While professional football players can ostensibly play as long as they like (10-15 year runs are not uncommon and 20 years is not unheard of, especially for kickers and punters since they tend not to get hit very often), a college football player's eligibility is more or less limited to four years. We say "more or less" because there is the option of redshirting, where a coach is allowed to stretch a player's eligibility to five years instead of four, with the stipulation that one of those years (most commonly the first, as many freshman are felt to be not quite ready for the collegiate level) will be spent sitting on the bench, and that the player not participate in any games (but can participate in practices, which is the origin of the name; such players traditionally wore a red jersey in practice). Extra redshirt seasons are occasionally granted in extreme cases of injury where a player is sidelined for multiple seasons. Finally, a college player has the option after he is three years out of high school, if he so decides, to forgo the rest of his collegiate eligibility and enter the NFL Draft early. Also, a player forfeits his eligibility in a sport if he accepts a salary to play the same sport (but not a different sport - mostly notably a few high-profile college footballers have played minor league baseballnote ), accepts endorsements or signs with a sports agent. A player who leaves early for the NFL Draft but pulls out of the draft before it's held can apply for reinstatement of college eligibility, and the NCAA normally grants it. But once the draft has been held, it's too late even if he isn't drafted. The Football Bowl Subdivision has quite a few teams, separated, as stated earlier, into a number of conferences. There are a total of 10 conferences in FBS, not including the various independents - such as Notre Dame. You can find a list of the conferences here. The only major independents are Notre Dame, which has had a legendary place in the history of college football (they're the only team, collegiate or otherwise, who have a national television contract for all home games, and still have more national championships than any other team, despite the most recent occurring in 1988) and is the traditional flagship team of American Catholicism (as Notre Dame is a Catholic school), BYU which is a large Mormon university, and Army and Navy, the preeminent service academy teams. The Army-Navy game serves as the traditional last game of the season, and it is still televised despite both service academies having been out of top 25 contention for decades; the service academies have very strict academic and physical requirements (specifically weight limits) that preclude the ability to compete with more forgiving civilian schools. (That hasn't stopped the Air Force from being in contention every now and then, but they're the Air Force.) In 2011, Brigham Young left the Mountain West Conference to become the 4th major independent team. After a major conference realignment that led to the Western Athletic Conference dropping football, Idaho and New Mexico State were left without a football conference and became the 5th and 6th independents in 2013—but were soon rescued by the Sun Belt Conference, which will take them in as football-only members in 2014. Navy will leave the independent ranks in 2015 to join the American Athletic Conference (the league formerly known as the Big East) for football only.
The Bowl GamesAs stated above, the current college football system lacks a true playoff or a true national champion, but that will change in 2014. However, at the end of the season, there are numerous bowl games that are played between schools. The four largest bowl games are the Fiesta Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Rose Bowl, and the Orange Bowl. A fifth national championship game will be played after these, with the #1 and #2-ranked teams in the nation playing each other. The BCS National Championship Game is played one week after the four largest bowls, and rotates between the stadiums of the four. For the first 8 years of the BCS, one of the four BCS bowls was the championship game (with the same system of rotation), but the 5th game was added in 2007. These games have conference tie-ins, giving certain conference champions automatic invitations. The Rose Bowl invites the Pac-12 and Big Ten champions, the Orange Bowl invites the ACC champion, the Sugar Bowl invites the SEC champion and the Fiesta Bowl invites the Big 12 champion. When a conference champion is unavailable due to playing in the national championship game, the runner-up traditionally takes their place in the bowl game, although this is at the individual bowl's discretion and they are not strictly mandated to take the runner-upnote . In addition to the conferences with tie-ins, the Big East champion is guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl, but not in any specific one. These are the "Automatic Qualifying" conferences. The champion of a non-AQ conference can be guaranteed a spot if they're in the top 12 in the year's final BCS ranking, or the top 16 and is ranked higher than the champion of at least one AQ conference (in practice, usually the Big East). If more than one non-AQ champion meets those criteria, only the highest-ranking one is guaranteed a BCS bowl selection. Non-AQ teams who meet these qualifications are referred to as "BCS busters". If Notre Dame is in the top 8 of the final BCS ranking, they're guaranteed a BCS bowl. No conference can have more than two teams playing in BCS bowls, unless the two teams selected to the championship