American Football is enjoyed on multiple levels. While the professional game of the National Football League is the most popular league in American sports, college football (especially programs organized and run by the NCAA) rivals—and in some metrics exceeds—the professional leagues of other sports in terms of popularity and cultural clout and is even more popular than the NFL in parts of the South. Indeed, football got its start at the collegiate level in the late 19th century and had decades of culture and history before any athletes actually got paid to play. College football is easily the most popular amateur sport, can be a huge boon on prestige and enrollment for schools with great programs, attracts some of the largest crowds of any sport in the world, and has a major influence on American culture, education, and politics. In short: college football is a pretty big deal, and many works set in the United States are likely to reference it to some capacity. Here's a rundown of its rules, culture, and notable figures.
College Football Rules
The most apparent differences between the pro and college game today usually has less to do with how the game is played than who plays it and what they're playing for. While the NFL's attempts to assert a degree of parity through the draft and salary cap typically ensure that teams are close in skill and a total Curb-Stomp Battle is relatively rare, there are far fewer restrictions in college. This results in the most prominent programs often having far more raw talent then many of their opponents, which tends to make the outcomes of many games a Foregone Conclusion and the main point of interest (and gambling, for those so inclined) being seeing by how many points the rival will be blown out. This margin can often play a role in power schools' national rankings and playoff hopes, meaning a narrow victory against underdog competitors is often treated as a loss and a close upset can get someone fired. Additionally, even games between competitive teams tend to be much higher scoring than pro games due to lack of experience and athleticism on the defensive side of the ball, allowing for more prolific passing and rushing performances.
College football has many, many other rules dictating what schools and players are allowed to do off the field. In some schools, football is the only men's sportnote - 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, when prospects, rated on a scale from one to five stars, are selected by the colleges of their choice and given scholarships. This officially occurs in early February; however, since 2017, students can sign up as early as January, which means competitive universities must start recruiting for the next season before the current one is even finished. This has caused a number of issues, most prominently by incentivizing schools to also hire new head coaches early to help market their program to recruits. Since those coaches have to come from somewhere, this means that it has become increasingly common for coaches, even ones in the middle of a successful run, to leave their current teams in the middle of the season to pursue higher profile positions and more lucrative contracts, a situation that few fans or players are ever happy with.
Before July 2021, college football players (like all NCAA athletes) were not allowed to be directly paid outside of their scholarships, and schools faced harsh punishment if they were found to have paid their players, directly or indirectly. USC was found guilty of providing "improper benefits" to star player Reggie Bush in 2004 and 2005; as a consequence, USC was required to forfeit all the games in which Bush appeared after receiving the gifts, including the 2005 national championship game. Bush himself was scrubbed from team records and university promotional materials.note Many other schools have suffered similar fates, most infamously Southern Methodist, 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 the former powerhouse had another winning season (by which point none of the current players had even been born when the scandal broke) and 10 years after that for the Mustangs to make their next appearance in the national rankings. The school still hasn't come anywhere near its past prominence.
This forced amateurism became an increasingly controversial and criticized policy, particularly for football players who a) play for programs that bring in millions of revenue for their schools, b) play for coaches who receive multi-million dollar contracts, c) are especially vulnerable to injuries that could end a pro career before it gets started (often without insurance for said injuries), and d) are often not truly prepared for other career paths by the free education they receive as sole compensation for their play. On top of that, many saw it unfair that ordinary students could, say, monetize their social media accounts, or take jobs outside of school, while scholarship athletes couldn't. As a result, players, politicians, and even Supreme Court justices became increasingly vocal in their opposition to the existing amateur rules.
The first signs of a changing landscape came in the NAIA (see "Different levels" below), which in 2014 allowed student-athletes at its member schools to profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL), though they initially could not reference their status as student-athletes. Much larger change followed in 2019 when California passed a law that allowed college athletes within the state to profit from their NIL, with considerably fewer restrictions than the then-current NAIA rules. Several other states followed with similar laws, with some set to take effect in July 2021. Shortly before the first of these laws were to take effect, the US Supreme Court held that any serious NCAA attempts to prevent student-athletes from receiving NIL compensation would likely run afoul of antitrust (competition) laws. Caving to the inevitable, the NCAA issued its own NIL rules. While the NCAA still prohibits member schools from directly paying players beyond their scholarships, schools can no longer prevent players from being paid by outside parties, with certain limitations that vary from instituion and state (ex. Can't conflict with a university's athletic sponsorship deals, can't use their school's trademarks barring a licensing deal or permission, can't run afoul of an existing school honor code, etc.).
While pro football players can ostensibly play as long as they can compete (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 participate no more than four games (Division I) or three games (Division II).note They 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.
For decades, the NCAA penalized students who attempted to transfer to another program by forcing them to sit out a season of play once at their new school. This rule was first relaxed in 2006, when the NCAA established the "graduate transfer" rule allowing players who graduated with remaining athletic eligibility to transfer to another school without sitting out. Initially, this was only if the player enrolled in a postgraduate degree program not offered at the previous school, but this rule was later relaxed to allow enrollment in such programs regardless of whether the old school offered it. It was further relaxed in 2020, when graduate transfers were allowed to play while pursuing a second bachelor's degree at the new school, and was relaxed still further in 2021 by allowing every student to move programs one time without penalty.note Finally, three years after graduating from high school, a college player has the option to forgo the rest of his collegiate eligibility and enter the NFL Draft early. A player automatically forfeits his eligibility if he accepts a salary to play football (but not a different sport - a few high-profile college footballers have played minor league baseballnote ) or signs with an agent to negotiate with professional teams. Before July 2021, accepting endorsements also ended eligibility, as did signing with an agent for any purpose. A player who leaves early for the NFL Draft but pulls out of it before it's held can apply for reinstatement of college eligibility, and the NCAA normally grants it; however, once the draft has been held, they cannot return to college even if they are not drafted.
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 The Mid-American Conference is especially famous for playing on midweek nights (even Tuesday or Wednesday). 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 play the entire season through without a break; Penn State was long famous for not using a bye week.
Different LevelsNCAA football 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 around a dozen teams who play most games amongst themselves. A handful of teams (most notably Notre Dame) are independent of any conference. As of the 2023 season, the Football Bowl Subdivision has 133 teams, separated, as stated earlier, among a number of conferences. There are a total of 10 conferences in FBS, plus a few independents. See Collegiate American Football Conferences, Power Five Conferences, and Group of Five Conferences for a description of all D-I leagues and of their most prominent programs. For more on the other levels, see below.
American collegiate sports has one of the largest and most complex sporting structures in the world, rivaling even the English association football system.note It began with football, and took over a century to evolve into its current form.
College football had a very loose organizational structure until World War II, and even after the war it took a while for it to take its current shape. In the early years, the sport was centered around regional conferences and alliances. Eventually the notion that there was a tier of elite schools developed, but this didn't become semi-formalized until the 1930s. In 1937, the NCAA began dividing schools into the "University Division" (the high-profile teams) and the "College Division" (everyone else). Historically black colleges also formed a separate de facto division that, thanks to segregation, was isolated from the rest of the sport, though the Civil Rights Movement brought them into the mainstream of the sport by The '60s.
Many College Division schools shared dual membership in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), a younger organization than the NCAA that catered more to smaller schools. The NAIA launched a playoff system culminating in a national championship game in 1956. After that, the NCAA formalized its two-tier structure. While the University Division had the highest profile with its polls and bowl games, the College Division also got weekly AP and UPI rankings with a mythical national champ declared at the end of the season and a smattering of regional bowl games (Tangerine, Boardwalk, Grantland Rice, Pecan, Camellia) that aired on ABC. However, this two-tiered structure didn't please everyone. UD schools who couldn't maintain the large football budgets of the biggest programs pushed for an intermediate division of like-minded schools, and there was a growing divide between College Division schools who offered athletic scholarships and those who didn't.
