College football is American football played by teams of student athletes fielded by American universities, colleges, and military academies, or Canadian football played by teams of student athletes fielded by Canadian universities. It was through college football play that American football rules first gained popularity in the United States.
Unlike most other sports in North America, no minor league farm organizations exist in American or Canadian football. Therefore, college football is generally considered to be the second tier of American football in the United States and Canadian football in Canada; one step ahead of high school competition, and one step below professional competition. However, in some areas of the country, college football is more popular than professional football, and for much of the early 20th century, college football was seen as more prestigious than professional football.
It is in college football where a player's performance directly impacts his chances of playing professional football. The best collegiate players will typically declare for the professional draft after three to four years of collegiate competition, with the NFL holding its annual draft every spring in which 256 players are selected annually. Those not selected can still attempt to land an NFL roster spot as an undrafted free agent.
College teams mostly play other similarly sized schools through the NCAA's divisional system. Division I generally consists of the major collegiate athletic powers with larger budgets, more elaborate facilities, and (with the exception of a few conferences such as the Pioneer Football League) more athletic scholarships. Division II primarily consists of smaller public and private institutions that offer fewer scholarships than those in Division I. Division III institutions also field teams, but do not offer any scholarships.
Football teams in Division I are further divided into the Bowl Subdivision (consisting of the largest programs) and the Championship Subdivision. The Bowl Subdivision has historically not used an organized tournament to determine its champion, and instead teams compete in post-season bowl games. That changed with the debut of the four-team College Football Playoff at the end of the 2014 season.
Teams in each of these four divisions are further divided into various regional conferences.
Several organizations operate college football programs outside the jurisdiction of the NCAA:
- The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics has jurisdiction over more than 80 college football teams, mostly in the midwest.
- The National Junior College Athletic Association has jurisdiction over two-year institutions, except in California.
- The California Community College Athletic Association governs sports, including football, at that state's two-year institutions. CCCAA members compete for their own championships and do not participate in the NJCAA.
- Club football, a sport in which student clubs run the teams instead of the colleges themselves, is overseen by two organizations: the National Club Football Association and the Intercollegiate Club Football Federation. The two competing sanctioning bodies have some overlap, and several clubs are members of both organizations.
- The Collegiate Sprint Football League governs 10 teams, all in the northeast. Its primary restriction is that all players must weigh less than the average college student (that threshold is set, as of 2019, at 178 pounds (81 kg)).
A college that fields a team in the NCAA is not restricted from fielding teams in club or sprint football, and several colleges field two teams, a varsity (NCAA) squad and a club or sprint squad (no schools, as of 2019, field both club and sprint teams at the same time).