Let’s Learn the Basics of College Football, Even if You Think It Sucks to Watch

by Hugo Esteban Rodriguez Posted: 08-20-15 | 2 years ago

Fall is quite literally only a few weeks away. What does that mean?

It means back to school for some of you, which means you’ll be plagued with a rank summer hangover. It means back to school for some of you with kids, which means not worrying about whether your idle offspring are setting things on fire while you’re doing the 9-5 gig, because summer doesn’t really happen for grownups (college-aged kids: enjoy your youth).

It also means football.

It means that for in late August, for 13 or so weeks, there’s going to be every-Saturday drinking equivalent to major holidays and increased risky behavior. It also means that every Sunday, your newsfeed will fill up with posts containing an agonizing mixture of adults who tie their emotional status to a group of unpaid laborers* on Saturdays, and a group of millionaires on Sundays. (I may or may not be one of them.)

It means that good luck getting anywhere near 59 south, 610 south and South Main on the following days: 9/13, 9/20, 9/27, 10/8, 11/1, 11/22, 11/29, 12/13, and 1/3.

And there are some of you that are thinking…ugh, sportsball. Why can’t they do something else and [judgment, judgment, judgment].

I get you. Hell, I used to be like that up until my second year in college. To pretty much 98.3 percent of Texans, “Friday Night Lights” involves cheerleaders, football fields, cheering for the home crowd, the glare of the floodlights down on the bleachers.

To me, it involves the gaudy yellow of the Sunrise Mall carousel after walking out of a darkened theater with my friends as it serenades us. God, that tune will haunt my subconscious forever.

We don't want to turn you into these guys. Promise. Jonathan Street / Shutterstock
We don’t want to turn you into these guys. Promise. Jonathan Street / Shutterstock

I never really played sports, not beyond a brief two-week stint on my high school’s tennis practice squad, and two semesters of dance class if we’re going to stretch the definition of sports. And watching sports? Only during March through June, because I was brought into the San Antonio Spurs fandom. Not football. I didn’t care.

When I got to college, it was only a matter of a year before my younger brother, a standout athlete, started playing varsity football. And I always jumped on the bandwagon for family stuff, so I thought, hey, maybe there is something about this.

I started attending games, cheering loudly, picking fights with middle-schoolers (note: in my defense, those middle-schoolers looked like they already had kids of their own) and referees, spinning my heavy matraca for every first down and touchdown the team made. I discovered I could take the passion I had for El Tri and turn it into something that didn’t play every other month, or every 2-4 years, depending on the competition.

But ugh, Hugo. It’s so boring! I don’t get it. All the rules and…

Yeah, I know. It can be hard to follow. Hell, most casual fans can’t even tell you the difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4. And I’m not going to try and convince you to pick a team to start rah-rahing for every Saturday. Nah. That’s not my call to make. People have been trying to sell me on Dr. Who for years now and I just can’t get into it.

What this primer will attempt to do is give you something to think about, something football-ish to talk about with everyone instead. I mean, as someone who deals with occasional bouts of crippling social anxiety, I know firsthand how utterly terrifying it can be to make friends or talk to strangers. So here’s the perfect icebreaker. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with bars that start with something like:

Hugo: Hey, so how about them college footballers?

Stranger: Yeah, I can’t believe that quarterback pulled that stunt. I knew it was a mistake to bring on head coach!

Hugo: Interesting. Do you think he’s a better candidate than the last guy?

Stranger: Oh, absolutely, because [blah, blah, blah]

Ask people questions, they start talking.

See, it's kinda badass, right? Jonathan Street / Shutterstock
See, it’s kinda badass, right? Jonathan Street / Shutterstock

And I’m not saying that your own interests aren’t important. They are. I mean, I’m playing Dungeons and Dragons every Tuesday night and micro-managing a fantasy football team on Wednesday and Saturday evenings. Both activities are fun and geeky, and at the end of it, that’s what it’s all about, having fun. And I’m a social creature — a paradox with my anxiety sometimes — and I know when you’re at a gathering and everyone starts talking about subjects you have no idea about, and no one thinks to cue you in, it’s the worst.

Besides, Hype Houston is not going to provide you with to-the-second scores because, honestly, there are so many other (more boring, says the Ed.) outlets for that. Plus, in the time it takes to leave TDECU, Rice, or Hale stadium, walk to the parking lot, drive home, and turn on my computer, the Daily Cougar and the Chronicle already have an entire article up — complete with pictures, stats, scores, and the “We would have won the game if we had scored more points” quote from the coach. (Again, more boring. I almost died reading over that section, in fact. — Ed.)

But this primer is going to give you a quick pre-season reference guide so that you can deal with ice-breakers, pass off knowledge, and most importantly, talk shit.