The NCAA finally addressed this in 1973 by dividing the membership into three divisions. The University Division became Division I, and the College Division was divided into Division II (which allowed scholarships) and Division III (no scholarships). The NCAA also established a playoff system for Divisions II & III. In 1978, the NCAA further divided D-I into I-A (the major schools) and I-AA (everything else). I-AA membership was voluntary at first, and the division hovered around 40 schools in its early years, but the NCAA demoted a bunch of low-attendance I-A schools to I-AA in 1982, and the current structure was basically set: around 100 schools each in I-A and I-AA, and closer to 200 each in II and III, with limits on the number of full athletic scholarships that can be awarded by a team in each division (currently 85 in FBS, 63 in FCS, 36 in D-II, none in D-III).note More detail As if this wasn't all confusing enough for the casual fan as it is, the NCAA renamed the D-I classifications in 2006—I-A became FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision), and I-AA became FCS (Football Championship Subdivision). Fans have often found these names clunky, and the I-A and I-AA tags are still commonly used, especially since both subdivisions now conduct a playoff and the renames have become an Artifact Title. Incidentally, while many schools have played at two of the current NCAA levels, and a decent number have played at three, only two programs have played at all four current levels—UCF and James Madison.note
FBS remains the highest level of play and garners the most national attention. For most of the FBS's history, national champions were chosen by the polls, with a sole "national champion" being unofficially crowned if both polls agreed and a split national championship resulting if they didn't. In 1998, the FBS introduced a postseason championship structure based around giving the two top teams an opportunity to compete against each other for the title. In 2014, this shifted into a committee selecting four teams to play a semi-final bracket before the championship game, and in 2024 that bracket will expand to 12 teams (see more under "The College Football Playoff"). This has all been organized by the FBS schools and conferences themselves; the NCAA has never organized an official championship in FBS or its predecessors.note FBS schools play almost all of their games against other FBS schools, though most will play a game or two a season against an FCS school as a tradeoff: the FBS team gets, in theory, an easy win, the FCS team gets a lucrative payday. This isn't without its risks: several FCS schools will beat FBS schools in a given season, most famously being when #5 ranked Michigan lost to then-FCS Appalachian State in 2007 in possibly the biggest upset in college football history. There are rules controlling these games. 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.
The rest of 4-year college football is currently played in the FCS and Division II and III in the NCAA, and in the NAIA, which was once large enough to have two divisions, but a mass exodus of NAIA schools to the NCAA starting in The '90s has reduced NAIA membership to under 100 schools for football. The term "small college" is often used to describe non-FBS football, and it's largely accurate, but enrollment can range anywhere from 400 full-time students (Eureka, a D-III Illinois school) to over 37,000 undergraduates (FCS Kennesaw State).note D-II is largely made up of lower-tier state-supported schools; D-III is mainly private colleges, including some of America's most elite schools (MIT, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Amherst), while the NAIA is heavy on tiny church-related schools. All of those classifications crown a national champion via a playoff system. In normal years, FCS has 24 teams in its playoff, D-II has 28, D-III has 32, and the NAIA increased from 16 to 20 for 2023. These classifications all have their own elite programs, traditions and rivalries, and some of the most amazing statistical feats of college football have occurred in them. Linfield University, a D-III school from Oregon, is on a 67-year streak of winning seasons (1956–present, interrupted in 2020 by COVID-19). An Ohio D-III school, the University of Mount Union, won 24 consecutive conference titles from 1982 to 2015, and put up a .951 winning percentage from 1990–2019 (397–20–1). John Gagliardi, who coached at NAIA member Carroll (Montana) and D-III school Saint John's (Minnesota), amassed 489 wins in 64 years as a head coach, while the wins leader among active coaches is Kevin Donley at NAIA school St. Francis (Indiana), who sits at 348 career victories after the 2023 season. The highest-scoring game in the sport's modern history was a 2011 NAIA contest in which Faulkner (Alabama) defeated Union (Kentucky) 95-89 in triple OT (the score was tied at 75 at the end of regulation). These schools boast some unique stadiums, like Winston-Salem State (the stadium is also home to a NASCAR track, which circles the field), Northern Michigan (the only domed stadium outside of Division I), South Dakota Mines (there are several parking terraces surrounding the field, which allows you to watch a game from your car) and Knox College (except for two tiny sets of bleachers, all of the stadium's "seats" are on grass berms that totally surround the field).
One D-II school that many fans have at least heard of is Slippery Rock of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. Named after the town in which its located, the Inherently Funny name of Slippery Rock has made it synonymous with small college football. It first gained national attention in 1936 with the arguments over the national championship as decided by the inaugural AP poll. Minnesota was voted #1 despite a loss to Northwestern. Pittsburgh argued that they deserved the title, since they'd beaten Notre Dame, who'd beaten Northwestern. Detractors noted that Pittsburgh had lost to Duquesne, then someone decided to take it further and point out that Duquesne had lost to West Virginia Wesleyan, who lost to Westminster (PA), who lost to Slippery Rock, so the tongue-in-cheek argument was that Slippery Rock (who finished a modest 6-3 that year) was the real national champion. This led to a Running Gag where public address announcers and broadcasters for big time teams would announce Slippery Rock's scores, most famously at Michigan's home games. This led to an Odd Friendship between the two schools, and Michigan has invited Slippery Rock to play three games at Michigan Stadium over the years (1979, 1981, 2014; the 1979 game holds the attendance record for a D-II game, with 61,143 fans witnessing The Rock's 45-14 loss to Shippensburg).
Two-year collegesnote also field football teams. The two main governing bodies are the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) and California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA). Even though the NJCAA was founded in California, that state no longer participates in the NJCAA, choosing to govern sports at its 2-year colleges itself. Football-sponsoring 2-year schools in the Pacific Northwest play in the NJCAA, with their other sports governed by the non-football Northwest Athletic Conference. Both the NJCAA and the CCCAA have traditionally held postseason bowl games but have added formal playoffs in recent years (four teams in the NJCAA, eight in the CCCAA) alongside the bowls. The NJCAA also added a "Division III" championship game in 2021 (though there's no "D-II" for football) for non-scholarship teams. So called "juco" transfers are a common source of college football talent at the NCAA level, giving coaches players who already have two seasons of experience under their belts and are theoretically more mature and skilled than a player just out of high school. Some big names began their college football careers in either the NJCAA (Heisman winners Roger Staubach and Cam Newton, Heisman runner-up and current Tennessee HC Josh Heupel) or CCCAA (Heisman winner O.J. Simpson, Warren Moon, Aaron Rodgers).
There's also the variant known as sprint football, which was created in the 1930s by Ivy League schools as "150-pound football" and later known as "lightweight football". It was played almost exclusively in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states before expanding into the Midwest and Upper South in 2022. It's played under standard college rules, but has severe limits on player weight. Originally, players could weigh no more than 150 lb/68 kg; today, the limit is 178 lb/81 kg, with an additional requirement of a minimum of 5% body fat.note This weight limit means that speed and agility are valued more than sheer strength. As of the next 2024 season, 17 schools will compete in this variant—nine in the Collegiate Sprint Football League (the variant's original league) and eight in the Midwest Sprint Football League. Since weight limits take sprint football out of the sport's mainstream, few figures in this variant have achieved any kind of notability. Future NFL coaching great George Allen did serve as an assistant coach for a season. Future NFL team owner Robert Kraft played in college, as did two others who achieved greater fame outside of sports, Jimmy Carter and Donald Rumsfeld.
The PostseasonThe major college football postseason is fairly unique in that it does not consist of a large bracket that gives a significant number of winning teams a chance to win a national championship. For decades, there was no postseason, with the national champ being determined by a number of different polls voting on who had the best season. Over the 20th century, an array of different "bowl games" between teams from different conferences played at fixed neutral sites evolved from postseason exhibitions to an important part of how the polls determined the champion (as the best teams typically played each other in those games). Those bowls at first didn't form any sort of organized tournament, but by the dawn of the new millennium, the powers-that-be began experimenting with more formal methods for determining the champions of both the Football Bowl Subdivision and the individual conferences. This long, unique, and contested history has resulted in a fluid, constantly changing system even diehard fans often struggle with—and that's part of the magic of college football.
