Understanding NCAA Football

This is the first installment in the “Boot Camp” series that is designed to introduce NCAA football to someone who has never watched college football before. These articles will only assume that you know how scoring works – touchdowns, field goals, point after touchdown (PAT), and two point conversions. Let’s get started!

What is the NCAA?



The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a member-led organization that regulates, manages, and provides financial assistance for just about every collegiate sport. The NCAA consist of 1,123 universities that provide academic support, health and safety personnel, and financial aid that support over 400,000 student athletes across the United States.




NCAA sports are divided into three divisions (I, II, III) that separate universities based on student population and budget size.

D3 – Division III is the largest division in the NCAA and is made of 450 universities where student-athlete focus is on academics. These universities typically have smaller student bodies and manage smaller athletic budgets. Division III schools are not allowed to offer athletes athletic scholarships. Although many schools will circumvent this rule by providing athletes with financial aid for non-athletic reasons like community service.

D2 – Division II is made up of over 300 universities that are able to provide partial athletic scholarships. Many of the top athletes will receive free tuition due the combination of athletic and academic financial aid. The D2 football national champion is determined by a 28 team playoff with the top 4 seeds getting a first round bye.

D1 – Division I is made up of nearly 350 universities that manage large athletic budgets and have massive student bodies. This division can offer full ride athletic scholarships and attracts 99.9% of the top recruits every year. This division is split into two subdivisions for football: Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). FBS colleges are the top tier of college football and consist of 128 teams that compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff (CFP).

FBS Football Expanded


The Power 5 Conferences

The Power 5 Conferences

The Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) is made up of 5 power conferences (P5), 5 minor conferences (G5), and 4 independent universities. Conferences exist to improve scheduling, share revenue, and create coherent groups within college sports. Conferences typically range from 10-16 members and decide their membership based on geography, school size, historical ties, and ability to generate revenue. Teams within the FBS typically play 12 regular season games per year that determine bowl eligibility, conference standing, and playoff ranking. Most conferences are divided even further into two divisions like East/West or North/South. Each team will play between 7-9 regular season games against teams within their conference.  Conference Championship Games (CCG) will take the top team from each division (or the top 2 teams if there are no divisions) based on Win-Loss record in conference games.

Bowl games are the postseason for NCAA football and teams must have at least 6 wins to be “bowl eligible”. Bowl games are out of conference (OOC) matchups held in a neutral stadium. There are different levels of prestige within bowl games with the biggest being the New Year’s Six (NY6) games. Matchups are determined by conference ranking and the results of the games are used to determine conference strength.

The College Football Playoff takes the top 4 teams in the country (ranked by the CFB Committee) and determines a true national champion. Playoff games are considered bowl games.

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