And in full disclosure, my undergrad is from an NAIA school without a football team, and my grad school’s football team hasn’t won a bowl game since 1967 (vs. Ole Miss). Its most famous graduate is bicep aficionado and NFL referee Ed Hochuli. That means that your insults about my team mean nothing to me. PICKS UP! GO MINERS! UNDEFEATED SO FAR! YES I KNOW THEY HAVEN’T PLAYED A GAME IN THE 2015 SEASON BUT IT STILL COUNTS!

So, let’s start.

Why college football?

College football is fun. It’s tradition, just like high school and NFL football, but with state-wide loyalties. In states like Oklahoma and Nebraska, for instance, college football is the activity to watch. (Oklahoma and Oklahoma State for Oklahoma, Nebraska for…well, you know). The same can be said for Arkansas and Alabama, and let’s face it, Florida. (Go on. Tell me about how awesome the Jaguars and Dolphins are).

It’s really fun and unpredictable to watch, by the way. There are no millionaire egos to deal with (from the players), and college football makes for some of the biggest upsets, and some great television.

And it’s on Saturdays. A day off. I could very easily spend an entire Saturday watching football games, from 1p.m. to 1a.m., but I wouldn’t do that on a Sunday.

But the rules…

The objective of the game is to get the ball to the opposing end zone.

Are there big differences between college and NFL rules?

Some of the major ones: 1) In CFB, A pass is ruled complete if one of the receiver’s feet is inbounds at the time of the catch. In the NFL both feet must be inbounds. 2) A player is considered down when any part of his body other than the feet or hands touches the ground or when the ball carrier is tackled or otherwise falls and loses possession of the ball as he contacts the ground with any part of his body, with the sole exception of the holder for field goal and extra point attempts. In the NFL a player is active until he is tackled or forced down by a member of the opposing team (down by contact). 3) The clock stops after the offense completes a first down and begins again—assuming it is following a play in which the clock would not normally stop—once the referee declares the ball ready for play. In the NFL the clock does not explicitly stop for a first down. 4)  Overtime was introduced in 1996, eliminating ties. When a game goes to overtime, each team is given one possession from its opponent’s twenty-five yard line with no game clock, despite the one timeout per period and use of play clock. The team leading after both possessions is declared the winner. If the teams remain tied, overtime periods continue, with a coin flip determining the first possession. Possessions alternate with each overtime, until one team leads the other at the end of the overtime. Starting with the third overtime, a one point PAT field goal after a touchdown is no longer allowed, forcing teams to attempt a two-point conversion after a touchdown. (In the NFL overtime is decided by a 15-minute sudden-death quarter, and regular season games can still end in a tie if neither team scores. Overtime for regular season games in the NFL began with the 1974 season. In the post-season, if the teams are still tied, teams will play additional overtime periods until either team scores.)

You know what. Just know that the clock stops after each first down.

Now you’re thinking, “But, there are a shitload of colleges in the United States! How are they separated?”

College football has several divisions:

NCAA, Division I FBS: The Big Shots. 132 teams. The whole FOOTBAW thing starts here. The best of the best, the elite college athletes. Down by our end: The University of Houston, the University of Texas at Austin; The University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Texas at Arlington; the University of Texas San Antonio; the University of North Texas; Rice University; Texas A&M University, College Station; Houston Baptist University, etc.

NCAA, Division I FCS: This is the “lower level” of Division I. Before, it used to be called Division-IAA. The season is just as long as the NCAA season, but of course, the teams are not quite as elite. However, NCAA FBS schools will sometimes schedule FCS teams on their schedule as “cupcakes” – basically, it’s an easy win for the elite school, and the FCS school will get money from the ticket sales, win or lose.

At least, that is the case MOST of the time, because when an FCS school beats an FBS school…it’s considered a huge upset. A prime example happened in 2007, when Michigan was No. 5 in the FBS polls.

Appalachian State, a top FCS school, was still expected to lose so badly that Vegas didn’t even put a betting line on that game. Appalachian State won that night — 34-32 when, on a last second they blocked field goal (the second time they blocked a field goal that game).

NCAA, Division II – In between the huge time/money commitments of the Division I schools and the no-scholarship Division III schools.

NCAA, Division III – This division is particular because while they’re kind of on the same level as NAIA, they don’t offer athletic scholarships, but there are still football teams.

NAIA – Although not part of the NCAA, they use NCAA rules. These teams are from smaller private colleges and smaller state schools.

I hear a lot about rankings and the playoff system and I just…

Okay, relax. Last year was the first year that the highest level of college football instituted a playoff. Before that, there was something called the BCS, where two teams were selected using a combination of polls, strength of schedule, computer simulations and arguably, voodoo.