Most of the other conferences swiftly followed suit, which had the side effect of a massive reshuffling of conference alignment, as conferences that didn't have 12 members and couldn't host this high-profile game were at risk of being left behind in competing with their peers for ticket sales, TV coverage, prestige, and consideration for the top spot on the polls. This competition also led to some conferences who were eligible for a conference championship game losing said eligibility if their members were poached. Ironically, this most prominently happened to the Big 12, who kept their name despite only having ten teams following Nebraska and Colorado getting poached in 2011. When this led to the Big 12 losing a spot in the first ever College Football Playoff (more on that later) because their best teams couldn't compete in the extra game that other conferences could, the NCAA removed the "12-member" requirement in 2015. By 2018, all of the FBS conferences had a championship game.
As with all things college football, deciding the conference champion via a game rather than standings is something fans love to grumble about. Besides the above-mentioned conference realignment and national championship issues, the NCAA's old requirement that the conferences had divisions also introduced the rare but not unheard of possibility of the champion having a worse record than multiple other teams in the same conference if they won a tightly contested division with multiple mediocre teams while the other one was top heavy. (In 2022, the NCAA allowed the conferences to have complete control over who participates in the game, leading some conferences to immediately scrap the division system and just pick the two best teams.) The other issue for schools with national title aspirations is that the extra game can put them at a disadvantage for playoff selection; several teams have been within striking distance of a Top 4 selection only to lose or receive key injuries in the extra game and get knocked out, while other teamsnote have made the playoffs despite not even being eligible to play in one and getting a longer rest period.
The "New Year's Six" games hold the highest prestige and are associated with the CFP (more on that in the next folder). They are:
- Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl – The four games that were part of the BCS.
- Cotton Bowl, Peach Bowl – Added to the mix when the CFP began.
The second tier of games consists of lower profile bowls such as the Pop-Tarts Bowlnote , Citrus Bowlnote , ReliaQuest Bowlnote , Sun Bowlnote , Gator Bowlnote , and Alamo Bowlnote which are treated with some respect but usually feature 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. Like the BCS and CFP bowls, these second-tier bowls also have conference tie-ins, but for second/third place teams in the conferences in question. Most of the tie-ins are to the major conferences, making it rare for a mid-major team to play in one of these bowls.note Which of these games is the most prestigious is debatable.
The lower tier of bowl games exists solely as a cash grab and Padding for ESPN (and the stadiums and cities the games are played in) during the traditionally quiet holiday week in sports; ESPN actually runs many of these bowls themselves nowadays. Since most bowls have a lot of discretion in who they invite, and how much money the bowl thinks they'll make is often the deciding factor rather than trying to get the best team, sometimes actual good teams from small markets will get screwed over by the higher-tier bowls and be forced to settle for beating the hell out a scrub team in a bottom-tier bowl. These games are usually sponsored by Names to Run Away from Really Fast, such as the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowlnote , Quick Lane Bowlnote , TaxAct Texas Bowlnote , the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowlnote or the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowlnote . 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 to the front or back; this trend is near universally derided by fans, but the lack of attendance of many of these games due to their featuring smaller and out-of-market teams tends to make it necessary for the bowl to make a profit.note These games are solely of interest to the universities playing in them (or will be a future Old Shame if your team is invited to the not-very-prestigious-at-all 68 Ventures Bowlnote ), and about the only accomplishment to be earned by the players (outside of a unwanted trip to Detroit, Boise, Shreveport, or Birmingham) is a Cosmetic Award which means nothing. Unless the team lucks out and gets invited to a bowl in a nice vacation spot, such as the Hawaiʻi Bowl or Bahamas Bowl, of course. Some sponsors at least recognize the low stakes of the competition and play the names for laughs: the Famous Idaho Potato Bowlnote , Duke's Mayo Bowlnote , and Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl respectively feature a Drench Celebration for the winning coach of french fries, mayonnaise, and said brand of frosted corn flakes. Before becoming the Pop-Tarts Bowl, the Cheez-It Bowl used said brand of snack crackers for its celebration, and the bowl has since announced that the winning team will get to eat the mascot... literally. (It's not what you think; the mascot will wear an edible costume made of Pop-Tarts.) The LA Bowl Hosted by Gronk (i.e., Rob Gronkowski) has a unique prize to the winner—since its first edition in 2021, the winning team receives a championship belt, with the game's offensive and defensive MVPs also receiving their own belts.
The extent of ESPN's control of the bowl system was illustrated in 2021. There were 41 bowls scheduled, but 83 teams were bowl-eligible (plus a 6-7 Hawaii squad who qualified to host their home bowl), which meant that one bowl-eligible team would have to stay home. Then ESPN had the bright idea to create a 42nd bowl on the Thursday before bowl bids would be finalized. The NCAA fast-tracked the approval process, and by Sunday the first (and as it turned out, only) Frisco Football Classic was scheduled for later in December in Frisco, Texas, outside Dallas, which is already the home of the Frisco Bowl and the FCS Championship Game.
There now so many lower-tier bowl games that almost two-thirds of the FBS 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 teams to play all the bowl games (despite out-of-conference games making it easier for middling Power Five teams to post winning records), 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 that would have been bowl eligible had postseason bans. While ultimately this didn't happen, it illustrates what a meager accomplishment being invited to a minor bowl has become. The proliferation of bowls got so ridiculous that the NCAA called time out on it in 2016, imposing a three-year freeze on certification of new bowl games; a few more have been added since that freeze, most notably the LA Bowl, the first to be named after a living person—before Rob Gronkowski became the host, it was the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl.note There are also 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 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).
Obviously, as stated above, this system is far from perfect, or even comprehensible, but it's also difficult for fans to agree on what exactly would constitute a fair 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. 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 The future of the bowl system with the playoff expansion in 2024 remains hazy. Bowl Season (formerly the Football Bowl Association), the trade association for the bowls, has floated a possible reduction in the number of games and stiffening bowl eligibility to seven wins in a season (which would've eliminated 19 teams if this had been in place in 2022).
Due to the logistical difficulties of staging multiple games in the years before commercial air travel, national champions was first decided by polls. The Associated Press began a weekly poll of journalists in 1936, with the school ranked #1 at the end of the season regarded as the "national champion". United Press International instituted a similar poll of coaches starting in 1950, and the coaches' poll has gone through a number of different sponsors over the decades, with USA Today as the current publisher and US LBMnote as the current sponsor. These and numerous other ranking systems competed with each other for decades over who got to decide the best team in football, resulting in many seasons where multiple schools claimed to be the "national champion". Some bowls that attempted to pair up the #1 ranked team with the #2 or #3 program became de facto national championship games. Since those games got great ratings, the bowls began to collaborate with each other to try to make that an annual occurrence in the early 1990s.
Prior to the CFP, the most successful system for selecting a definitive national champion was the Bowl Championships Series (BCS), which formed in 1998 to succeed a few other less organized systems. In the BCS, the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10/Pac-12, and SEC were known as the "Automatic Qualifying" conferences. The champion of a non-AQ conference (an FBS conference other than those six) could be guaranteed a spot in a high profile bowl against another similarly high-profile team if they were in the top 12 in the year's final BCS ranking or in the top 16 and ranked higher than the champion of at least one AQ conference (in practice, usually the Big East).note Non-AQ teams who met these qualifications were referred to as "BCS busters".note However, this system still ultimately just picked two teams to compete in the National Championship Game; this resulted in a split 2003 championship, as the AP Poll voters protested USC being kept from competing for the BCS title by voting them the victor instead. Things finally came to a head for this system in 2011, when the BCS selected LSU and Alabama, two teams from the SEC West (the same division of the same conference, meaning that officially one of them was the third-place team of the SEC), as the #1 and #2 participants in the championship game, effectively snubbing every other FBS conference. After this, discussion of implementing a playoff system accelerated greatly and, after numerous negotiations between the "power" conferences, a new (but still very limited) "College Football Playoff" model was formally drawn up and adopted in 2014.
The current four-team CFP model has a selection committee (as in the NCAA basketball tournaments) pick the teams instead of the polls. The sites for the first two semifinal games are played at a rotation of the major bowls, and the Championship game (much like the NFL's Super Bowl) is awarded to a city based on a bid. Almost immediately after its announcement, 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 understood) to complaints that having only 4 teams compete is nowhere near enough to fairly decide a true champion in the 133-team FBS.note Additionally, this limited selection remained dominated by the SEC, largely excluded participation from many conferences (even an undefeated 2017 UCF team, which defiantly claimed a natty even when they were excluded from the playoff and not ranked #1 by any polls), and further devalued the other bowl games. In response, the playoff will expand in 2024 from four teams to twelve, with guaranteed spots for the six highest-ranked conference champions, a new four-round system (with the first being new games scheduled at the home stadiums of the higher ranked teams and the New Year's Six bowls comprising the second and third rounds), and first-round byes for the top four teams.
