Updated: Aug 21, 2021
If you are similar to me and can’t get enough american football in your life, the natural thing to do after discovering the NFL is to check out College Football.
I followed the Florida Gators after my first trip to Orlando but apart from catching a few games I didn’t really understand all the different conferences, how each team made the “Playoffs” or what all the different Bowl games meant.
I found this very much frustrating, stopping me from really taking the time to watch the sport outside the Gators.
Last season I was determined to take the time to understand the conferences and try to watch the season play out, more from a neutral perspective to get a better feel of what this is all about.
I’m not claiming I know everything by any stretch but I do feel I have picked up a little knowledge to now understand how it works. This has allowed me finally see the appeal for so many fans across America.
I hope you enjoy the guide below and if this does help explain the structure/format for you, I think you will enjoy the experience going forward.
Right if you want to get into College Football, you need to forget every aspect of how the NFL works. (This is why it took me 5 years to get my head around it. I wanted a straight forward structure similar to the NFL, well in its current format it’s simply not there.)
Although once you gain a level of understanding there are a few similarities to the NFL but I think unless you take a step back and treat College Football as a completely separate entity you will never take to it or fully understand the appeal.
How does it work?
So first of all, There are approximately 893 football colleges spanning five different division levels: NCAA Division 1, Division 2, Division 3, NAIA and NJCAA.
Wow a lot of teams right?! To keep this simple I'm only going to focus on Division 1.
There are 130 College Football teams currently in the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) which is the highest level of football.
Within the FBS there are 10 conferences in total.
There is a divide in the so-called quality of conferences. For example you will hear a lot about the “Power 5 Conferences” and “Group of 5 Conferences”
As it currently stands the Power 5 Conferences usually contain the big boys (Your Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, LSU etc)
These conferences you will hear the most about are listed below
Power 5 Conferences
SEC - Southeastern Conference
ACC - Atlantic Coast Conference
BIG 10 - Big 10 Conference
BIG 12 - Big 12 Conference
PAC 12 - PAC 12 Conference
A list of the famous teams you have probably heard the most about over the past few seasons.
SEC - Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, Auburn & Tennessee
ACC - Clemson, UNC, Miami, Florida State
Big 10 - Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa
Big 12 - Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa State, Baylor
PAC 12 - Oregon, USC, Washington
Since 2010 College Championship titles by conference
SEC - 7
ACC - 3
Big 10 - 1
Big 12 - 0
PAC 12 - 0
The SEC as you can see has had some serious success over the last 10-20 years, a big part down to Alabama who have won 6 titles since 2009. I won’t go into much detail but college football is changing. A big shockwave came this off-season when Texas and Oklahoma confirmed they will be moving from the Big 12 to the SEC. 2 of the biggest colleges in the Big 12 will now add more strength to the SEC.
Group of 5 Conferences
AAC - American Athletic Conference
MWC - Mountain West Conference
MAC - Mid-American Conference
Sun Belt - Sun Belt Conference
C-USA - Conference USA
Now let’s make this clear, any of the 130 teams are eligible to make the College Football Playoffs at the end of the season, but it is very rare, if not impossible in some people's eyes for a non Power 5 conference team to make the final 4 in the rankings
and therefore the playoff.
For the most part there is a good reason for this. In the Power 5 Conferences the general standard is higher, the top teams are usually as strong as it gets and even the weaker teams can be competitive. Due to the consistent level of quality in these conferences they receive much bigger income, through ticket sales/merchandise sales and more importantly TV revenue. This allows them to build the best facilities and with the reputation of the conferences they belong to, they are able to recruit the best kids from high school.
The Group of 5 conferences suffer due to the lack of quality and consistency within their programs which cause them to receive much lower income from TV rights etc. This as you can imagine makes it also harder to compete for the top recruits coming out of high school.
To take a football comparison from this side of the pond, imagine if English Football and Scottish Football combined and decided to rank the top 25 teams based on weekly results each week and strength of opponents.
