All the Major Differences Between NFL and College Football

When the MLB trade deadline passes on July 31 each year and NFL teams report to training camp, football season officially begins. Between college football games on Saturdays throughout the fall and NFL games on Sundays and Monday nights, there’s enough action to go around. But did you know that college and pro football are played differently? The game is basically the same, but there are some major differences between NFL and college football.

A lot of the differences are obvious to diehard fans, but one sneaky difference (No. 10) isn’t so obvious.

1. The college game is much older

Gerald Ford - Michigan football
Gerald Ford at Michigan in the 1930s.| Michigan University/Getty Images
  • The first college football game happened 100 years before Woodstock.

Believe it or not, college football is a lot older than NFL football. A modern-day football fan probably wouldn’t know what they were watching, but the first college football game happened on Nov. 6, 1869, when Rutgers faced New Jersey (now known as Princeton). The NFL didn’t play its first game until 1920.

Next: Let’s talk about the live experience.

2. The NCAA has bigger stadiums

Michigan Stadium is one of the largest football venues in the U.S. | Christian Petersen/Getty Images
  • Some college teams draw more than 100,000 people.

NCAA teams such as Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas, and Penn State typically draw 100,000 people or more for home games. The only NFL teams that come close are the New York Giants and New York Jets, who share MetLife Stadium, the largest NFL stadium, which seats 82,500 people.

Next: This is one of the most obvious differences.

3. First down differences

A first down stops the clock in college football, but not in the NFL
An NFL first down won’t stop the clock. | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
  • A college first down stops the clock; the NFL has a two-minute warning.

The game clock presents some major differences between NFL and college football. In college, a first down stops the clock so the chain crew can get situated. That doesn’t happen in an NFL game unless a player goes out of bounds.
However, the NFL stops the game at or around the two-minute mark at the end of each half, which the NCAA doesn’t do.

Next: Let’s do a head count.

4. Roster sizes

College football teams can have as many as 105 players. | Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images
  • College teams are allowed to have nearly twice as many players.

Another one of the major differences between NFL and college football comes down to roster size. The NFL is strict with its 53-player limit for game days. Meanwhile, NCAA Division I teams are allowed to have up to 105 players put on the pads.

Next: Money issues.

5. College coaches make more money

Nick Saban Alabama football
Nick Saban makes 92 times more than Alabama’s governor. | Scott Halleran/Getty Images
  • NFL coaches make a lot, but not more than their college counterparts.

Since the NCAA is all about protecting the amateur status of the athletes, they don’t get any money for playing. Of course the coaches are going to make more money, but a few college football coaches make big bucks.

Alabama football coach Nick Saban, with his $11.1 million salary, makes about 92 times more than the governor. The highest-paid state employees in 39 of the 50 states are college coaches; in 31 of the 50, they’re football coaches.

A handful of pro players make more than $25 million per year. To put it all in perspective, Jon Gruden, the highest-paid NFL coach, doesn’t make as much as Saban or the richest NFL players.

Next: You can change your stripes.

6. Stripes on the ball

NCAA football
College footballs still have stripes, but the NFL ditched them a long time ago. | Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
  • College decided to stick with what it always used.

Back in the day, the NFL and NCAA both used footballs with stripes near either end of the ball. The NFL used an all-white ball for a time, then switched to a white ball with black stripes for better visibility during night games. The paint used for the stripes made the ball slick, so the NFL eventually removed the stripes altogether. College football never changed its ball.

Next: The NFL’s rule is looser than college.

7. When a player is down

Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Chad Hennings (R) puts Miami Dolphins quarteback (L) on the ground during first half action at Texas Stadium 25 November 1999 in Irving, Texas. The Cowboys shut out the Dolphins 20-0.
An NFL player isn’t down unless he’s tackled or touched while on the ground. | Paul Buck/AFP/Getty Images
  • The NFL is more forgiving about when a player is down.