The lower divisions of the NCAA (and the NAIA) don't bother with this nonsense; they just have association-operated national championship playoff tournaments, and have for decades. The average casual fan pays little interest to these divisions, which tend to have fanbases consisting of students and alumni, though NFL scouts also keep a keen eye on them—Super Bowl MVPs Terry Bradshaw (Louisiana Tech, before it became an FBS school), Harvey Martin (Texas A&M-Commerce, then known as East Texas State), Richard Dent (Tennessee State), Phil Simms (Morehead State), Doug Williams (Grambling), Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Kurt Warner (Northern Iowa), Joe Flacco (Delaware), and Cooper Kupp (Eastern Washington) all played at lower division schools. There's currently one FCS bowl: the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta, which pairs the champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), two conferences of historically black colleges who've elected to forgo playing in the FCS playoffs. Divisions II and III have a handful of bowls (played either at campus sites or in off-the-beaten-path neutral locations like Texarkana, Arkansas) which function as a Consolation Prize for teams who didn't make the official NCAA playoffs.
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, listed in order of when they were first played.
- Harvard vs. Yale - The Ur-Example, first held in 1875, though no longer of much national importance except to students at the respective schools. Known as "The Game" until the more relevant Ohio State vs. Michigan rivalry usurped that name (though the Harvard and Yale communities still call it that). It is traditionally the final scheduled game for each team and often decides the Ivy League championship. In the early days of college football, where the Ivy League schools were dominant powers, it frequently decided the national champion as well. The only breaks in the series were caused by the World Wars and the COVID-19 Pandemic. The matchup still has enough of a mystique to get an annual live ESPNU telecast and draw huge crowds (51,000 fans attended the 2023 game at Yale). It is also notable for the pranks each school plays on the other in the lead-up to the game and hosted College GameDay in 2014.
- Lafayette vs. Lehigh ("The Rivalry") – A matchup between two lower-level FCS teams, both members of the Patriot League and located in the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania. It's notable here as the most-played matchup in college football history (the 2023 meeting was the 159th) and the longest uninterrupted rivalry (since 1897) in all of college football.note The Leopards and Mountain Hawks first played in 1884; the large number of games is because the teams played twice each season from 1884 to 1901 (except 1896, when they didn't play at all, and 1891, when they played three times), as well as in the war years of 1943 and 1944. The game is so old that it predates rivalry trophies—the winning team just gets to keep the game ball.
- Amherst vs. Williams ("The Biggest Little Game in America") – These two D-III teams in western Massachusetts have the most-played rivalry in their division, with the 137th meeting in 2023. First played in 1884, It's Personal for both schools: Amherst was founded in 1821 when a group of Williams administrators, professors and students seceded to form a new college (and allegedly stole some library books before they left). The game has attracted national media attention over the years, including hosting College GameDay in 2007.
- Cincinnati vs. Miami (OH) - First played in 1888 (where it was the first official college football game in the state of Ohio), the longest-running current non-conference rivalry in the United States (though they were briefly in the same conference in the late 1940s and early 1950s), the most-played active FBS rivalry between teams from the same state, and the oldest rivalry west of the Allegheny Mountains. They play for the Victory Bell, the oldest rivalry "trophy" in the sport, which was originally a bell on Miami's campus that was rung after Miami victories. Since Cincinnati moved to the Big East in 2005, however, the rivalry has been rather one-sided (even though the teams are dead even as of the 2023 game). Ironically, Miami's two most recent wins were in years in which UC changed conferences: 2005 and 2023.
- Wisconsin vs. Minnesota ("Paul Bunyan's Axe") – The oldest annual rivalry in FBS football, having been first played in 1890 and every year since 1907. Its status was nearly a COVID-19 casualty, with their originally scheduled 2020 matchup canceled due to an outbreak in the Minnesota program, but the teams were able to make the game up on the season's final weekend. When the Big Ten set up its future scheduling model for 2024 and beyond—when UCLA and USC were in the fold, but before Oregon and Washington were announced as new members—this rivalry was also one of the 11 "protected" matchups to be preserved as annual affairs, and remained so in the 18-team scheduling model. It is also one of the most balanced rivalries, with Wisconsin holding a one-game lead as of their 2023 matchup (although the Badgers have a solid lead since the current trophy was introduced in 1948).
- Army vs. Navy vs. Air Force (for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy) – The Army–Navy Game is another one of the oldest rivalries, having been played since 1890 and annually since 1930, though the roots of the rivalries between the two services run much deeper than football. The Air Force Academy wasn't established until 1954; Air Force first played Army in 1959 and Navy in 1960. The three-way rivalry (and its trophy) wasn't established until 1972, the first season in which Air Force played both of the other academies. The Army-Navy Game is treated with an immense deal of respect, even when, as is usually the case in the modern era, neither team is nationally relevant. In some ways, it is the most "romantic" college sporting event, since few if any of the players on each team will have any pro prospects, evoking the old tradition of playing for "the love of the game" that has largely faded from college spots; since it is traditionally the last regular-season game of the year, this also means that it is usually the last game of competitive football the seniors on either team will ever play before going to serve their country. Army will join the American Athletic Conference for football only in 2024, aligning it with Navy, but the Army–Navy Game will continue to be played as a nonconference matchup at its traditional date.note Fun fact #1: The first use of instant replay was by CBS during its coverage of the 1963 Army–Navy Game. Fun fact #2: With the planned 2020 Navy–Notre Dame game being a COVID-19 casualty, the Air Force–Army game is now the longest continuous intersectional rivalry in FBS, with a game in each season since 1971.
- Kansas vs. Missouri ("The Border War"/"Border Showdown") - Dates back to 1891 and grew out of the considerable animosity that already existed between the states, giving this rivalry an uglier edge than most.note The tamer "Border Showdown" name was introduced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, on the premise that it was inappropriate to refer to a sporting event as a "war" when the nation was actually at war... despite the old name having been used through every other war the United States fought in the past century. Like most attempts to rename rivalries, it never caught on.note Though it had been played for 120 years, interrupted only by the 1918 flu pandemic, the annual rivalry ended when Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC. Inevitably, fans of each school accused the other of having "surrendered".
- Auburn vs. Georgia ("The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry") – First played in February 1892note and became an annual game in 1898, though interruptions for World War I and World War II prevented it from being the oldest continuous rivalry in FBS. It is the tied for the second most-played FBS rivalry behind Minnesota/Wisconsin and is the oldest rivalry to be played in a major conference championship game, with the schools meeting for a second time in 2017 in the SEC Championship Game. (Auburn won the regular season matchup but Georgia won the conference championship game.)
- North Carolina vs. Virginia ("The South's Oldest Rivalry") - Also played since 1892, but only continuously since 1919. It is tied for the second most-played FBS rivalrynote It is believed to be the first college football game to be attended by a sitting US president, with Herbert Hoover attending the game on Thanksgiving Day in 1928.note
- California (Berkeley) vs. Stanford ("The Big Game") - First played in 1892, it is often considered the modern version of Harvard vs. Yale, being played between a pair of very academically prestigious schools, and is the oldest rivalry on the west coast. Their proximity in the San Francisco Bay Area and the "public vs. private school" dynamic ensures that this rivalry remains very intense, even in eras when one or both schools have chosen to deemphasize football. Also famous for being the game that spawned "The Play", the downright surreal ending to the 1982 edition that saw the Stanford band come onto the field early, believing the game was over. The two schools became notable for a different reason in 2023; they were two of the four schools left behind after the Pac-12 imploded, and then were taken in by the ACC effective in 2024. Yes, Pacific schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
- Colorado vs. Colorado State ("The Rocky Mountain Showdown") - The main intrastate rivalry in Colorado, played for the Centennial Cup. Dates back to February 10, 1893 but was discontinued in the 1960s and 1970s due to how one-sided it was in Colorado's favor (a nearly 3-1 edge, which has remained since its 1980s revival). It was played at a neutral site in Denver (home of the NFL's Broncos) throughout the 2010s, but went on pause during COVID; the first post-COVID game in 2023 was in Boulder. (Colorado State hasn't hosted since 1996.) The 2023 game, an OT thriller won by Colorado, was overshadowed by a dirty hit by a CSU DB on CU's two-way star Travis Hunter that caused Hunter to miss a few weeks.