game are from the same conference and neither is the conference championnote . If there are any berths remaining after these criteria are dealt with, and the team ranked third in the final BCS ranking is from one of the AQ conferences and is eligiblenote , they get a bid, and if this didn't fill the last bid and the #4 team in the final BCS rankings meets those same criteria, they're given a bid. If there are still any berths in BCS games left, any remaining eligible teams in the top 14 of the final BCS rankings can be given at-large bids to fill them, at the individual bowl's discretion, though if somehow there aren't enough eligible teams in the top 14, this can be extended to the top 18, then the top 22, and so on in increments of four until the bids are filled. The second tier of games consists of lower profile bowls such as the Capital One Bowlnote , Outback Bowlnote , Sun Bowlnote , Gator Bowl, Chick-fil-A Bowlnote , Cotton Bowl Classic and Alamo Bowl which are treated with some respect, but usually matchups among the teams in the middle of the pack of their conferences, with mid-major conference champions and major-conference runners-up making the occasional appearance. For many years prior to the implementation of the BCS, the Cotton Bowl was one of the top four bowl games, but was surpassed by the Fiesta Bowl and demoted to second-tier status by the time the BCS came around, mainly because of the condition of the Cotton Bowl stadium and heavy campaigning by the Fiesta Bowl contingent to up their game's reputation (and the fact that when the Big Eight became the Big 12, they switched their affiliation from the Cotton Bowl to the Fiesta Bowl). It still seeks to regain its former status and become the fifth major bowl, and is now played in the showplace Cowboys Stadium (the world's largest dome stadium) to demonstrate this; the Cotton Bowl stadium itself remains in use by the decidedly less tradition-filled Heart of Dallas Bowl Bowl. Like the BCS bowls, these second-tier bowls also have conference tie-ins, but for second or third-place teams in the conferences in question. All of the tie-ins are to the major conferences, making it exceptionally rare for a mid-major team to play in one of these bowls. Which of these games is the most prestigious is debatable. While the Cotton Bowl has strongest tradition and retains its famous name, the Capital One Bowl has the largest cash payout of any non-BCS bowl and the Chick-fil-A Bowl tends to have the best attendance among non-BCS bowls. Current plans are that when the playoff is implemented, the Cotton Bowl and Chick-fil-A Bowl (which will regain its old Peach Bowl name) will join the current BCS bowls to form an expanded top tier. The lower tier of bowl games exists solely as cash grabs and Padding for ESPN during the traditionally quiet holiday week in sports, and the stadiums and cities the games are played in (until ESPN grabbed a monopoly on most bowl games in the 1990's, most of these games were still few and far between, aired on syndicated broadcast television and were special). If there was a playoff in college football, the teams in these bowls would be blown out of the first round of the playoffs by the top teams or not even make it, as they usually have records which are only one game above .500 (if that)note . These games are usually sponsored by Names to Run Away From Really Fast, such as the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, Little Caesars Pizza Bowlnote , Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texasnote , the Fight Hunger Bowlnote , the Famous Idaho Potato Bowlnote , the Belk Bowlnote , the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowlnote , the Duck Commander Independence Bowlnote or the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl St. Petersburgnote . Many of these bowls used to have less embarrassing names, before the trend of sponsors using their own name as the sole name of the bowl instead of just tagging their name in front of the bowl name (something near-universally loathed by football fans) came aboutnote . These games are solely of interest to the universities playing only (or will be a future Old Shame if your team is invited to the not-very-prestigious-at-all GoDaddy Bowlnote ), and about the only accomplishment to be earned by the players outside of a free unwanted trip to Detroit, Boise, Shreveport, Louisiana or Birmingham, Alabama is a Cosmetic Award which means nothing. Unless the team lucks out and gets invited to the Hawaii Bowl. There now so many lower tier bowl games that a majority of FBS teams will play in a bowl game every year, a fact widely ridiculed by fans. In the 2010–11 season, there was even some worry that there wouldn't be enough bowl eligible teamsnote to play all the bowl games, which would have required teams with losing records to be invited to fill the remaining slots; two years later, this worry resurfaced when four separate teams ended up on postseason bans at once and all four would've otherwise been bowl eligible including one that went undefeated. While ultimately this didn't happen, it illustrates what a meager accomplishment being invited to a minor bowl has become. Once again, there are conference tie-ins for these bowls, but they tend to be a lot less strictly enforced than in higher-tier bowls (especially since a conference might not have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill all its tie-ins, but also because a major conference probably doesn't care all that much about the tie-in for its 6th place team and a minor conference lacks the influence to do anything