The rule of when a player is down is one of the major differences between NFL and college football, and the NFL is more forgiving. The NFL’s dead ball rule is complex, but to simplify it, a pro player on the ground isn’t down unless a defender puts him there or contacts the ball carrier while he’s down.

In college, a player is down when anything but his hands or feet touches the ground regardless of contact from a defensive player.

Next: It’s twice as hard to do this one thing in pro football.

8. Different catch rules

The NFL catch rules never bothered Jerry Rice. | Doug Collier/AFP/Getty Images
  • A catch in the NFL is twice as difficult.

Receivers in college football need to have just one foot in bounds to complete a catch. It’s twice as hard in the pro game since NFL wide receivers need to have possession of the ball with both feet in bounds to complete a catch.

Next: A major style difference on offense.

9. Option offense

Navy loves running the option, but the NFL never uses it. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
  • College teams love the option; the NFL almost never uses it.

OK, so technically there’s nothing to stop an NFL team from running a ground-based option offense a la college teams Nebraska or Navy, but they never do it. The same goes for the popular zone read spread offenses in college football. NFL coordinators are too smart and the defensive players are too quick and powerful to make it work.

Next: You might not have noticed this sneaky difference before.

10. The hash marks

NFL hash marks are closer together than they are in college football
The hash marks on the field are closer together in the NFL. | Rob Carr/Getty Images
  • College football has 40 feet between the hash marks.

You know there are hash marks near the middle of the football field, but chances are you tend to ignore them. But the width is one of the major differences between NFL and college football. The NFL hash marks are much closer together and are just 18 feet, six inches apart. In the NCAA, the hash marks are 40 feet apart.

Next: We mention another obvious, but drastic, difference.

11. Overtime

overtime is different in the NFL than it is in college football
Overtime is one of the major differences between NFL and college football. | Tim Warner/Getty Images
  • Extra time is drastically different in college and the NFL

One of the main differences between NFL and NCAA football are the overtime rules. Take a look:

  • The NFL plays a 15-minute, sudden death overtime, to a degree. If the team that wins the overtime coin flip scores a touchdown the game is over. A drive that ends in a field goals gives the other team a chance at playing offense, and the game continues as normal until there’s a winner or time runs out.
  • College football overtime doesn’t have a clock, and it’s not sudden death. Teams rotate playing offense starting at the 25-yard line. Whether or not the team starting on offense scores, the opponent also gets to play offense. After two rounds of overtime, the teams have to try 2-point conversions after touchdowns in subsequent overtimes.

Next: NFL defenders beware.

12. Pass interference rules

Pass interference rules punish NFL defenses
Pass interference rules are strict in the NFL. | Grant Halverson/Getty Images
  • The college game is a little more forgiving to defenders.

Pass interference is when a defender makes intentional or egregious contact with an intended receiver, and the NFL makes defenders pay. Pass interference is a spot foul and automatic first down in the pro game.
In college football, pass interference is an automatic first down for the offense. The ball moves forward a maximum of 15 yards depending on where the foul happened.

Next: Referees in the NCAA have it so easy.

13. The point after touchdown spots

Going for two points is slightly different in the NCAA and NFL
Whether kicking or going for two, college football puts the ball on the three-yard line. | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
  • The NCAA keeps it consistent; the NFL moves it around.

Referees in the NCAA have it so easy. After a touchdown, officials put the ball on the three-yard line no matter if the scoring team is kicking the point after or going for two. The ball moves around in the NFL depending on if the scoring team is kicking (15-yard line) or going for two (two-yard line).

Next: Another slight difference you might not have noticed before.

14. Ball placement after missed field goals

Where the ball goes after a missed field goal is one of the major differences between NFL and college football
Ball placement is different after missed field goals in the NFL and NCAA. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
  • Each level has a slight difference about where the ball goes.

Where the ball goes after a missed field goal isn’t one of the major differences between NFL and college football, but there is a variation. In the NFL, the ball goes to the spot of the kick or the 20-yard line, whichever is greater. In the NCAA, the ball goes to the line of scrimmage or the 20-yard line.

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