How to watch college football when you don’t know anything about football


Photo by Grace Ainger

Although the high school football season is coming to a close, college football is ramping up. For myself and many other seniors, becoming a football fan of my possible future college is a daunting task, but a fun one nonetheless. As someone who has never been invested in football, learning the ins and outs of rankings, actual gameplay and the end goals for teams was confusing. For all of my non-football connoisseurs, here is my basic rundown on understanding college football:

Rankings and Championships

Something that can make college football wildly confusing for newbies like myself are the ranking procedures. I’ll break down divisions, the top 25 team rankings and the end goal (zone, if you will) for collegiate teams by the end of their season.


In college football, there are 11 conference divisions: the ACC, AC, Big 12, Big 10, Conference USA, Independents, Mid-American, Mountain West, Pac-12, Southeastern (SEC) and Sun Belt. These are equivalent to the DuPage Valley Conference (DVC) in Naperville, and just like the DVC, there are conference championships every year. 

How to qualify

Currently, there is no way to automatically be placed in the NCAA playoffs. Right now, four teams are chosen by a selection committee based on competitors, results, championship wins, etc. Typically, the Power Five conferences of the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC end up in the playoffs more often than others. However, this four-team setup will change by 2026 to 12 teams. The teams will be made up of the six highest-ranked conference champions and six additional teams. This new setup allows more diversified teams in the playoffs and prevents certain teams, like the Power Five, from becoming too dominant. In either case, teams are striving to improve their gameplay every game to have a shot at the NCAA championship.

The Top 25 team rankings

Each week, the Associated Press releases their Top 25 college football team ranking. The list is compiled by over 60 sports writers and broadcasters who rank teams based on their most recent performance. Rankings are then averaged and the official poll is released. The rankings help fans and teams see potential playoff contenders and how to improve their gameplay to move further up in the rankings. Eventually, the selection committee in charge of deciding the playoff teams will release their top 25 contenders, solidifying the predicted top teams for the playoff season.

Basic Gameplay

Now that we understand rankings, divisions and end goals for teams, we can learn the basic gameplay. I’ll go over some useful terminology and play positions to help you understand the events of an actual game.

I was always confused why there were 90 people on a football team, but only 11 people actually playing on the field. Essentially, there are three “mini” teams on one big team: offense, defense and special teams. Without going too in-depth about specific positions, the offense’s main job is to move the ball down the field and score. Different positions can be in charge of blocking and protecting the quarterback, running the ball down the field or receiving throws further down-field from the quarterback. The defense does the opposite. They are in charge of preventing the other team’s offense from scoring with certain blocks and plays. Special teams is exactly what it sounds like: “special.” When a kick occurs such as a field goal, punt or kickoff, that’s when special teams is called into action. There’s a kicker and 10 other players tasked with blocking, receiving the ball or tackling players to prevent points and yardage gain. Although they are only on the field for a short period of time, they can be crucial to changing the pace of the game.

Unlike the NFL, college football games cannot end in a tie, therefore overtime can be a bit complicated. One team begins at the 25-yard line and, just like in regular gameplay, has four downs to get at least 10 yards. If a team fails to score or earn a first down, the other team gets the ball. If neither team scores in the first overtime, the game moves to a second overtime where each team has one shot to earn a two-point conversion. Essentially, overtime is sudden death. 

Football can have a lot of confusing terminology that is essential to understanding gameplay. To help you get the gist, here’s a breakdown of the most important terms to know:

Two-point conversion: After earning a six-point touchdown, a team can elect to kick a field goal for one extra point or try for a two-point conversion. In a two-point conversion, the team will run a play from the 2-yard line and attempt to cross the goal line just like regular play. If successful, the team will earn two additional points. 

Downs: A down is essentially a section of play. Each team has four downs to move 10 yards toward their endzone. If they make it past the 10 yards before the four downs are up, they earn a first down. After the third down, if the team hasn’t made it the 10 yards, they have a few options of what they can do next. For one, they can play the fourth down and risk turning the ball over to the other team. Most teams elect for this strategy when they are only a couple of yards away from the first down line and/or too far away to kick a field goal. A team can also choose to punt the ball to the other team, turning the ball over, but pushing their opponent further away from their end zone. Lastly, a team can kick a field goal, and if scored, the team earns three points. Most teams opt for this strategy when the score is tight and they are close enough to try for a field goal.

Offsides/False Starts: Both offsides and false starts are standard penalties related to the line of scrimmage: the middle line that teams start on either side of at the beginning of a play. Offside calls apply to the defensive line while false starts apply to the offense. If any part of the defender’s body crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped (given to the quarterback), the offensive team will earn five yards. If any part of the offensive lineman crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, the offense will lose five yards. Sometimes the defense will “trick” the offense into a false start call by pointing or faking them out. 

Touchback: After a touchdown, the team that just scored will kickoff to the other team to begin a new play. Sometimes the team’s kicker will kick the ball over the receiving team’s goal line and the referees will call a dead ball. This is a touchback and the receiving team begins the new play at the 25-yard line closest to their defensive end zone.

Holding: Another common penalty is holding. It can be confusing to understand why a referee calls holding on an offensive or defensive lineman, but I’ll keep it simple: players are not allowed to grab any equipment or part of the body of players on the opposite team. Additionally, they may not twist, hook, or continue to block a player after the whistle is blown. Essentially, if a referee calls holding on either team, a player illegally blocked the other team in some sort of way. Depending on which team it is called on, you will either gain or lose 10 yards.

Safety: There are two versions of a safety in football: a position and a scoring opportunity. A scoring safety is a chance for the defense or special teams to gain points. If the team currently on offense fouls in the end zone, fumbles the ball out of the end zone or is tackled in the end zone by the defense, the referee calls a flag and the defense is awarded two points.

As someone who doesn’t regularly watch sports, the world of college football can be overwhelming to fully understand, but may be useful to know for college game days in the future. I hope this guide helped you learn more about the ins and outs of college football so you too can become a fan of your future college’s team.