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Six Key Differences Between College and NFL Football (That We Tend to Forget About)


Six Key Differences Between College and NFL Football (That We Tend to Forget About)

Most football fans love watching both college and NFL games. To be sure, it’s easy to catch a handful of games on Saturday (including your favorite college team), then catch an NFL game or two on Sunday…and Monday.

Kicks, passes, runs and touchdowns—It’s all the same in both leagues, right?

More or less. It’s so easy to get caught up in the games (they’re always exciting) that we forget that the games do have some distinct differences.

And some of those differences can definitely affect the outcome of a game, or at least the way it’s played. Here’s a look at the differences between NFL and NCAA football:

1. Sideline catches. Watch your feet.

Speed, cuts, and hands. Those are the trademarks of a great receiver at both college and pro levels.
But good receivers need to be aware of where their feet are in the NFL.

A college receiver only needs to get one foot inbounds for a legal catch. In the NFL, the receiver must get both feet in for the catch to be good.

One of last season’s best plays was Aaron Rodgers’ 36-yard pass to Jared Cook on 3rd and 20 against Dallas, with time running out, in a Divisional playoff game. It was a completion because Cook made sure he got both feet in before momentum took him out of bounds, stopping the clock. Green Bay then kicked the game-winning field goal.

2. Stop the clock.

In the pros, teams know that there’s an automatic clock-stoppage when there are two minutes left in each half, and they work it into their clock management. For the team with the ball, it gives them an extra timeout and more help coming up with a strategy to score before time runs out.

There’s not a two-minute warning and automatic clock stoppage in college football, so they don’t get that extra freebie timeout.

However, college teams get an advantage with clock stoppages that the NFL teams don’t have.
In college, the clock stops after every first down, just long enough for the down markers to be reset. Once the chains are moved, the clock starts running. It’s not much, but those seconds add up and might be all a team needs to spike the ball to stop the clock, or line up for a "Hail Mary."

3. Shifting hash marks.

Few of us pay much attention to the hash marks at all, since they rarely affect the outcome of a game, but they do affect how the game is played on the field. (Chances are, the casual fan knows little about them at all.)

But hash marks are distinctly different on Saturdays and Sundays.

There are two hash marks that run parallel to the sidelines, the entire length of the playing field, excluding the end zones. When the ball goes out of bounds on the sideline (say a runner gets pushed out), the ball is marked on the closest hash mark. Or, if the ball is downed between the sideline and a hash mark, the ball is placed on the that hash mark for the next play.

It works that way for the NFL and college, but the hash marks are not laid out the same.

Take a look at the graphic above. Here’s what it reveals:

  • In the NFL, each hash mark is 70’ 9” from the closest sideline. That makes the two rows of hash marks 18’ 6” apart.
  • In college, the hash marks are closer to the sidelines. The hash marks are 60 feet from the nearest sideline, making the two rows of hash marks 40 feet apart.

  • How does that affect the game? For one, college place-kickers (if they’re kicking from a hash mark), have a tougher angle (and kick) than a pro kicker. And when the ball is marked on a hash mark in college, the offensive team has less in-bounds territory on one side.

    In the pros, the closer hash marks give a team more field to work with. And, as it turns out, the left and right hash marks in pro football line up with the uprights on the goalposts.

    Speaking of goalposts, they’re the same width in college and the pros: 18’ 6”.

    4. Overtime play.

    College football has a much different approach to overtime than the pro game, which is more traditional but can lead to a game ending in a tie.

    There aren’t any tie games in college.

    Here’s an explanation of how overtime works at both levels.

    Overtime in the NFL. The team who wins the coin toss always elects to receive. There’s a kickoff to start a 10-minute overtime period. That’s NEW for 2017—overtime had been 15 minutes. If the receiving team gets a touchdown on their first drive, the game is over. If they get only a field goal or if they don’t score, the other team gets its shot.

    If neither team scores in the one and only overtime, the game ends in a tie. Surprisingly, there aren’t too many of those. Last season, the Bengals and Redskins played a 27-27 game, and the Cardinals and Seahawks ended up in a 6-6 tie.

    Overtime in college. There’s no kickoff in college overtime. The team that wins the coin toss gets the ball 25 yards from the end zone and tries to score a touchdown…or at least a field goal. When their possession is over (whether they score or not), the other team gets the ball at the 25-yard line. Their objective to win the game or at least tie it, based on what the other team did on its possession. If the score is tied after the first overtime, then there’s a second overtime. Each “round” (where both teams get a chance to score) is called an overtime.
    If there’s a third overtime, any team that scores a touchdown must attempt a 2-point conversion. Games can’t end in a tie, so they keep playing until one team wins. In 2003, a game between Arkansas and Kentucky went into seven overtimes before there was a winner. Arkansas won 71-63.
    Here’s a funny tidbit about college “overtime.” There is no clock in the extra periods.

    5. Down and out.

    This is one rule difference where it seems the NFL has it right and college has it wrong.

    In the NFL, if a player with the ball slips and falls, he can get up and run. He’s only ruled down if he hits the ground due to contact with a defender or if he falls to the ground (maybe after a reception) and a defender touches him before he gets up.

    In college, a player is ruled down once his knee or another part of his body (other than his feet or hands) touch the ground. So, if a runner has the ball and slips and falls, he’s ruled down.

    That just doesn’t seem right. It’s called tackle football, not slip-and-fall football.

    Who knows? It just might be the difference between a score and quadruple overtime.

    6. The (not-so-automatic) extra point.

    In 2015, the NFL introduced a major change to the PAT (point-after-touchdown), which had become a routine and fairly automatic one point that was kicked from the two-yard line. From where the placeholder kneeled, the PAT attempt was only 20-yards long.

    That’s why it was simply called the extra point.

    Now in the NFL, the ball is placed on the 15-yard line. If the team wants to go for one point, they need to convert a 33-yard kick. However, the ball is still placed on the two-yard line for a two-point conversion attempt.

    What about college? In the NCAA, the ball is placed on the three-yard line for both one- and two-point conversion attempts. But there’s already some talk about changing that someday.

    The list goes on.
    There are likely more differences between professional and college football you know might know about or could discover on your own.

    Here is one that almost all football fans are aware of: There’s not a formal playoff system in college football.

    We don’t even want to get into that.