- Auburn vs. Alabama ("The Iron Bowl") - The "real" Super Bowl for Alabamans played annually between the state's most prestigious programs. First played February 22, 1893, it is easily the most important sporting event in the state every year, and is named after the iron industry of Birmingham (where the game was played for decades at a neutral stadium prior to 1999). The Crimson Tide have the edge, but not by nearly as steep a degree as one might expect from college football's most dominant program; the Tigers have often proven a stumbling block for the Tide, even in its best years (see: the "Kick Six" in 2013, where a missed FG returned for a touchdown effectively decided which of them would go to the BCS National Championship that season).
- Georgia vs. Georgia Tech ("Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate") – As the name indicates, this is a particularly intense rivalry, not just because these are the two oldest and most prestigious programs in the football-crazed state of Georgia but because of their relative proximity and the urban/suburban divide between the fanbases. First played November 4, 1893 and every year from 1925-2019 despite Tech leaving the SEC in 1964, unfortunately being interrupted in 2020 due to COVID.
- Penn State vs. Pitt ("The Keystone Classic") - A matchup dating back to November 6, 1893 between the two most powerful football programs in Pennsylvania with exactly 100 total meetings.note In the 1980s, Penn State legend Joe Paterno masterminded what would have been the "Eastern Conference", centered around these two long-time independent schools with a few others from the northeastnote . Pitt allegedly bailed at the last minute and opted to join the Big East as a full member (they were already a member for non-football sports), while Penn State was prevented from joining the Big East by a single vote. Paterno was livid, refusing to schedule Pitt again beyond what had already been agreed to, while Penn State joined the Big Ten and the acrimonious series ended in 2000. Following Paterno's death in 2012, the two schools agreed to another four-game series from 2016-2019, but it fell apart once again after Penn State demanded that they get a 2-1 home game advantage in their next proposal. There are currently no plans to resume the rivalry.
- Oregon vs. Oregon State ("The Civil War") - First played in 1894, this intrastate rivalry between the two Willamette Valley schools is typically the final game of both schools' seasons. Though Oregon usually insists that its "real" rival is the more successful Washington, their record in this series is not as dominant as one would think when comparing the general strength of the two programs. While the rivalry is likely to continue even after the implosion of the Pac-12, it may lose some edge with Oregon in the Big Ten from 2024 and OSU in conference limbo.
- Texas vs. Texas A&M ("Lone Star Showdown"note ) – Dates back to 1894 and was a long-standing traditional Thanksgiving Day game, but like the Border War it ended after 2011 because of conference realignment. Both fanbases seem to simultaneously blame the other school for the ending of the game and then claim they didn't really want to play it that much anyway. A significantly less tradition-filled game between Texas and either Baylor or Texas Tech (or TCU since their joining the Big 12) has for the time being stood in for Thanksgiving. To be revived once UT* joins A&M in the SEC.
- Black Hills State vs. South Dakota Mines ("Black Hills Brawl") – These two D-II teams in the Black Hills region have the most-played rivalry outside of D-I, with the 138th meeting in 2023. Its history is a little unusual in that the starting date is in dispute—when the rivalry began in 1895, Mines approached Black Hills State (then known as Spearfish Normal) for a game, but was turned down; Mines instead played the now-defunct Black Hills College, also in that same region. Both modern schools include this game in the rivalry's chronology, but not in their records; the first official game, between the schools that eventually became BHSU and SD Mines, was played in 1900. While the teams skipped a few seasons in the early 20th century, they imitated Lafayette and Lehigh by frequently playing two games a season, and even three in 1917. While they've normally played only one game a year since WWII, they have played two games as recently as 2011, and planned to play two in the COVID-affected 2020 season before the virus put the season on ice (they did play the first game).
- West Virginia vs. Pittsburgh ("The Backyard Brawl")note – A bitter regional rivalry that took a decade-long pause in football after WVU left to join the Big 12 Conference in 2012. The men's basketball rivalry resumed in 2017–18; the football series returned in 2022 and is scheduled through 2025 and also from 2029–32.
- Virginia vs. Virginia Tech (Battle for the Commonwealth Cup)note
- Henderson State vs. Ouachita* Baptist ("Battle of the Ravine") - These D-II teams are tied with the participants in the Black Hills Brawl for the oldest D-II rivalry, though unlike BHSU and SD Mines, they've never played twice in a season. This rivalry is personal on steroids and acid for both schools: they're located literally across the street from one another* in the small town of Arkadelphia, Arkansas (permanent population about 10,000). The rivalry name comes from the ravine that cuts through both campuses. Students at the two schools regularly cross the street to attend classes, social activities, and Bible study groups at the other... and have a long history of pranks against one another during rivalry week, which actually led to a 10-year interruption in the rivalry (1952–1962). The stadiums are within sight of one another (the HSU golf coach claims to have hit a ball from one stadium's end zone to the other's in two strokes), and the away team traditionally walks in full uniform from its own locker room to the home team's stadium. On the field, nearly half of the games have been decided by a TD or less. No wonder Sports Illustrated called this "college football's most intimate rivalry".
- Alabama vs. Georgia - Though not an annual rivalry, these powerhouses have played each other since the late 19th century and have often competed with each other for SEC and national dominance. The feud has recently become even more bitterly contested thanks in large part to Georgia football coach Kirby Smart (a former Alabama DC under the Nick Saban regime) leading his team to become the dominant team in the SEC East; his team has seriously challenged his old boss's squad as they battled in numerous SEC title games over the years and battled for two CFP Championships, splitting the trophies.
- Clemson vs. South Carolina ("The Palmetto Bowl")– Before COVID-19, it had been the second-oldest uninterrupted FBS rivalry by just two years, dating back to 1909. The rivalry between the schools predates their even having football teams and indeed traces back to before Clemson actually existed, having originally been fueled by post-Civil War state politics. The 2004 edition is perhaps the most notable in this series, as a day after the "Malice at the Palace" in the NBA, a massive on-field altercation occurred that resulted in both schools turning down bowl bids and overshadowed the last game of Lou Holtz' illustrious career. It resulted in a slew of suspensions as well as the 2005 edition forcing both programs to meet at midfield to shake hands.
- BYU vs. Utah ("The Holy War") - The most hotly contested intrastate rivalry in Utah, dating back to 1896 and fought between two universities both founded by Mormon religious leader Brigham Young. The "public vs. private" and "secular vs. religious" dynamics of the rivalry add to the intensity. Utah State joins in for a three-way rivalry fought over the "Beehive Boot". The Holy War is likely to become even hotter from 2024, with the two schools reunited in the Big 12.
- Illinois vs. Missouri ("The Arch Rivalry"note ) – An offshoot of "Braggin' Rights", a longer-standing men's basketball rivalry between the two schools, with those games also being played in St. Louis. The football version ended after Mizzou left for the SEC, though there are plans to revive it in the future.
- Ohio State vs. Michigan ("The Game") - Voted the #1 rivalry in North American sports by ESPN in 2000, and often the most watched college football game of every season. First played in 1897, became an annual game in 1918, and then was scheduled as the final game of their regular season since 1935; before the expansion of the conference and advent of divisional play, it was usually the de facto Big Ten championship game.note Like many big rivalries, this one grew out of existing animosity between the bordering states: Specifically, the "Toledo War", a dispute over ownership of the economically vital Great Lakes port of Toledo. Ohio got Toledo, but Michigan generally had the upper hand in the football rivalry, though Ohio State has been much more dominant in recent years. The annual series was interrupted in 2020 due to a COVID-based cancellation; Michigan has been making a comeback ever since and still leads the series. It goes without saying that the Big Ten designated this as one of its "protected" matchups in its post-2023 scheduling model. It has its share of quirky idiosyncrasies, like Ohio State banning use of the letter M on campus during the rivalry week.
