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Explained: NFL Team vs. College Team in Football

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New football fans must notice while watching games that there are differences between the professional games, and those of college athletic play. That’s because, well, NFL teams and college football teams are quite different, and play under different sets of rules.

The major difference between NFL and college football teams is compensation: players have salaries in the NFL; there are no salaries for college football players. It’s a matter of professional compared with amateur. There are also significant distinctions in rules, the style of play, and more.

While in recent years college players have been granted more freedom to get income from playing (See explanation below), they are not obligated to legal contracts to play ~ like NFL players must agree with to get on the playing field.

Payment for Football Players

National Football League

The NFL inaugurated in 1920, and teams have always paid players, per contracts signed by both parties.

That’s on-the-field compensation. Players also might have bonus payments built into their contracts for achieving certain milestones, like a certain number of yards gained, or making the Pro Bowl Game, or winning a championship.

Pro players also can receive payments from businesses or organizations, in exchange for endorsing a brand or product, or for appearing in advertisements. Basically, to lend a star name or recognizable face to a marketing effort.

There are other ways to generate income based on the standing as an NFL player, such as cash for autographs, or speaking engagements.

NCAA Football Compensation Rules

College football in the United States began as far back as 1869, and up until recent years players were purely amateur and forbidden to accept any type of payment ~ from the college, or from any other entity.

That changed when a court ruling forced the NCAA to amend its rules accordingly, in July 2021, to allow student athletes earn money from corporate sponsorships, and also to accept money from supporters.

For well over a century, the only things college football players could get from being on the school team were trophies, plaques, and an education. Today any college football player can generate an income from playing ~ if he or she can ink a deal.

The Teams of the NFL vs. Teams of College Football

The NFL today has 32 franchises, also called clubs or teams, that compete in 2 conferences that are each separated into 4 divisions.

These franchises are private corporations (except for the Green Bay Packers, a franchise that is publicly held), spread among 30 cities from coast to coast. New York and Los Angeles each host 2 teams.

Teams don’t get to exit a division or conference in favor of another in the NFL. That’s up to the league organization, basically up to a vote of the owners (if it gets that far).

College football teams are groups of players who are attending that particular school. As long as players attend a certain number of classes, and get the minimum grade-point average, and don’t overly disrupt classrooms, they can participate in sports.

College football is divided into 3 major divisions of play, and in each of them, many dozens of teams compete. Inside these divisions, as in the NCAA Div. 1, are conferences usually made up 10 to 14 teams grouped up to compete against one another and vie for individual championships.

At the very top level, college football has a playoff tournament, among the top 4 teams as ranked by the average of the organizations which produce Top 25 rankings all season (AP Top 25, AFCA Coaches Poll, and the CFP Rankings).

It is very unlike the huge monthlong spectacle of the playoffs in the NFL, where 14 teams total (as of 2022) qualify for a tournament to see who gets to play in the season-ending Super Bowl for the NFL championship.

For many college teams, winning a conference championship is the ultimate achievement, whether it was by finishing the season with the best record, or winning a post-season playoff of some sort.

Rule Differences: NFL vs. NCAA Football

  • Field: The hash marks, the pairs of small white dashes every yard the length of the field, are much wider on a college football field. In the NFL, the hash marks are separated by the same distance as the width of the goalposts, or 18 feet, 6 inches. College hash marks are 40 yards apart ~ more than double the width.
  • Sideline Passes: In college, receivers only have to have a single foot touching the inbounds field of play while in possession of the ball to make a pass complete. In the NFL, receivers must have both feet inbounds plus control of the ball at the same time.
  • Down by Contact: In the NFL, a ball-handler must be forced down by the opposing team to be ruled down; if a runner or receiver falls but is not touched by a defender, he can get up and keep running. Not so in college, where a player is ruled down when any part of his body other than feet or hands touches the turf.
  • 2-Minute Warning: In the NFL, an automatic timeout is called by referees when only 2 minutes remain in either half. College games have no such play stoppage.
  • Point-After Touchdown (PAT) distance: In college, attempts for 1 or 2 points after a touchdown is scored start at the 3-yard line. In the NFL, they start at the 2-yard line to try for 2 points; or kick the ball through the uprights from the 15-yard line.
  • Defensive Pass Interference: The penalty in the NFL is automatic 1st down at the spot of the foul. The NCAA complicates it as a 2-parter: automatic 1st down, and then 15 yards from the previous spot, or spot of the foul, whichever is lesser. Got that?
  • Defensive Holding: It’s a 5-yard penalty plus an automatic 1st down in pro ball; in college they issue a 10-yard penalty, plus a repeat of the down (unless a 1st down was gained by the yardage awarded for the penalty).
  • 1st Down Clock Stoppage: In the NFL, a team getting a 1st down does nothing to the clock. It keeps running. Not so in college, where the clock stops as officials move the chains that measure each 10-yard increment.

Other Differences Between NFL and College Football Teams


New fans to football might notice that you never see the calves of NFL players. In the pro league, rules have been in place for many years requiring the socks to be pulled all the way up. College football teams are allowed to change their uniform at any time, while in the NFL, teams can only do so every 5 years.


The football itself looks different in NCAA college play, because it has a couple of 1-inch half-stripes from 3 to 3.25 inches from both ends

Team Size

NFL teams are capped at 53 men on an active roster, plus 12 on a practice roster. American college football teams can have up to 125 players on the squad.

Have NFL and College Football Teams Played?

Yes, but not since 1976. For 42 years, the defending NFL champion team played in what was called College All-Star Games. The series stopped in 1977 due to concerns by pro coaches for injuries, rising salaries, and insurance troubles.

In those 42 NFL-college football games, the pro squad won 31 times. Teams of college all-stars, believe it not, won 9 times! (And there were 2 tie games).

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