CFB: College Football Breakdown Pt 2

By Lee Wakefield (@wakefield90)

Welcome back to the second part of the series. If you are here, either you enjoyed the first one and are REALLY keen to learn more, or you want to know more about the topics we’ll be covering in this piece.

In the this second part of the series, we’ll be covering the ranking system, the playoffs and the “Bowl” games and also the different slant on the rules in the College game compared to those that you see in the NFL.

Don’t forget if you have any questions and want to ask something, please get in touch with us on social media @Full10YardsCFB or @Wakefield90.

Let’s get down to business.


Rankings are a very important aspect of the college football system and it is how the hierarchy is established throughout the season, how we compare and contrast teams and records across 10 conferences and ultimately how the top 4 teams are decided – The top 4 teams being the programmes that go forward to the college football playoffs at the end of the season.

The top 25 teams are ranked out of the 130 programmes that make up FBS D-I and these 25 team are ranked by performance by a Coaches Poll and by the Associated Press (AP) and then as the season draws towards its conclusion, from around November the College Football Playoff Rankings are released each week and then these rankings become the official rankings and ultimately the 4 at the top at the end of the regular season become the college football playoffs semi-finalists, but more on the playoffs later.

How does the Coaches and AP polls work?

A number of randomly selected current college football head coaches are selected and each week they give their top 25 team and subsequently, these teams are allocated points for each selection they receive – 25 points for a #1 nomination, 24 points for a #2 nomination and so on, and so forth.

The AP poll works with the same points system but this (obviously) is members of the press who report on college football.

Rankings are updated each week and prior to the season a pre-season top 25 poll is released as a starting point for the year.

In the early weeks teams can be in and out of the rankings fairly readily, especially if the pre-season polls aren’t shown to be correct.

The factors taken into consideration by all voting parties are wins, strength of that win or strength of the loss, the conference that the team plays in, their strength of schedule and generally how big of a programme a team is.

So for example, when a blue-blood programme such as Alabama schedules a smaller team, such as Southern Mississippi, as they did last year, beating the Eagles 49-7 in Alabama, it didn’t count for much more than just a win. This is because it was a heavy win, which was expected and the favourite was at home.

However, in week 3 of the 2019 season, LSU travelled to play Texas. The teams were ranked at the time as #6 and #9 in the country respectively, and LSU came out on top as 45-38 winners, as the Tigers came through a litmus test on the way to becoming national champions. That would have counted for much more than Alabama’s cupcake win a couple of weeks later and conversely, Texas wouldn’t have been penalised much for losing to the #6 team in the country at that time.

Obviously this leads to big programme bias, and also big conference bias which isn’t ideal and does lead to controversy. As it did in 2017 when the University of Central Florida (UCF) went unbeaten and was the only unbeaten in the whole of college football  but were not invited to the college football playoffs. The Knights even went on to win the AAC Championship against Memphis and also the Peach Bowl vs. Auburn. UCF were only ranked #6 in the nation because they played in a Group of 5 conference.

It is an imperfect system that relies on the opinions of a committee and it does cause disagreements amongst fans, teams, coaches and media at times.

Bowls & Conference Championships

You will have noticed that when talking about teams and scheduling, that I mentioned that schools play 12 regular season games, however, successful teams can play 13 or even 14 games in a season.

The 13th game will come in the form of a bowl game.

Bowl games are a series of games played between teams from different conferences as an end of season reward for the teams that missed out on the college football playoffs. The college football playoffs are technically part of the bowl games series but are essentially a mini tournament between 4 teams with the ultimate prize being the College Football National Championship.

There are 40 bowl games in total from the college football playoffs at the top to some lesser bowls which are played earlier in the postseason schedule by lesser programmes within Division I FBS rankings, (usually) from late December.

How do teams qualify for bowl season?

Well it’s actually pretty easy since the NCAA relaxed the rules and created more bowls from the 2006-2007 season (more bowls meaning, more tv games, meaning more sponsorship etc, etc.)

A team must have a record above .500 to be bowl eligible, so have a 6-6 regular season record or better although wins against non-division I teams don’t count – So you cannot schedule a bunch of easy games as your non-conference opponents each year and expect to be rewarded with a bowl game at the end of the season. This also doesn’t guarantee that a 6-6 team will get in, but it does mean they have a chance. Obviously, the best teams get placed in bowls first and then it whittles down to those who have just scraped eligibility.

Despite there being 40 bowl games, there are some that are more important than others, these are known as the “New Year’s Six” bowls.

College Football Playoff: 2019 New Year's Six bowls set
The NY6 Bowls are as follows; Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl.

Two of these games will be designated as the college football playoff semifinals and these serve on a rotational basis. However, when not designated as a playoff game, three of the bowls are aligned to certain conferences.

