Sitting in religion class one afternoon in 2010, my teacher turned to something unusual to show that people had lost touch with what “really matters.” She cued up a YouTube video that compared football to religion, stadiums to churches and teams to gods. “It’s hard for me,” I remember her saying, “because I have two kids who play football and I love the game. But, it’s something to think about.”
I have the same issue with writing about football. I cover the Florida Gators football team despite concussion controversies, payment disputes and horrific injuries. Why? I’m not entirely sure. Some would say it’s because people love watching brutality, and football is a reincarnation of Roman gladiators. Others would say it’s because football is the perfect made-for-TV sport in an era when sports are keeping TV relevant. In any case, the game continues to grow in popularity and fandom, no matter what controversies surround it.
And maybe you (like me) can’t really explain why, but you’re drawn to the game. But maybe you (unlike me) aren’t familiar with the game and grow frustrated at watching a game you don’t understand and listening to announcers use words that don’t make sense. If that’s the case, this short guide explaining basic college football terminology, rules and overall setup should leave you confident enough to talk strategy with anyone.
Let’s begin by talking about basic game setup. On most plays, there’s an offense (the team trying to score) and a defense (the team trying to prevent scoring). There are also special teams plays, which happen when teams are either trying to score points or the ball is switching possession.
When on offense, there are three ways to score: touchdowns (worth six points), field goals (worth three points) and extra points (usually worth one point but can be worth two if a team opts for a two-point conversion).
On defense, even though the primary objective is to prevent scoring, there are two ways the defense itself can score. One is the very rare safety, which basically happens when the offense can’t move back any farther. Safeties are worth two points. The defense can also score a touchdown if the offense turns the ball over by way of an interception or a fumble. An interception (also called a “pick”) is when a defensive player catches a pass meant for an offensive player, while a fumble occurs when an offensive player drops the ball before his knee or elbow touches the ground.
Now, let’s take a look at the positions on either side of the ball.
Quarterback – The player who starts with the ball once a play begins. He can hand the ball to someone else (a run play), throw the ball to someone else (a pass play), or run the ball himself (a quarterback run). Quarterbacks are thought of as the most valuable players on a team.
Running backs – Players who take handoffs and run. There can be as few as zero or as many as three running backs in on one play. They can also catch passes or block for the quarterback.
Receivers – Usually tall and fast, these players catch passes from the quarterback. There are wide receivers, who line up near the sidelines, and slot receivers, who are usually smaller and play between the offensive line and the sideline.
Offensive lineman – There are three specific positions, but the goal for all of them is the same: block defenders so that a runner can move freely or so that a quarterback has time to pass.
Tight end – A mix between a receiver and a lineman, these players rotate between blocking and catching passes.
Defensive linemen – There are defensive ends and defensive tackles, who both line up with their hands in the ground against the offensive line. Both positions center on tackling runners and giving quarterbacks as little time to throw as possible. Ends are usually taller and faster to get to the quarterback around the edges of the offensive line, while tackles are usually heavier to clog running lanes.
Linebackers – There are middle linebackers and outside linebackers, but the main goal for each is to stop the run. On pass plays linebackers will sometimes drop into coverage of receivers. They may also blitz, which is when players other than the defensive line rush the quarterback.
Defensive backs – These players are fast, aggressive and play three separate positions: cornerback, free safety and strong safety. Cornerbacks usually cover receivers on the left and right sides of the field, while safeties are best known for playing over the middle. All defensive backs play either man coverage (covering one person) or zone coverage (covering a particular area of the field). While there is plenty of overlap between safeties and corners, safeties are usually a little bigger and hit harder, while corners are usually better in coverage.
Kicker – Kicks field goals, extra points and usually kickoffs.
Punter – Punts, or drops the ball and kicks it, with the goal of putting the other team’s offense as far back as
possible. Sometimes kickers and punters are the same person in college, but usually they are not.
Long snapper – Snaps the ball on punts, field goals and extra points.
During the course of a game, referees will inevitably end up throwing yellow penalty flags onto the field. These signify that a rule has been broken, and some of the most common penalties are as follows.
Restraining a player who does not have the ball by grabbing his jersey or a piece of his equipment. You’ll hear this one over and over.
NEUTRAL ZONE INFRACTION
All of these are basically the defensive equivalent of a false start. Offsides is the most common, and it occurs when a defensive player is on the offense’s side of the ball when the ball is snapped. “Sides” are divided by the imaginary line of scrimmage, or as most TV announcers call it, the “line d’scrimmage.” This line runs from each side of the ball straight to the sidelines.
When a player makes it impossible for another player to catch a ball before the ball arrives. This can happen by restraining an arm, tripping or blinding an opponent and can be called on the offense or the defense.
The most controversial penalty, targeting is when the top of a player’s helmet collides with another player’s helmet or when a player hits the head or neck area of a “defenseless opponent.” An interesting thing to remember about targeting is that, according to the American Football Coaches Association, “When in question, it is a foul.”
While rules and terms can help someone sit through a football broadcast, they don’t tell the whole story. To really understand college football, one must also understand conferences and divisions. That sounds like a lot to take in, but here’s a brief overview of what you need to know.
First, there are multiple divisions of college football, many of which you (and I) will likely never hear about. But the two of significant consequence are the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) and the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision).
They are called such because the FBS plays bowl games while the FCS has a playoff system. The FBS is home to most of the schools you’ve heard of, like Alabama, Texas and Florida. The FCS has much lesser known teams, the most successful of which in recent years has been North Dakota State. FCS and FBS teams rarely play each other, but the big FBS schools will pay big money to play an FCS school as a warmup.
Both the FBS and FCS are broken into conferences, but the FBS conferences are the ones that are more widely known. They include the “Power Five” conferences of the ACC, SEC, Big-12, Big-10 and Pac-12. These conferences are what every major college football program aspires to be a part of. There’s also the “Group of Five,” which includes five of the smaller, generally less-successful FBS schools. Think Eastern Michigan or Arkansas State.
Now that you have a basic understanding of “America’s game,” hopefully you’ll be able to sit through a broadcast or an actual game while understanding most of what you see. Armed with the basic football knowledge to be able to triumphantly say, “Yes, that was definitely holding,” hopefully you can discover for yourself why some liken the game to religion, stadiums to churches and teams to gods.