Ohio State: Oh, we don't give a damn for the whole state of Michigan
The whole state of Michigan, the whole state of Michigan
We don't give a damn for the whole state of Michigan
We're from O-hi-o!
Michigan: Fuck Ohio.
- Michigan vs. Michigan State ("The Battle for the Mitten"note /"Paul Bunyan—Governor of Michigan Trophy") - Taken more seriously by MSU than UM—as UM has OSU to deal with—with the result that MSU takes it even more seriously in a "what are we, chopped liver?" kind of way. The OSU thing leads to a lot of conflicted emotions for MSU fans, since on the one hand Michigan is the great rival but on the other hand OSU is from Ohio and most MSU fans are Michiganders, leading one to recall Henry Kissinger's comment about the Iran–Iraq War: "It's a shame they can't both lose." Also a protected post-2023 Big Ten matchup. One notable matchup is the 2001 edition that resulted in the Big Ten changing its timekeeping rules as Michigan State won on a controversial last second play.
- TCU vs. Baylor ("The Revivalry"note ) - Another old Southwest Conference rivalry with the added enmity that Baylor allegedly played politics to keep TCU out of the Big 12.note With TCU joining the Big 12, this rivalry has now come full circle. The series has been closely fought throughout its history; the sides were dead even as recently as the 2015 edition, but a dominant stretch by TCU has given the Horned Frogs the lead at 59–53–7 as of 2023.
- Arizona vs. Arizona State ("The Duel in the Desert") - Notable for being played for the Territorial Cup, so named because when it was instituted, the schools were in the Arizona Territory, which wouldn't become a state for another 13 years. The cup has been certified as the oldest rivalry trophy in college football, having first been awarded in 1889... before when the two schools "officially" played each other.note The rivalry will shift from the Pac-12 to the Big 12 in 2024.
- Texas vs. Oklahoma ("The Red River Rivalry"note ) - Played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, which is almost exactly halfway between the two campuses of these two traditional powers of college football, around the midpoint of the season rather than the finale. Was a non-conference game for decades until becoming a conference rivalry starting in 1996 with the formation of the Big 12; it will remain a conference rivalry after the two schools leave the Big 12 for the SEC in 2024.
- Washington vs. Washington State (The Apple Cup)note - The Cascade Ranges keep everything civil during most of the year, with U-Dub fans to the west and Wazzu fans to the east. Many Washington fans consider Oregon to be their "true" rival, similarly to how Michigan treats Michigan State compared to Ohio State. Further cementing this sentiment is that when the Pac-12 imploded, U-Dub and Oregon moved together to the Big Ten (starting in 2024), leaving Wazzu and Oregon State to an uncertain future.
- Mississippi State vs. Ole Miss ("The Battle for the Golden Egg"/"The Egg Bowl")note - An annual matchup between the two biggest football programs of their football-crazed state, one would expect this to on par with the neighboring state's Iron Bowl in terms of intensity. It is, but for different reasons; unlike Alabama and Auburn, neither program has been competitive for national titles in half a century (and, in Mississippi State's case, has a lifetime losing record), making the Egg Bowl typically the most important (and often final) game for both teams' seasons. In the 21st century, the game has also become notable for being typically the only FBS game played on Thanksgiving.
- Tennessee vs. Alabama ("The Third Saturday in October"note ) – Notable for having long winning streaks by whichever team is ascendant in a given decade.
- LSU vs. Arkansas ("The Battle for the Golden Boot"note )
- LSU vs. Auburn ("The Tiger Bowl"note )
- Arkansas vs. Texas A&M – An old Southwest Conference rivalry that was revived in 2009 as a non-conference game played in at the Dallas Cowboys' stadium in Arlingtonnote and was entrenched annually when Texas A&M joined the SEC and was placed in the same football division as Arkansas. Even though the SEC eliminated football divisions after 2023, the teams will continue to play annually for the time being.
- Colorado vs. Utah (The "Rumble in the Rockies") – Had been one of the hottest rivalries in the West for the first half of the 20th century but stopped after 1962. Revived in 2011 when Colorado and Utah joined the Pac-12 and were placed in the same football division; it will remain a conference rivalry when both schools move to the Big 12 in 2024.
- Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State ("Bedlam Series"note ) – Through 2023, it was tied with NC State–Wake Forest for the second-longest uninterrupted annual series in FBS, with both games having been played every year since 1910. However, the rivalry has officially ended with OU's impending move to the SEC. While OU has been overwhelmingly dominant in football (with a series record of 91–20–7, including three winning streaks of more than 10 games), OK State came away with the last laugh for the immediate future, narrowly winning the 2023 matchup.
- Nebraska vs. Oklahoma - A historic and hard-fought matchup between the flagship sports programs of two relatively small and overlooked states that ran from 1912-2010, when Nebraska left the Big 12 - because the Big 12 wouldn't schedule the game every season.note The highlight was the 1971 "Game of the Century", with #1-ranked Nebraska narrowly beating out #2-ranked Oklahoma. The rivalry returned in 2021 and '22 with two specially-scheduled games.
- Kentucky vs. Louisville ("The Governor's Cup") – Although hard-fought on the football field, this matchup is much better known as a men's basketball rivalry. It's also a relatively recent rivalry—after the first half of the 1920s, UK steadfastly refused to schedule U of L in either sport for decades. The modern basketball rivalry began in 1983 (after no regular-season games for over 60 years), but the modern football rivalry had to wait until 1994, after a 70-year absence.note
- Southern Methodist and Texas Christian – Both are in the same metro area and both are affiliated with different Protestant denominations (SMU with the United Methodist Church and TCU with the Disciples of Christ). The prize is the Iron Skillet. TCU (Fort Worth) has been more victorious since 1987, since SMU's (Dallas) infamous Death Penalty judgment, though the rivalry has flared up in recent years (especially after TCU hired away SMU's head coach at the end of the 2021 season and the Frogs immediately played in the national championship game). Even with all of the rancor, there's a good chance the rivalry will go on pause, if not end, when the current contract runs out after the 2024 season.
- Florida vs. Georgia ("The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party"note ) – Played on a theoretically neutral field in Jacksonville, Florida. The schools, the SEC, the NCAA and sportscasters have all tried and failed to remove "Cocktail" from the nickname, seeing it as promoting underage drinking of alcohol.
- Tennessee vs. Florida – One of the newer rivalries, but for most of the 1990s it was the de facto SEC championship game. With both teams having declined since then, it's become lower-profile nationally but remains bitterly contested.
- Iowa State vs. Kansas State ("Farmageddon")
- Akron vs. Kent State – These two underperformers from the MAC are located 15 minutes apart (Kent is in the Akron metro area) and fight over the "Wagon Wheel" trophy.
- Alabama State vs. Tuskegee ("Turkey Day Classic") – Though these two Alabama HBCUs have not regularly played since the early 2010s, with Alabama State now FCS and Tuskegee now D-II, this is the Ur-Example of the HBCU "classic"—a game between historic rivals often (but not always) played at a neutral site, with numerous events in the lead-in. Unlike many other HBCU classics, Alabama State has always hosted. The rivalry was dominated by Tuskegee before it aligned with D-II in the 1970s; Alabama State has dominated since. In recent years, the Turkey Day Classic has often featured an HBCU other than Tuskegee, most recently Arkansas–Pine Bluff in 2022.
- USC vs. Notre Dame ("The Battle for the Jewelled Shillelagh"◊) – Played annually since 1926 (save for WWII and 2020); started out as a chance for Notre Dame to recruit on the West Coast but quickly evolved into a matchup of the greatest private university football teams of the East and West.
- UCLA vs. USC ("The Battle for the Victory Bell"/"The Battle of Los Angeles") - The crosstown rivalry games of these usual Pac-12 powers are notable for having neither team wear their white uniforms, regardless of who hosts, as the contrasting red and blue of their home uniforms is seen as sufficient to tell them apart and both Los Angeles teams are playing for their home market as it is. Will transfer to the Big Ten once those schools move in 2024, and will be one of that conference's protected matchups.
