Explainer: College football and the NFL – What's the difference?

Nebraska played Northwestern in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic at the Aviva Stadium in 2022
Nebraska played Northwestern in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic at the Aviva Stadium in 2022

College football and its professional equivalent in the NFL could probably be best described as the same sport but different games. Here a few of the differences an NFL fan will notice when watching the college game.

There are a few variations in the playing rules between college football and the NFL but they are significant. In the NFL a receiver needs to have both feet on the ground in bounds for a catch to be legal. In college they just need one.

In college a play ends when any part of a ball carrier other than their hands or feet touch the ground. In the NFL they

need to be touched by an opposing player or have been knocked down in the act of a tackle.

Read More:

  • A sport of homecoming – 40,000 American visitors cross the Atlantic to see Notre Dame take on Navy in Aer Lingus College Football Classic in Dublin

The penalty for defensive pass interference in college is an automatic first down a maximum of 15 yards own the field. In the NFL it is a much more severe first down wherever the offence took place.

College football games cannot end in a draw. While in the NFL there’s a 15-minute limit on overtime if sides finish level – except in the play-offs – in college each team receives an equal number of alternate possessions until one outscores the other.

 There are other rule variations governing timing and penalties but the style, or rather styles, of play found in college is the most marked on-field difference with the NFL. While the professional game has historically employed more homogenised tactics, the variety of offensive gameplans at college level has been one of its hallmarks. While quarterbacks with the ability run well have become much more common in the NFL, they’ve always been a staple in college. Another uniquely college tactic will be on show in Dublin from Navy – the ‘triple option’ – which involves relatively few passing plays in favour of a variety of runners.