This system was in place for 11 years, and every year there were a handful of teams who were left out of contention, despite ostensibly better records. Every year there were a handful of complaints of varying legitimacy — things like “Why this team?” and “Man, my team would have totally beat such and such team.”

It also brought along some boring national championship games, like Alabama’s 42-14 drubbing of a much-more-terrible Notre Dame in the 2012-2013 season. Crap as it was, it was even better than the previous system, where there were multiple polls declaring different national champions.

Hey! Let’s talk about Houston, our teams are awesome, right?

Houston Bowl! Brian Swanstrom / Shutterstock
Houston Bowl! Brian Swanstrom / Shutterstock

Well, UH used to be a powerhouse team. In the ’70s, they ran a train on the Southwestern Conference (when it included Arkansas, Baylor, Rice, Texas, Texas A&M, SMU, TCU and Texas Tech), winning the conference championship four times. But, then the conference started getting hit with recruiting scandals and declined in football ability.

SMU infamously got the death penalty for repeat violations, shutting down the program for a year. Then, TV rights were made available for everyone and schools started to jump ship. The Houston Cougars suffered because although they were as good as the teams that ended up going to the newly-formed Big 12 in 1996 — Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor — they were only left out, mainly because Governor Ann Richards and Lt. Governor Bob Bullock had ties to Baylor.

Since then it’s been a roller-coaster of mediocre seasons, explosions and implosions in ranking, conference changes, and coaching heartbreak. Head coaches Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin both deserted the program right before a crucial game. The former’s departure also caused future-Heisman winner Robert Griffin III to decommit from the Coogs and join Baylor.

Rice…well, they’re getting there.

TSU is recovering from a two-year postseason ban, which comes on the tail end of seven years of NCAA violations across all sports.

HBU, well, you’re not going to see them on TV anytime soon, but their football program is only in their second season.


It’s up to you! On TV, you’re going to be more than likely to find a team from the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, ACC, and the American Athletic Conference. Pick the one from your alma mater, have fun, or do what I do and root for the underdog because nothing is as fun as watching the mighty struck low, especially in college football.

How do you know a team is more of an underdog? You won’t see a number next to their name, or it’ll be a much higher number than the team they’re playing. Again, this one is up to you if your alma mater, like mine, is not a big player in college football.

Maybe that one passive-aggressive coworker is a huge Baylor fan, so you’ll want to root for their rivals. Or maybe you give squinty eyes at people who root for the Longhorns, even though their ties to the University are driving through I-35 one time. Or maybe you just want to root for the home team! Again, it’s up to you.