about it if their tie-in is ignored). Since non-AQ conferences' tie-ins are exclusively with the bottom-tier bowls, non-AQ champions are almost always stuck in these bowls, but with exceptional seasons they can become BCS busters and jump all the way to the top four bowls.note Obviously, as stated above, it's far from perfect, but it's also difficult for fans to agree on what exactly would constitute a fair playoff system. (Not to mention the difficulty in untangling the tens of millions of dollars in contracts made between the power conferences and the bowls themselves.) Oh, and the discussion is Serious Business. Even the United States Congress has gotten involved in recent years, in college football's own version of Executive Meddling note , with some members proposing a law that would ban the BCS from being advertised as a "national championship" unless it were converted to a playoff system. To the surprise of very few, the most vocal proponents of this idea were Congressmen whose local schools were perceived as having been "screwed" by the BCS. There are pro-BCS and anti-BCS parties, and while the sheer fatigue from injuries might make an elaborate playoff difficult (though lower-division schools manage it), most feel something has to happen. Things finally came to a head at the end of the 2011 season, when the BCS selected LSU and Alabama, two teams from the same conference (and even the same division of that conference, meaning that officially one of them was the third place team of the conference), as the #1 and #2 participants in the championship game, thus effectively snubbing every other conference in the entire FBS. After this, discussion of implementing a playoff system accelerated greatly and, after numerous negotiations between the "power" conferences, a brand new "College Football Playoff" model was formally drawn up and will be adopted beginning in the 2014 season to replace the BCS. The new four-team playoff model will feature the teams being chosen by a selection committee (as in the NCAA basketball tournament) instead of by polls. The sites for the first two semifinal games will be played at existing bowl sites (to be rotated between the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton, and Peach bowls), and the Championship game will be awarded to a city based on a bid, much in the same way that the Super Bowl location is decided. Things are still not entirely rosy however. Almost immediately after its announcement however, the new system was met with various criticisms from fans, ranging from concerns that the new selection committee would be no more unbiased in selecting teams as the old BCS formula (which mixed human polls with a set of complicated computer algorithms that nobody outside the programmers actually understands) to complaints that having only 4 teams compete is nowhere near enough to fairly decide a true champion in the 120-team FBSnote . The TV deals for this new system extend through the 2025 season, so any hope of expanding the playoff to 8 or 16 teams is a ways down the road.
Different LevelsNot all American universities, that sponsor varsity football, play within the bowl system. The NCAA has three divisions and Divisions II and III actually have a normal football playoff system. Likewise, Division I has a special subdivision called the "Football Championship Subdivision,"note where Division I schools, that don't want to put as much emphasis on football as their larger cousins, can play. The current all-divisions record holder for most consecutive winning seasons is Division III's Linfield College, currently at 57. Each of these have their own playoff system to determine a national champion. While most regular season games are done within a division, several teams will play one or two games outside of their division. Teams in the NCAA's Divisions II and III sometimes even play non-NCAA teams. Playing lower-division teams isn't without its risks; when a highly regarded FBS team loses to an FCS team (such as the infamous defeat of then #5 ranked University of Michigan by FCS opponent Appalachian State in 2007, quite possibly the biggest upset in college football history), they become a national laughing stock.note Also, only one FCS win can count toward bowl eligibility for an FBS team, meaning that if a team schedules two such games they'll need to have at least a 7-5 record instead of 6-6 to qualify for a bowl. By design, this usually discourages FBS teams from playing against more than one FCS team per year. Despite the great majority of these games resulting in a win for the higher-division team, the lower division schools are happy to play them because the higher-division team invariably pays them a lot of money to do it. There are also smaller college sports organizations outside of the NCAA, including the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the National Junior College Athletic Association.note While these organizations are greatly overshadowed by the NCAA, several NAIA and NJCAA football players have gone on to play in the NCAA and/or the NFL.
RivalriesWhile all sports have bitter rivalries, college football tends to have the most pronounced ones in American sports. Some of the more notable have been mentioned above. Rivalries will most commonly feature two teams within a state (like Auburn vs. Alabama), teams whose states border one another (like Texas vs. Oklahoma), and ones with historical significance (like Army vs. Navy). The following are all notable rivalries. Most feature teams that are frequently in the top 25, and therefore, more likely to put up a good game.