Along with the professional game, college football is the most-watched spectator sport in the United States. The game has been played for over a century and appears nothing like it did at its earliest beginnings. Developing out of rugby football played in Great Britain and Canada, American college football got its start in the late 1800s. The modern game started to take shape in the early 1900s.
In 1869, Rutgers and Princeton played in what was the very first intercollegiate football game. It looked nothing like the college football of today. Teams consisted of 25 players and the goal was to kick the ball into the opposing team’s goal. As the game became more popular, schools all over the East began to field teams.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were college teams playing one another all across the country. The violence of the game brought the sport major national attention in the early 1900s. In 1905, U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt held a meeting at the White House that led to the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA.
The NCAA helped to modernize the game with new rules designed to make the game safer. The forward pass was made popular and coaches like Amos Alonzo Stagg, Glenn “Pop” Warner, and Knute Rockne helped revolutionize the game. The game continued to rise in popularity with the programs of the Ivy League, Army, Navy, and Notre Dame among the best in the country.
Regional to National
College football began to grow in the South in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Most of the sport’s national powers had come from the East or Midwest up until the late ‘20s. Alabama’s 1925 team won the 1926 Rose Bowl and claimed its first national championship. The Southwest Athletic Conference formed in 1915 made up mostly of schools from Texas. By the 1930s, teams like Texas Christian (TCU) and Texas A&M were winning national titles.
The Pacific Coast Conference, the precursor to today’s Pac-12, also had a national champion – USC. The Trojans won back-to-back national titles in 1931 and 1932. Also in the ‘30s, four new bowl games were created to match up teams from across the country that normally did not play one another. At the end of each season, the Associated Press would determine a national champion by releasing its poll.
The Heisman Trophy
In 1935, the New York City Downtown Athletic Club held its first annual ceremony to award the Heisman Trophy. The award is given annually to the nation’s most outstanding player. It is awarded based on votes given by sports journalists, previous Heisman winners, and fans. The first winner of the trophy was Jay Berwanger, a halfback at the University of Chicago. Berwanger was also the NFL’s first-ever draft pick in 1936. The most recent winner of the Heisman Trophy was Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray.
Modern College Football
The professional game became so popular that television networks began broadcasting games in the 1950s. The same thing happened with college football and by 1966 ABC Sports was broadcasting a national game of the week. New offensive strategies began to emerge in the 1960s as well. The wishbone triple option became popular after being introduced by assistant Emory Bellard and head coach Darrell Royal at Texas. The offense was adapted at schools like Alabama, Oklahoma, and UCLA. Programs like Michigan, Texas, and Notre Dame continued to consistently produce winning seasons through the 1960s and ‘70s.
Up until 1950, there were only five bowl games – Rose, Orange, Cotton, Sugar, and Sun – played at the end of the regular season. Three new bowls were added in 1950 and three more in 1976. By 1980, there were 15 bowl games. From 1980 to 2008, an additional 20 bowl games were added to the schedule. Currently, there are 40 bowl games played at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level.
There are hundreds of schools across the country playing college football. The schools are broken up into a number of divisions all governed by the NCAA. There is also a group of schools governed by the NAIA, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The NAIA is made up of 250 smaller schools around the country, most of them not well known by the majority of football fans.
The NCAA is divided into four divisions: Division III, Division II, the FCS (Football Championship Series), and the FBS. Schools at the Division III level do not offer scholarships. The other divisions do and the number available increases as you go from Division II all the way to the FBS. FBS schools – like Alabama and Ohio State – are able to give out 85 scholarships total and a max of 25 in a given season. The 130 FBS schools are the most widely known by football fans.
The FBS is further broken down into 10 conferences, mostly organized by geography. There are five “Power” conferences, which are those consisting of the nation’s most powerful teams. The SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten, and Big 12 make up the Power 5. The rest of the conferences are known as the Group of 5 and consist of the MAC, Conference USA, the Mountain West, the American Athletic Conference, and the Sun Belt. Group of 5 schools are not traditional powers and are not as well-known as Power 5 schools.
Each division has its own method of determining a national champion. FCS, Division II, and Division III hold a year-end tournament with teams selected based upon a certain set of criteria. FBS holds the College Football Playoff (CFP), which began in 2014. The CFP consists of four teams selected after the regular season and conference championships have been played. A selection committee determines the four teams that make the playoff.
The four teams meet in semifinal games that are among the 40 bowl games. The winners of the semifinals meet in the CFP national championship game. Last year’s champion was Clemson, which also won the national title in 2016. Alabama has won the CFP national championship twice, in 2015 and 2017. Ohio State was the first winner of the College Football Playoff.