  1. SEC Teams. The conference is (with the PAC 12) the strongest in the NCAA. That means that ESPN will focus their attention mostly on how awesome it is and will rarely, if ever, say anything negative about it. The conference dominated during the BCS era, going 9-2 in national championships. Their collective egos took a blow in the first playoff last season, when only Alabama cracked a spot in the semi-finals (which they would lose to 42-35 to eventual national champions Ohio State, playing with their third-string quarterback). It’s also baffling to see people rooting for rivals just for the sake of the conference. To use a soccer example, if Chivas was playing in the Libertadores against Boca Juniors, I wouldn’t root for Chivas. Actually, if Chivas was playing against a starting eleven of Dr. Doom, Mephisopheles, The Red Skull, The Joker, Pol Pot, Cobra Kai Johnny,  and the five Bad Boys Pistons…then I’m hoping Dennis Rodman scores a last-minute header to give the team a W. THIS IS HOW RIVALRIES WORK.
  2. The University of Texas at Austin Longhorns: The UT Longhorns have been “okay” since their 2009 season, where they went 13-1. A lot of things have happened since then, but the bandwagon remains strong. The Longhorn. The hook ‘em horns. It’s everywhere! I mean, that’s good marketing, but to me, one thing that gets me to chug from the haterade the most is the Longhorn network. Longhorn fan loves to give Aggie fan crap about leaving the conference, but it’s kind of hard to stick around when the commissioner of the conference is a UT Austin homer. It’s also hard to stick around when ESPN throws money at just one team, and then that team goes to other teams and says, “Hey, um, only a few people with DirecTV got the Longhorn Network package, so do you mind if we blackout your games against us because of reasons?”
  3. The Texas A&M Aggies: I love my Aggie friends, I do. I will vicariously root for the Aggies (as I will for the Cougars) so long as it doesn’t affect my Miners. But there is a joke. How do you know someone is a vegan or a crossfitter? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. The same is true for the Aggies. Whether it’s wearing maroon and white every day of the year, having their hands weighed down by a rock of a ring, engaging in outbursts of whoop! at every occasion, they’ll tell you. As an outside observer, I have witnessed the emotional rollercoaster of their last several seasons. I saw how exciting Johnny Football was to watch as a college player, but I was one of maybe four sane Houstonians that were praying that he would not get drafted. Guys, he’s not that good in the NFL.
  4. Notre Dame and Florida State: Oh look, a soapbox! Let’s get serious for a bit here and let me sum up why this is a good team to hate. You can hear the why from an alumna — or you can look up Lizzy Seeberg’s story yourself. The unnamed player still managed to get drafted and played in the NFL before recently being cut from the team after killing his girlfriend’s dog. Again, it’s not the fact that sexual assault doesn’t occur at other colleges — Harvard, Chicago, Virginia all were targets of a federal probe about their management of sexual harassment — it’s that what the university did was just heinous. And our country hasn’t learned from that. This was a Vanderbilt school tweet earlier this month. Jameis Winston was drafted first overall in this year’s NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The state and the university both thought the whole process was lolz, and as tends to happen in situations like this, it became all about the victim. What was she wearing? What was she doing? Why did she drink? That’s the culture our daughters are brought up in, the same kind of culture where when a man gets strangled to death in broad daylight it turns into “Well, what was he doing?” and “Why did he resist?” That coupled with the Maryville and Steubenville situations, there is a clear problem with attacking anyone who would speak up against athletes.
  5. *Steps onto another soapbox.* Speaking of hiding things, there’s also Penn State. SMU had its program shut down because they were caught repeatedly offering incentives to players. That’s fair. Maybe a bit excessive because, come on, everyone in the SWC was doing it, but whatever. The death penalty killed one season of SMU football and destroyed their program for 20 years. Penn State is pretty much complicit in at least fifteen years of child abuse. Their lauded coach knew, and yet he did nothing about it. If you’re a Nittany Lions fan and actually believe that Joe Paterno had his hands tied, then I’ve got some oceanfront property in Arizona that I’d love to tell you. Their punishment: loss of scholarships and a wee little ban from post-season play. Rather than accept the punishment with grace, the campus presidents and Paterno family threw a hissy fit and the NCAA said “Okay, fine! We will rescind the punishments for the most part.” So, remember kids: paying athletes – not okay. Raping children – okay.
  6. New Mexico State: They’re not real people.

One last thing:

Not a lot of these kids will play in the NFL, but some will. The best of the best will do as best they can, even if they’re on a shitty team, just to get drafted high in the NFL Draft.

Here’s how it works. After a student-athlete’s junior year, he becomes eligible for the draft. He can either say fuck it, I’ll stay one more year, or he can say, fuck it, I’m going to try and get to the NFL.

The Pros:

  1. You might be really good, get drafted early and get a nicer contract.
  2. You save yourself another year of possible injuries.

The Cons:

  1. It won’t be that good of a draft class and you’ll go in later rounds
  2. You’ll lose out on another year of preparation.

So, say you’re a senior, and after your season ends, you have two big opportunities to impress the pro scouts. You have the NFL combine, which is a week-long event where you show your skills at the 40 yard dash, the bench press — how many reps of a 225-pound barbell you can bench at one time. Record’s at 51, and the runner-up is at 49, a guy by the name of Stephen Pea who is actually a defensive tackle for the Bears.

There are also a shitload of other tests that you have to do within a few minutes. Vertical jumps, 3 cone drills, 20 yard shuttle, vertical jumps, interviews, and the Wonderlic test, an IQ test of sorts for players. Highest score is 50.

If you don’t get the invite, there are regional combines, which are also invite-only, and the best of the best of those results go to a super-regional after the combine. Barring that, schools will have their “pro day,” where they’ll invite scouts and put on a show for them to show off their skill.

And trust me, these fuckers are SKILLED. Can you imagine a 300 pound dude running 40 yards in 5 seconds? That’s the kind of player they look for.

Anyway, so all these pro days and combines are there to put you on the map. The top 50 or so that will be signed in the NFL Draft will get flown out to New York, where they get to be on the stage and all that — though high draft pick is no indication of pro success.

The rest just sit around and wait. If they’re good, they’ll still end up with a tryout for a team, and may make it as an undrafted free agent. Sometimes, some of these kids are just from small schools that don’t get all the national exposure, so scouts are like lulz, fuck that, or they’re stuck just merely because they didn’t impress anyone in the combine.

So whatever you do, just take this as a social experiment, something to help out you non-footballers. It’s something to talk about, something to get you out of awkward situations where there are long lapses in conversation, and something to help you shit-talk.

And while we all may not love football, we certainly all love to shit-talk.

Hugo Esteban RC

"You can take the Mexican out of the Valley, but you can't take the Valley out of the Mexican. Writer, poet, interpreter."

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