By Lee Wakefield (@Wakefield90)
I’d class myself as a bit of a college football veteran, having watched the college game for a number of years, however, one thing I have noticed, and notice every year is posts on social media asking questions about college football;
How does it work? How is it all organised? Where can I get more information about it?
So, in light of these questions, I thought it might be an idea to put together a little bit of an explanation for some of the most common questions that I see. There are multiple parts to this series covering everything from the rule differences, conference and divisional setup to rankings, the playoffs and the “Bowl” games.
These questions are understandable, the NFL off season is long, college football supplies the NFL, it’s where the new stars of the NFL come from and the college game is superb as both an on and off field spectacle!
This year is going to be different and the situation surrounding COVD-19 is concerning. However, the excitement is still real and I am still hopeful of football on Saturdays from this autumn. But either way, let’s get down to business…
Conferences, Divisions and Games
So college football is a pretty big deal. From Maine to San Diego and Seattle to Miami, college football stretches from all four corners of the continental United States. The highest level of college football is the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) Division I, there are also NCAA Division II and Division III programmes and also the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision – So yeah, there’s a lot going on!
All of the various levels have their own national champions and national championships and all players, after a certain period are eligible to declare for the NFL Draft (more on that very soon). However for the purposes of this piece, I am going to concentrate on the highest level of college football – FBS Division I – Otherwise, this article could go on for longer than anyone would care to read.
FBS Division I is made up of 10 conferences, plus 6 colleges that operate as independents, whose football programmes aren’t aligned with any conference, which total 130 programmes altogether.
Of the 10 conferences at this level there are 5 which are regarded as the “Power 5” conferences and then the remaining 5 are regarded as the “Group of 5”.
The split is as follows:
All of the 10 conferences are split into 2 geographical divisions, aside from the Big XII which is just one division. The conferences themselves are set grouped by geography, which you may have gathered from some of the names of the conferences, and there are only one of two anomalies that are fairly out of the way in relation to the rest of their conference. Here at Full 10 Yards College Football, we will previewing the conferences over the coming weeks before the season kicks off again, so keep your eyes peeled for those!
In terms of the conferences and the teams within them, each team plays 12 regular season games. For a number of teams who win a certain number of games through the year the regular seasons games are followed by “bowl games” and conference championships, as well as the college football playoffs. These will be covered in the next part of the series.
Back to regular season games, which are made up mainly of divisional games but then teams also schedule some out of conference games, usually towards the beginning of the season.
Some programmes take some heat from fans and media because these out of conference games are sometimes against much less teams and are either to open the season or the week before a big rivalry game. These are often referred to as “cupcakes”.
These so-called cupcakes are often chances for depth players and younger guys to get some game time. The starters usually play until the game is out of sight and then they get to enjoy some time off before the bigger games roll around.
Speaking of which, these bigger games are what makes college football so special. The rivalries, the traditions, the bands, the electricity… The fact that college football covers areas of the country that the NFL doesn’t and also the fans are made up of the local community and students, the crowds are more vociferous and some of the spectacles on show are truly breathtaking moments, some of the more breathtaking moments that you could see in sport.
Again, that will be something we cover later down the line with another article.
Most of these rivalries revolve around traditional games between two schools and are often played for a sacred item, as well as the bragging rights. Trophies such as Paul Bunyan’s Axe (Wisconsin vs. Minnesota), The Platypus Trophy (Oregon vs. Oregon State) and the Illibuck (which is a wooden turtle, that is contested by Illinois and Ohio State, and actually used to be an actual turtle) – and this is just a tiny selection!
Players, Scholarships and Draft Eligibility
The players that make up each of the 130 rosters of FBS Division I teams are mainly made up of student athletes who are on a football scholarship which they have been awarded by the college that they chose to attend.
The cream of the crop of high school football are highly sought after and receive many offers from the best colleges in the land. Recruiting is fierce and colleges and universities pour a lot of resources into persuading the best players to join their programme. Programmes can recruit from all over the country and boils down to the national “signing day” in February each year. High school players can commit to schools from an early stage, as soon as they get an offer from a programme at the college level, however, players do decommit and change their minds, so until signing day, nothing is official!
The colleges and universities allocate scholarships as they see fit and have their own rules and eligibility for them, but what is standardised is the number of scholarships that each programme is allowed to award 85 fully funded scholarships at any one time, and each year coaches can award 25 scholarships. These are “full rides” where the players themselves and their families don’t have to pay anything towards the player attending the school and the education that they will receive throughout the duration of their time at the school.
What I will note at this point is that 85 is the number for FBS D-I programmes and this isn’t the case lower down the ranks of college athletics.
