How Does College Football Differ from the NFL?


If you're not an ardent football fan, watching a college game on Saturday and then a pro game on Sunday might cause some confusion. The NCAA and the NFL play the same sport on the gridiron but have many different rules regarding how the game is officiated. These differences could fill a book, and they do, but a few major rules stand out for the casual fan; knowing them could make the difference between enjoying the game and becoming perplexed and frustrated by it -- or unnecessarily cursing out the refs.

Field of Play

  • Two significant differences on the field of play are the rules for an in-bounds reception and when a ball carrier is determined down. In the NCAA, only one foot must be in bounds when a player catches the ball along the sidelines; in the NFL both feet must touch the playing surface in bounds while the receiver maintains control of the ball. For player down calls in the NCAA, if any part of a ball carrier's body except the feet or hands touches the ground, that player is down. In the NFL, a player isn't down unless touched or knocked down by an opponent -- so if the carrier falls to the ground without being touched, he can get back up and continue running.

Clock Stoppage

  • An automatic two-minute-warning time out before the end of the first half and the end of the game applies in the NFL but not in the NCAA. In the NCAA, coaches get one chance to stop the clock and challenge the previous call on the field. If the coach loses the challenge, the team loses one of their three allotted time outs for that half. In the NFL, coaches get two challenges. All plays are subject to review by officials in the booth in college play, but only certain plays are reviewed in the NFL, such as when a team scores or if there's a turnover. In the NFL, the clock doesn't automatically stop when a team makes a first down like it does in NCAA play.

Overtime Rules

  • The way overtimes are conducted is one of the most notable differences between college and professional football. The NCAA doesn't use a clock for overtime like the NFL does. In the NCAA, each team gets a chance to score by starting with a fresh set of downs at their own 25 yard line. If the score is still tied after two overtimes, a touchdown must be followed by a two-point conversion attempt rather than a point after the kick. NFL overtimes are a complex, modified version of sudden death played in an extra period. In regular season NFL games, only one overtime is played, so it's possible for a game to still end in a tie. In postseason matches, overtimes are played until there's a winner.

The Playoffs

  • The NFL has a 12-team postseason playoff system in place for its two conferences, and ultimately the AFC and NFC champions face off in the Super Bowl. In 2014, the NCAA began a four-team playoff system to replace its controversial Bowl Championship Series. A selection committee ranks and picks the final four teams to play in semifinal bowl games on New Year's Day, with the winners playing for the national championship trophy. This process strikes a balance, keeping the renowned bowl tradition alive in college football while providing a short playoff period.

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