- Appalachian State vs. Georgia Southern ("Deeper Than Hate") – A battle between schools that have much in common despite their physical separation—both started football in the 1920s, developed from teachers' colleges, have 20,000-range enrollments, and most significantly were I-AA/FCS powerhouses, having nine national titles between them. While the football rivalry started in 1932 and was played semi-regularly in that decade, it took a decades-long pause when GS dropped football in 1941. The rivalry was rekindled in 1987 when App State beat GS in the I-AA quarterfinals and escalated in 1992 when GS joined App State's Southern Conference. GS would get the playoff win back in the 2001 quarterfinals, and both continued to battle for SoCon supremacy until moving together to FBS and the Sun Belt Conference in 2014 and also being placed in the same SBC football division. The nickname refers to the above-mentioned name for the much older rivalry between Georgia and Georgia Tech.
- Grambling State vs. Southern (the "Bayou Classic") – The most famous HBCU classic, it features Louisiana's two largest HBCUs, which more or less had the pick of black talent in the state in the Jim Crow era. First played in 1932, and was more or less as annual affair (except for WWII) through 1948, but a brawl during that year's game led the rivalry to be put on ice until 1959. It officially became the "Bayou Classic" in 1974, when the game moved from campus sites to Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. The game moved to the Superdome when it opened in 1975 and has been held there ever since (except in 2005, when the game was moved to Houston due to Hurricane Katrina damage, and the 2020–21 season, when COVID-19 led to a move to Shreveport). Since 1990, it has been held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving (except in 2020–21, when most FCS schools moved their seasons to the spring). From 1991 to 2014, and again since 2022, it has been nationally televised by NBC (the intervening years saw the game moved to NBCSN, which was shut down at the end of 2021).
- Miami (FL) vs. Florida State – In addition to being a cross-state rivalry, both teams often vie for the ACC championship.
- Florida vs. Florida State – Traditionally the last game of their regular season every year, though not played in 2020 thanks to COVID-19, with both the SEC and ACC going to conference-only schedules.
- Claremont-Mudd-Scripps vs. Pomona-Pitzer ("6th Street Rivalry") – This rivalry of two SoCal D-III teams is also a case of two teams from the same town (Claremont, CA) with adjacent campuses, but there's an added wrinkle: it involves two teams that represent a combined total of five colleges. Both teams are part of the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of five undergraduate colleges and two graduate schools located on interconnected campuses with numerous shared resources. For NCAA athletic competition, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, and Scripps Colleges all compete together as one program, while Pomona and Pitzer Colleges form a second program among the consortium. As the name of the rivalry suggests, the teams' two stadiums are located about a 5-minute walk from one another on the same street. The proximity has also led to a long history of colorful pranks, from Pomona stealing all the trophies from Claremont's trophy case to Claremont breaking into Pomona's locker room and scrawling expletives in marker on Pomona's jerseys.
- Boston College vs. Notre Dame (also "The Holy War"note )
- Florida Atlantic vs. Florida International ("Shula Bowl") – This South Florida rivalry is one of the newest in college football, having begun in 2002. It is called the Shula Bowl, both because of the influence of Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula over the South Florida region's football culture and because both team's first head coaches had connections to him (Howard Schnellenberger for FAU was an assistant for Shula in the 1970s and Don Strock for FIU was a player for Shula at around the same time). This rivalry has a history of long winning streaks for FAU, as well as high-scoring bouts.
- UCF vs. USF ("The War on I-4") – This is the extension of a more general sports rivalry between Orlando and Tampa Bay, with its origins in the now-defunct Arena Football League (Predators and Storm, respectively). In this branch, there was considerable bad blood between the two schools, with accusations that USF blocked UCF from joining the Big East, at that point one of the "power" conferences. There was a four-game series from 2005-08 that USF swept during their ascendance in the late 2000s. But since they found themselves together in The American, UCF has gotten the upper hand; as of 2022, UCF is now 8-6 in the series. Some of the bad blood was muted after the 2018 contest when UCF star quarterback McKenzie Milton suffered a catastrophic leg injury during the game in Tampa. These days, UCF fans tend to see their western rivals more with amused pity, as the USF sports programs have seen setbacks in recent years, while UCF has seen its own rise through The New '10s and beyond, culminating with its 2023 move to the Big 12. Of course, that move also temporarily put the rivalry on ice, as USF has been left in The American, and UCF doesn't have very many open OOC dates.
- UCF vs. UConn ("The Civil ConFLiCT") – Textbook case of Unknown Rival. When The American spun off from the Big East and (finally) picked up UCF, UConn tried to stoke a rivalry with them. They even had a trophy made for it. Officially, UCF disavows this rivalry at all levels, from fans to administration, going so far as to leave the trophy at UConn's stadium after winning the "rivalry" game for the first time in 2016. With UConn going back to the Big East and becoming an FBS Independent in football after 2020, this "rivalry" died after a final out-of-conference meeting in 2021.
- Georgia State vs. Georgia Southern ("Modern Day Hate") – Another fairly recent rivalry in football as State only founded its football program in 2010, though it's been going on for longer in other sports. The two universities debate over who is "the real GSU", with further fuel added in 2014 when State hired away the AD of Southern's bitter rival App State. The name also refers to that of the Georgia–Georgia Tech rivalry.
College Football Individual Awards
A list of the major awards for college football players and coaches presented annually. There are several governing bodies in charge of selecting the various award winners, so some of the awards may seem a little repetitive in terms of what the award stands for. (Ex. the Heisman, Maxwell, and Walter Camp awards all being practically the same.) The coaching awards take the "repetitive" aspect up to eleven. Positions are also supplied for winners of awards that aren't position-specific.
- Heisman Memorial Trophy Award (aka "The Heisman"): The top award a college football player can hope to receive. It is given out annually to the "most outstanding" player in college football. It is also the oldest award on the list, with the first being presented in 1935. While any player at any position is eligible to win the award, it has historically been awarded to Quarterbacks and Running Backs by a wide margin. The winner is chosen by thousands of voters consisting of "informed, competent, and impartial" sports writers (some of which, controversially, don't primarily cover college football) along with every living recipient of the award. 2022 winner: Caleb Williams, QB, USC
- Academic All-America Team Member of the Year: A scholar-athlete award voted on and presented by College Sports Communicators,note going to the top selection of their selected teams in each of four divisions.note It's not a guarantee that CSC's choice will match that of the more-famous Campbell Trophy committee; for example, the 2022 Campbell Trophy recipient wasn't even on CSC's second team. 2022 D-I winner: Will Levis, QB, Kentucky
- AP Player of the Year: For the best overall player, voted on by the same writers who vote for the weekly AP Poll. Usually (but not always) overlaps with the Heisman results. 2022 winner: Williams
- Bronko Nagurski Trophy: For the best defensive player. 2022 winner: Will Anderson Jr., LB, Alabamanote
- Buck Buchanan Award: For the best defensive player in FCS. 2022 winner: Zeke Vandenburgh, LB, Illinois State
- Burlsworth Trophy: One of the newer awards (first presented in 2010), which is given to the most outstanding player who began his college career as a "walk-on" (not offered a scholarship). 2022 winner: Stetson Bennett IV, QB, Georgia
- Butkus Award: Traditionally given to the top linebacker in college football. Starting in 2008, the award has expanded to include a professional and high school player each year as well. 2022 winner: Jack Campbell, Iowa
- Campbell Trophy: Presented to the top scholar-athlete in all of college football—not only the FBS, but also including the FCS, Divisions II and III, and the NAIA. Uniquely among nominal all-divisions awards, the Campbell Trophy has actually been won once by a D-III player. 2022 winner: Campbell
- Chuck Bednarik Award: For the defensive "player of the year" in college football. The Nagurski Trophy recipient frequently gets this award as well. 2022 winner: Anderson
- Davey O'Brien Award: For the best quarterback. Whenever a QB wins the Heisman, there is a good chance that he will win this award as well. 2022 winner: Max Duggan, TCU
- Disney SPIRIT Award: Given to the most "inspirational" player, usually one who has endured a great deal of hardship. 2022 winner: Tylee Craft, WR, North Carolinanote
- Doak Walker Award: For the best running back. Whenever a running back wins the Heisman, there is a good chance that he will win this award as well.note 2022 winner: Bijan Robinson, Texas