The roster of each team is more than 85 players, so not everyone on the team is a scholarship athlete – the schools use scholarships to attract the best players that they can and the rest of the team is made up of what are called “walk-ons”. These are players who are attending the college or university but are a fee-paying student who tries out for the team and is successful in being picked. Players who are walk-ons, can be awarded scholarships later down the line but only usually via exceptional play on the field.
Usually each player will attend their school and enroll on a 4-year degree programme, which they can finish quicker but the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) gives each player 5 years of eligibility to complete 4 seasons of football. These years, from one to four as; Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior.
The 5th year can be used for what is called a “redshirt” year. This redshirt year can be used to recover from injury, or if the player is going to struggle for playing time and doesn’t want to use a valuable year of eligibility – Coaches can use these strategically when roster building and managing.
However, players aren’t required to stay in college for 4 or 5 years and become “draft eligible” once they are 3 years removed from high school, whether they have used a redshirt year in the past or not. With that, a player can choose to declare for the NFL Draft anytime from the end of their Redshirt Sophomore season to the end of their Redshirt Senior season. It is important to note that once a player declares for the NFL Draft, then their NCAA eligibility is over, if they go undrafted, there’s no going back to college football, so it’s a big consideration point for every player.
Another worthwhile note is that a 6th year can be granted to a player in some circumstances, but this requires dispensation from the NCAA, an example of this would be for a player who has suffered from multiple season ending injuries.
Finally on players and eligibility – Players aren’t bound to the programme that they chose out of high school.
There is a facility whereby players can transfer between programmes in the correct circumstances.
This can be used because the player isn’t getting the playing time that they desired or deserve, the player can enter what is known as the “transfer portal”.
A recent example of this would be now Indianapolis Colts QB, Jacob Eason. Eason was the #5 overall player in the 2016 recruiting class and went to the University of Georgia as a 5-star rated Quarterback out of Lake Stevens High School in the state of Washington. Eason played in 13 games, starting 12 and performing admirably as a Freshman, however in 2017 Georgia recruited now Bills QB, Jake Fromm and Fromm won that starting job. Eason appeared in 3 games for Georgia in 2017 and decided to transfer back to his home state and enrolled at the University of Washington. Photo credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Here’s the catch – If a player transfers prior to the completion of their academic studies, the NCAA rules that the player must sit out a season of play. So with that Eason sat out the 2018 season and then started playing for Washington last year, in the 2019 season where he started and again, played 13 games.
There is a slightly different rule for players who have finished their academic studies – In the event of a player graduating prior to the end of their 5 year eligibility period, a player can transfer to another programme elsewhere as a “Graduate Transfer” and play out their remaining time in college. This doesn’t come with the penalty of having to sit out a year and the player can play for their new school immediately and is usually just for a single season, meaning that a player plays for and studies at one school for 4 years, graduates there and then transfers. However, if a player completes their degree early, then they can play for more than one year for their second programme.
All transfers must be signed off by the NCAA who will rule on each case and pass judgement on it.
Finally, let me tackle the issue of players earning money.
I am not going to delve deeply into this subject as it is the subject of much debate in college football circles and would probably double the length of this article
At the time of writing players playing under the NCAA banner cannot earn money for their; likenesses, image rights, sponsorships, merchandise or receive compensation (financial or otherwise) in any other way as a reward for playing college football – College football is an amatuer game and players can only earn money for these sorts of activities once they reach the NFL and turn professional.
The controversy stems from a few avenues on this topic.
Firstly, college football is a multi-billion dollar industry where coaches and programmes earn millions of dollars each season, there are TV and sponsorship deals that are multi-year and multi-million dollar deals… Essentially, everyone earns money, apart from those providing the entertainment.
Second, there’s the counter-argument that the top athletes get to attend institutions that had it not been for their football skills, they would not have been invited to attend and that some young boys between ages of 18 and 23 would be negatively impacted by being able to access large sums of money at such a young age.
Not my argument but I am just laying out both sides of it.
Lastly on this subject and perhaps the most controversial of them all is we all know this goes on anyway.
We know that schools reward parents and players (via third parties) to attend their schools. There are several documentaries on this subject and also schools have been reprimanded for getting caught in the act!
All these rules do is safeguard the cash flow to those at the top of the food chain, minimise the earning potential of very marketable players and personalities and stop any video game developer from being able to produce and release a college football game.
Which is almost the biggest crime of them all.
So that’s a look at the setup of the College game. Hopefully you have learned a thing or two! If you do have any questions or want to know more, hit us up on social media @Full10YardsCFB or @Wakefiled90 and I’ll be more than happy to answer them. Watch out for the next part in the series where we’ll talk about the ranking system, playoffs and rule differences.