The bowl/conference alignments are as follows;

Rose Bowl: #1 team in the Big 10 vs. #1 team in the Pac-12

Sugar Bowl: #1 team in the Big XII vs. #1 team in the SEC

Orange Bowl: #1 team in the ACC vs. #2 team in the SEC, the #2 team in the Big 10 or Notre Dame

On to conference championships then and this one is a bit more simple to explain – As you would expect, the conference championship is contested in all 10 FBS D-I divisions and, as you would also expect these games are contested between the best two teams in the conference.

Although, this is sometimes a little imperfect again in everywhere but the Big XII. Since all other conferences aside from the Big XII are split into two regionalised divisions, these conference championships are between the top team in each division, rather than necessarily the best two teams.

The Big XII championship is just between the top two teams in the conference since the conference isn’t split.

The conference championship would make up the 14th game of the season for these teams, as they are almost certain to be bowl eligible and as Power 5 schools, they are almost certain to be awarded some kind of bowl game.


Speaking of 14th and then 15th games… It’s time to talk Playoffs.

So as above, around November the AP and Coaches Polls are set aside and replaced with the College Football Playoff Rankings and we get to the end of the regular season and the playoffs are set.

We know who the teams are and the bowls are set out and a mini tournament is played to decide the National Championship – the #1 ranked team plays the #4 ranked team with the #2 and #3 teams facing off in the other semi final. Winners progress, losers go home. Simple as that.

As an example, the top 4 ranked teams at the end of the 2019 season, the rankings were as follows; #1 LSU, #2 Ohio State, #3 Clemson, #4 Oklahoma.

LSU and Clemson won their semifinals and subsequently played their 15th and final game of the year – LSU won to become 15-0 National Champions. Prior to the playoff series, LSU won the SEC championship against Georgia.

College football national championship: Burrow, LSU beat Clemson ...
Gerald Herbert /AP

The Championship does have bearing on the CFB Playoff rankings,but losing it doesn’t automatically disqualify a team – It depends on how the rankings committee see it. So it is possible to lose your conference championship but go to the college football playoff and win the National Championship.

The most recent example of this is Alabama’s National Championship win in 2011 – The Crimson Tide lost the SEC championship to LSU before facing LSU again, a few weeks later in the National Championship game but then winning the game be National but not Conference Champions.

Rule Differences

So hopefully by now you have a pretty decent understanding of how the college football system works and you’re ready to watch some football!

I am going to assume that most readers know the rules of football from watching the NFL so I am going to compare the two because there are some impactful differences in the way plays are called and also the game looks, but I am not going to explain the rules of football in full.

Number of feet a receiver must have in bounds for a completed pass?

In the NFL you must get both feet down, in bounds with control of the football, in college, you only have to get one down. This makes a big difference when it comes to those toe-tapping plays for touchdowns or along the sideline.

Down by contact rule

In the NFL you have to be tackled to be ruled as down, but when it comes to the college game, if you fall down then you’re down.

Penalty for defensive pass interference

This isn’t as strict in college, instead of just being an automatic first down at the spot of the foul it’s an automatic first down but with penalty being the lesser of 15 yards from the previous spot or the spot of the foul

Clock temporarily stops after the offense completes a first down so the chain crew can reset the chains

This always happens in college football whereas this only happens if needed in the NFL.

Defensive Holding

In college this is a 10 yard penalty and repeat the down unless 1st down gained by penalty yardage, rather than just a 5 yard penalty and an automatic first down as it is in the NFL.

Spot where an opposing team takes possession after a missed field goal

The greater of the previous line of scrimmage or opposing team’s 20-yard line

Two-minute warning

The two-minute warning is not used at all in college football.

Starting point of a one- or two-point conversion

Three-yard line for both, as opposed to using the 15-yard line for a 1-try in the NFL.


WARNING: this is completely different (and in my opinion, way better in college) – Each team is given one possession from its opponent’s twenty-five yard line with no game clock. The team leading after both possessions is declared the winner. If the teams remain tied, overtime periods continue; games cannot end in a tie. Teams that possesses the ball first in each period alternates. Starting with the third overtime, teams are only allowed to attempt two-point conversions after a touchdown

Instant replay

All plays are subject to booth reviews. Coaches only have one challenge per game – Much simpler in college football!

Hash marks

Way Wider! The hash marks in college ball are 40 feet wide, rather than 18 feet, 6 inches (the width of the goal posts) in the pros.

Jersey Numbers

This is way less rigid than the NFL numbering system. Offensive linemen have to wear between 50 and 79 but aside from that, anything goes! Two players from the same team can even wear the same number in the same game, so long as one plays offense and one players defense and the two players aren’t on the field at the same time

Plus, a new rule for the 2020 season – Players will be allowed to wear the number 0.

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