- Fred Biletnikoff Award: For the best receiver. Although the award rules state that anyone who catches the ball on offense is eligible (including tight ends), every winner to date has been a wide receiver. (Which makes sense, given that the award's namesake played that position.) 2022 winner: Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee
- Gagliardi Trophy: For the "most outstanding" player in D-III football. 2022 winner: Ethan Greenfield, RB, North Central (IL)
- Gene Upshaw Award: For the best lineman, offensive or defensive, in D-II football. 2022 winner: Caleb Murphy, DE, Ferris State
- Harlon Hill Trophy: For the "most valuable" player in D-II football. 2022 winner: John Matocha, QB, Colorado Minesnote
- Jerry Rice Award: Along with the Jet Award (immediately below), the newest major US-based award (first presented in 2011). Presented to the top freshman player in FCS football, making it the only recognized national award for first-year players in any division. 2022 winner: Gevani McCoy, QB, Idaho
- Jet Award: Along with the Rice Award, the newest major US-based award (first presented in 2011note ), which is given to the top return specialist in college football. "Jet" comes from the nickname of legendary 1970s Nebraska receiver/return man Johnny Rodgers. 2022 winner: Derius Davis, TCU
- Jim Thorpe Award: For the top defensive back. 2022 winner: Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, TCUnote
- Joe Moore Award: A "unit" award for the best offensive line. Named for Joe Moore, a long-time OL coach at Notre Dame and Pitt, the award is voted on by the OL coach from all FBS schools, media members who played OL, and a panel made up of Moore's former players and colleagues. 2022 winner: Michigannote
- John Mackey Award: For the "most outstanding" tight end. 2022 winner: Brock Bowers, Georgia
- Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award: For the best quarterback who has spent at least four seasons in college football (i.e., either a senior or a redshirt junior). Originally, only seniors were eligible, but redshirt juniors have been added, probably because many top QBs now leave for the NFL before their fourth season. 2022 winner: Duggan
- Jon Cornish Trophy: The newest significant award in college football, first presented for the 2017 season. Unlike any of the other awards listed here, it's a specifically Canadian award, presented to the outstanding player of that nationality in NCAA football. The voting body consists of Canadian media, CFL scouts, and former NCAA players with a connection to the country. The award's namesake is CFL star Jon Cornish, who played college ball in the States at Kansas. Another unique distinction of this award is that the winner doesn't get to keep the trophy beyond the award ceremony—it's permanently displayed at the Canadian Football Hall of Fame at Tim Hortons Field, home of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Still another unique tradition is being established around the trophy, namely that the winner signs its back. 2022 winner: Chase Brown, RB, Illinois
- Lombardi Award: From 1970-2016, this award, named after legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, was presented to the top lineman or linebacker. Originally presented by the service club Rotary International, it came under the control of the Lombardi Foundation in 2017 and became yet another "best college player" award, though the criteria includes leadership and character. 2022 winner: Anderson
- Lott IMPACT Trophy: A award that recognizes defensive players with on-field success and high off-field character. ("IMPACT" standing for "Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community, and Tenacity".) 2022 winner: Anderson
- Lou Groza Award: For the top placekicker. 2022 winner: Christopher Dunn, NC Statenote
- Manning Award: Another award given to the best quarterback; named after the Manning QB family.note Whenever a QB wins the Heisman, there is a good chance that he will win this award as well. Like the now-defunct awards presented by the Touchdown Club of Columbus, it's not awarded until after the bowl games; in fact, the voting deadline is deliberately set after the CFP title game. 2022 winner: Bennett
- Maxwell Award: For the "best football player in the United States." Predictably, the winner of this award is frequently the Heisman winner as well. 2022 winner: Williams
- Outland Trophy: For the best "interior lineman". This includes any offensive linemen, as well as defensive tackles. 2022 winner: Olusegun Oluwatimi, C, Michigan
- Paul Hornung Award: Another relatively new award (first given in 2010), presented to the most versatile player. 2022 winner: Jack Colletto, LB, Oregon Statenote
- Ray Guy Award: For the top punter. 2022 winner: Adam Korsak, Rutgersnote
- Rimington Trophy: For the top center in FBS. Notable in that the award winner is not determined by vote of a designated committee, but instead on a points system based on placement in four specific All-America teams. Not to be confused with the Rimington Award, presented by the same body (though awarded based on an actual vote) to the outstanding centers in FCS, D-II, D-III, and the NAIA. 2022 FBS winner: Oluwatimi
- Ted Hendricks Award: For the top defensive end in all levels of college football. 2022 winner: Murphynote
- Walter Camp Award: For the college football "player of the year". Predictably, the winner of this award is also frequently the Heisman winner as well. 2022 winner: Williams
- Walter Payton Award: For the "most outstanding" offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) of college football. Originally given to the most outstanding player on either side of the ball, but restricted to offensive players since the Buchanan Award was established in 1995. 2022 winner: Lindsey Scott Jr., QB, Incarnate Wordnote
- Wuerffel Trophy: Presented for outstanding community service by an FBS player; named after 1996 Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel. 2022 winner: Dillan Gibbons, OG, Florida Statenote
- AFCA Coach of the Year: The oldest annual award for head coaches, first presented in 1935 (the same year in which the Heisman was introduced). Voted on and presented by the American Football Coaches Association, the trade organization for college football coaches. This award is presented at each level of play—FBS, FCS, D-II, D-III, and NAIA. 2022 FBS winner: Sonny Dykes, TCUnote
- AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year: The AFCA added this award in 1997 and also hands it out at each level of play. The award criteria include not only coaching success, but also community service, AFCA involvement, and "commitment to the student-athlete". 2022 FBS winner: Mike Tressel, DC/LB, Cincinnatinote
- AP Coach of the Year: Presented by the Associated Press, and voted on by the same media members who vote in the weekly AP Poll during the season. 2022 winner: Dykes
- Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year: Presented since 1976 by the Peach Bowl organizers, with a panel of college football experts as the voting body. Named after longtime Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd. Candidates are judged not only on their teams' on-field success but also their teams' academic success and community involvement. Winners from the previous two seasons, plus coaches in their first season at their current programs, are ineligible. 2022 winner: Willie Fritz, Tulanenote
- Broyles Award: The most prestigious award for assistant coaches, first awarded in 1996 and named after Frank Broyles, longtime Arkansas head coach and later the school's men's athletic director. Chosen by a committee of 17 prominent retired college coaches. 2022 winner: Garrett Riley, OC/QB, TCUnote
- Eddie Robinson Award: Presented since 1987 to the top I-AA/FCS head coach by the publisher of the most widely recognized FCS poll—originally The Sports Network (not the Anglophone Canadian equivalent to ESPN, but rather a wire service), now the sports analytics company Stats Perform. One of two major coaching awards named after Grambling State coaching legend Eddie Robinson. 2022 winner: John Stiegelmeier, South Dakota Statenote
- Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year: Presented since 1957 by the Football Writers Association of America, the trade association for college football writers. Originally known just as the FWAA Coach of the Year, but has been named after the aforementioned Eddie Robinson for the last few decades. The FWAA also presents the Nagurski and Outland Trophies. 2022 winner: Dykes
- George Munger Award: Presented since 1989 by the Maxwell Football Club, named after longtime Penn head coach George Munger, and awarded after the bowl games. Infamously changed its name to the Joseph V. Paterno Award in 2010, one year before the Jerry Sandusky scandal forced them to revert to the former name and rescind his three awards. 2022 winner: Fritz
- Home Depot Coach of the Year: Presented since 1994 by ESPN, with the voting body being college football analysts for the various ESPN networks (including ABC, whose sports operations are unified with ESPN). 2022 winner: Dykes
- Paul "Bear" Bryant Award: Presented since 1986 by the American Heart Association, with the National Sports Media Association, a trade association for sports media members of all outlets, as the voting body. Of course, named after the legendary Alabama coach; the AHA connection comes from the family's support of that charity (relevant because The Bear died of a heart attack). The AHA also presents a lifetime achievement award, also named for The Bear, to a prominent head coach each year. 2022 winner: Dykes
- Walter Camp Coach of the Year: Presented since 1967 by the same body responsible for the Walter Camp Award. 2022 winner: Dykes
Names to know in College Football
With such a long history and so many teams, the list of notable college football coaches, players, and broadcasters got too long for this page. For more detailed lists, see the following: