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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 game[1]. 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.)

College football is played mostly on Saturdays, but there is at least one game every week on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. 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-A 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. 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. 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. 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 "BCS Championship Game" which rotates 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, but agreement on a better system is disputed, and there's a lot of money made in the current system.

The lower divisions of the NCAA actually have national championship tournaments, but these divisions get little interest except from students and alumni of the participating schools themselves, 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 exactly the same as in the professional leagues as well. There are a few different rule changes, 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), 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) will be spent sitting on the bench, and that the player not participate in any games. 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 baseball) or accepts endorsements.

The Football Bowl Subdivision has quite a few teams, separated, as stated earlier, into a number of conferences. There are a total of 11 conferences in D-1, 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 Army and Navy, the pre-eminent 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.) As of 2011 Brigham Young has left the Mountain West Conference to become the 4th major independent team.

As stated above, the current college football system lacks a true playoff or a true national champion. 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.

The second tier of games consists of lower profile bowls such as the Capitol One Bowl[2], Outback Bowl[3], Sun Bowl, Gator Bowl, Chick-fil-A Bowl[4], 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. It still seeks to regain its former status and become the fifth BCS bowl, and is now played in the showplace Cowboys Stadium to demonstrate this (the Cotton Bowl stadium itself remains in use by the decidedly less tradition-filled TicketCity.com bowl).

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)[5]. 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 Bowl[6], Meineke Car Care Bowl[7], the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl[8], the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl[9], or the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl St. Petersburg[10]. 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 (something near-universally loathed by football fans) came about. 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.com Bowl), and about the only accomplishment to be earned by the players outside of a free unwanted trip to Detroit, Boise 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 2010-2011 season, there was even some worry that there wouldn't be enough bowl eligible teams[11] to play all the bowl games, which would have required teams with losing records to be invited to fill the remaining slots. While ultimately this didn't happen, it illustrates what a meager accomplishment being invited to a minor bowl has become.

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 [12], 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.

Different Levels

Not 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,"[13] 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 Michigan by FCS opponent Appalachian State in 2007, quite possibly the biggest upset in college football history), they become a national laughing stock.[14]

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.[15] 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.

Rivalries

While 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.

  • Harvard vs. Yale (The Ur Example, though no longer of much importance except to students at the respective schools)
  • Army vs. Navy vs. Air Force (For the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy; Another one of the oldest rivalries, and still going strong. The Army-Navy Game is traditionally the last regular-season game of the year, making it a big draw even when, as is often the case in the modern era, neither team is nationally relevant.)
  • Auburn vs. Alabama ("The Iron Bowl"[16])
  • Texas vs. Oklahoma ("The Red River Rivalry"[17]))
  • Ohio State vs. Michigan ("The Game" - voted the #1 rivalry in North American sports by ESPN in 2000.)
  • Wisconsin vs. Minnesota ("Paul Bunyan's Axe") and the oldest annual rivalry in football -- these teams have played every year since 1907.
  • Florida vs. Georgia ("The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party[18]") - Played on a theoretically neutral field in Jacksonville, Florida.
  • UCLA vs. USC ("The Battle for the Victory Bell"/"The Battle of Los Angeles")
  • BYU vs. Utah ("The Holy War"[19])
  • West Virginia vs. Pittsburgh ("The Backyard Brawl") [20]
  • California-Berkeley vs. Stanford ("The Big Game"; see also "The Play." Often considered the modern version of Harvard vs. Yale.)
  • Kansas vs. Missouri ("The Border War"/"Border Showdown"[21]) - Dates back to 1891, and grew out of the considerable animosity that already existed between the states. Though it's been played for 120 years without interruption, the future of the rivalry is in question with Missouri leaving the Big 12 for the SEC.
  • Illinois vs. Missouri ("The Arch Rivalry"[22])
  • Michigan vs. Michigan State ("The Battle for the Mitten"/"Paul Bunyan--Governor of Michigan Trophy")
  • USC vs. Notre Dame ("The Battle for the Jewelled Shillelagh")
  • Mississippi State vs. Ole Miss ("The Battle For The Golden Egg"/"The Egg Bowl")
  • Miami vs. Florida State
  • Florida vs. Florida State
  • Georgia vs. Georgia Tech ("Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate") Played every year since 1925.
  • University of Washington vs. Washington State University (The Apple Cup) [23]
  • University of Virginia vs. Virginia Tech (Battle for the Commonwealth Cup) [24]
  • Colorado vs. Colorado State ("The Rocky Mountain Showdown")
  • Oregon vs. Oregon State ("The Civil War")
  • Boston College vs. Notre Dame (also known as "The Holy War"[25])
  • Tennessee vs. Alabama ("The Third Saturday in October"[26])
  • 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,
  • Clemson vs. the University of South Carolina--The second oldest annual football rivalry by just two years, dating back to 1909.
  • Southern Methodist and Texas Christian -- both are in the same metro area; the prize is the Iron Skillet. TCU (Fort Worth) has been more victorious since 1987, since SMU's (Dallas) infamous Death Penalty judgment.
  • Auburn vs. Georgia ("The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry") - First played in 1892 and became an annual game in 1898. But interruptions for World War I and World War II prevented it from being the oldest annual rivalry.
  • LSU vs. Auburn ("The Tiger Bowl"[27])
  • LSU vs. Arkansas ("The Battle for the Golden Boot"[28])
  • Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma St. ("Bedlam Series")
  • Texas vs. Texas A&M ("Lone Star Showdown"[29]) - Dates back to 1894 and is a long-standing traditional Thanksgiving Day game, but like the Border War it may be ending because of conference realignment. With A&M leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, Texas has said they have no room on their schedule for the game until 2018 at the earliest.
  • Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (An old Southwestern Conference rivalry that was recently revived as a non-conference game played in Arlington, and will now be entrenched annually as Texas A&M joins the SEC)
  • TCU vs. Baylor (Another old Southwestern Conference rivalry with the added enmity that Baylor allegedly played politics to keep TCU out of the Big 12. With TCU joining the Big 12, this rivalry has now come full circle)
  • Iowa St. vs. Kansas St. ("Farmageddon")
  • North Carolina vs. Virginia ("The South's Oldest Rivalry", which has been played since 1892, continuously since 1919)
  • Arizona vs. Arizona State ("The Duel in the Desert," notable for being played for the Territorial Cup[30], which has been certified as the oldest rivalry trophy in college football, having first been awarded in 1889.[31])

