Key Differences Between College Football and the NFL

Both the National Football League (NFL) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) football are wildly popular sports. With College Football ranking as the third most popular American sport, it clearly has many dedicated fans. But not all players who do well in College Football end up playing in the National Football League. As both sports are constantly adjusting their rules, it is sometimes hard to keep track even for hardcore fans. Here’s a breakdown of some key differences.


College Football players have to be enrolled at the educational institution they play for. College players are recruited. Although they generate a lot of revenue for their colleges, they don’t earn wages like the professional footballers. These players may not be as strong and developed as NFL football players.

Playing Field

The dimensions of the playing field are the same but the hash marks are placed differently in the two sports. In NFL, the hashes are close together to align with the goal post’s uprights. On a Collegiate field, the hashes are much wider apart.

Although this seems like a minor detail, it does affect the game: In both sports, the ball will be spotted either in the middle of the field or on one of the hashes after each play. This gives a college team a wide field to work with on the one side and a much narrower area on the other side. The wider spacing between the hashes also gives college kickers larger angles than NFL kickers. To compensate for this, college football also has goalposts that are set wider apart.

Ruling Players “Down”

One of the greatest differences between the two sports is how players are declared to be “down.” In NFL, a player is ruled down when he goes to the ground due to contact with another player. In college football, a player is down whenever a body part touches the ground, regardless of contact with other players.

Legal Catch

To make a legal catch, a receiver in the NFL must have control of the ball with both feet in bounds. In college football, on the other hand, only one foot is required.

Pass Interference

When a pass interference happens in the NFL, the ball is spotted at the point where the foul happened. In college football, a 15-yard penalty applies.

Different Clock Rules

In college football, the clock is stopped at the first down in order to reset the chains and will only resume once the chains are in place. In the NFL, the clock is not stopped, which hugely affects the end of the game when players are running out of time. Pro players have to avoid throwing the ball over the middle of the field, but college players can afford to do so as their clock will stop.

One-Point or Two-Point Conversions

Both the NCAA and NFL teams can go for two after scoring a touchdown, but the NCAA places the ball at the three-yard line while in the NFL it is placed at two yards.


NFL has a “sudden-death” rule that applies in the end game. A team that receives a kickoff can score a field goal with the team’s first possession. A player will then kick off to the opposing team who now has an opportunity to score. If the scored is tied after this, the sudden-death rules will be applied. In the regular season and preseason games, the teams will play just one overtime period, after which the game may still end in a tie. During playoffs, they may get multiple overtime periods until one of the teams score to win the game.

In college football, games will never end in a tie. Each team will get one possession from the opponent’s 25 yard line. The overtime is not ruled by a clock. The team that leads after both possessions wins. If the teams tie, the overtime period will continue. At the third overtime, teams may only attempt 2-point conversions after a touchdown.

Instant Replay

In the NFL, booth review applies to all plays, turnovers and scoring plays during overtime periods and the final two minutes of each half. Coaches get two opportunities (and in some cases three) to challenge any of the other plays for review. In Collegiate Football, all plays get booth reviews and coaches can only submit one challenge in a game.

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