Would Rangers or Celtic even if they had won more games be ranked above Manchester City, Chelsea or even Arsenal? When you take into consideration the strength of opponents they would find themselves quite a way down that list. In reality could they beat any of those teams? On any given day it’s always possible but realistically the majority of people would say it’s unlikely. When the CFP committee looks at their top 25 they take into account all of this information to decide on who they truly believe is the best team in college football.
Now this doesn’t mean they can’t compete. UCF Knights (Group of 5 team) managed to go unbeaten in 2017 finishing 8-0 in their conference, 12-0 overall, before defeating the 7th ranked Auburn (A Power 5 team) in the Peach Bowl completing a perfect 13-0 season.
The Cincinnati Bearcats are also in the same conference as the UCF Knights and went unbeaten last season in their conference and overall but lost in the Peach Bowl against the Georgia Bulldogs with the last kick of the game in an epic match. Once again proving that the top teams in the Group of 5 can certainly compete against most Power 5 teams.
Now this next part is a little confusing to understand but bear with me. In addition to the 10 conferences you also have “independent colleges”. This means that if a college decides to go independent they don’t belong to a conference. Right I know what you are thinking, why would you do that?
Well the big thing when you’re independent you have full control over your TV rights which allows for the potential of making more money. Another benefit is you're in control of your whole schedule as you’re not tied down to conference games.
Despite not being tied to a conference these teams can still qualify for the College Football Playoffs.
The most famous team to be independent is Notre Dame. It was formerly in the Big East Conference before it decided to go independent in 2013. Currently Notre Dame is a member of the ACC conference in all sports except football. Notre Dame is an illustrious university and still is one of biggest players when it comes to recruiting and will always be in the mix to make the College Playoffs.
What are the College Football Playoffs?
So the College Football Playoffs (CFP) contain just four teams. Now I can imagine this blows your mind like it did with me. 130 teams compete just for four playoff spots? For now please ignore this.
How do you make the final four?
Throughout the season the CFP Committee vote on their top 25 teams. This changes each week based on results.
Once the regular season is completed the teams that finish between 1-4 are then entered into the College Football Playoffs.
Number 1 seed plays number 4 seed
Number 2 seed plays number 3 seed
These games are played at a neutral venue and fall within “Bowl Game” season (For example The Rose Bowl)
The two winners then go on to face each other in the College Playoff Championship game (The Super Bowl for College)
I think this is quite self explanatory but each conference usually has a title game where the winners from the two divisions face off in a conference championship game to decide who takes the crown.
Although a great achievement this doesn’t guarantee you will make the College Football Playoff but it certainly helps with your overall rankings for the end of the season.
Probably less an accomplishment but still important if you want a shot to win the overall conference title. An example - the SEC is split into two divisions, SEC East and SEC West. The winner of both divisions then face off against each other to win the SEC title match.
Now this is the hardest thing for most UK fans to understand. Basically the idea of this is to take the better teams in the country to face equally good teams in a one off match to finish the season.
The idea of Bowl games can be great fun with some top match-ups but with a total of 40 Bowl games in total, it is really hard to follow all the games. The most appealing games are the New Year 6 Games which tend to include the best teams in the country, competing in the most famous bowls.
As you can see there is much more than just winning the College Playoff Championship at the end of the season. Similar to the NFL, winning your division is important (Although it doesn’t mean you make the playoffs like the NFL) this then allows you to compete for a conference title (Which is a big deal)
Even if your team doesn’t manage to win a division or a conference title, finishing the season with a winning record could be a great achievement and usually leads to a bowl game. For a lot of schools, this is still seen as a successful season and can lead to more revenue and success going forward.
Once again If you think about football over here winning the premiership is huge, but only one team can achieve this each season, for other teams making a top four finish is a target (in a similar way to college, the revenue being the most important factor) for others, mid table is a dream. College Football is very similar on that front.
I hope this guide gives you a slightly better understanding of how the conferences work and why making the College Football Playoff might be important for some but for others just winning a conference title or gaining a winning record is just as important.