Notes

  1. The governing body hasn't yet decided whether to strip USC of its championship, but according to official records, nobody won that game. If they do, the 2005 championship will remain vacant
  2. Formerly the Tangerine Bowl and the Florida Citrus Bowl
  3. Formerly the Hall of Fame Bowl
  4. Formerly the Peach Bowl
  5. However, 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 will get screwed over by the higher-tier bowls and get forced to settle for beating the hell out a scrub team in a bottom-tier bowl. Common victims of this are schools like Boise State, which usually wins its bowl games but is considered a less attractive choice because, being from tiny Idaho, they have a relatively small fanbase.
  6. Formerly the Motor City Bowl
  7. Formerly the Texas Bowl
  8. Formerly the Emerald Bowl
  9. Formerly the Humanitarian Bowl
  10. Formerly the St. Petersburg Bowl
  11. A team must win at least half of its game to be bowl eligible.
  12. In the Congress' defense, trainloads of money are involved, which can have a huge effect on local and state economies. There's also some definite examples of corruption among the bowls, and the executives of the ostensibly non-profit organizations that run them get ludicrously huge salaries.
  13. Previously, the "Football Bowl Subdivision" and "Football Championship Subdivision" were called Division I-A and Division I-AA. These names are still often used unofficially, as many fans find the new names clunky and stupid. The abbreviations "FBS" and "FCS" are also used more often than the full names due not sounding quite as lame.
  14. Amazingly, Michigan has scheduled Appalachian State (a traditional FCS powerhouse won three consecutive playoff championships in 2005-2007) again for the 2014 season.
  15. A "junior college" is a 2-year school attended mostly by people who can't attend a 4-year school due to either poor academic performance in high school or inability to afford the more expensive tuition of a 4-year college. The latter is generally not an issue for football players, who usually have tuition paid by scholarship. Upon graduation, junior college students can transfer to a 4-year college to complete their degree, and usually do.
  16. It used to be played in Birmingham, a city known as a major hub of the steel industry.
  17. Formerly the "Red River Shootout", with the old name still frequently used by fans.
  18. Officially the "Florida vs. Georgia Football Classic" or "Georgia vs. Florida Football Classic" on a rotating basis depending on who the designated home team is (it's always played on a neutral site, so there's no true home team). 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.
  19. BYU is a Mormon university, while Utah is a secular public university.
  20. The two campuses are less than a two-hour drive away from each other
  21. Refers to the conflict between the states over slavery before and during the American Civil War. 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.
  22. It's played in St. Louis.
  23. The Cascade Mountains keep everything civil during most of the year, with UW fans to the west and WSU fans to the east.
  24. Virginia is legally known as the "Commonwealth of Virginia."
  25. Both universities are Catholic; in fact, B.C. and Notre Dame are the only two Catholic schools in Division IA.
  26. An Artifact Title, as in the last decade it's usually been played on the fourth Saturday in October.
  27. Both teams are nicknamed "Tigers".
  28. The winner brings home the "Golden Boot", a massive solid-gold trophy shaped like a map of Arkansas and Louisiana, thus roughly resembling a boot.
  29. They're the two largest schools in Texas, the Lone Star State.
  30. So named because when it was instituted, the schools were in the Arizona Territory, which wouldn't become a state for another 13 years. Arizona State was at the time called Tempe Normal School ("normal school" meaning a college for the training of teachers), as being located in a territory it by definition couldn't be a "state university."
  31. Back in 1889 Arizona State was the Arizona Territorial Normal School football team and were awarded the first Territorial Cup after winning the Arizona Territorial Football League Championship after defeating the Phoenix Union High School, the Phoenix Indian School and the University of Arizona. The first game in its modern incarnation, played solely between the UA and what would later become ASU, was played in 1899.
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