Biggest Differences Between College Football and NFL

To a sports novice, college football games may look exactly the same as professional ones. The uniforms, the yard lines on the field, and the screaming fans all appear to be the same in both. However, there are a handful of contrasts between the football played at the collegiate level and the game performed on the professional stage. Here’s a look at the 15 biggest differences between college football and the NFL. (You should definitely keep the difference on page 10 in mind the next time you watch a football game.)

1. The marching band

The Alabama Crimson Tide marching band

The Alabama Crimson Tide marching band | Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The school band covering “Seven Nation Army” and leading the crowd in the team’s fight song is a staple at college football games. But once the game jumps to the pro level, the band is no more. NFL stadiums skip the quaint in-house band and blare pre-recorded music through the speakers.

Next: Something else that gets left behind when the players leave college …

2. The walk through campus

USC Trojans enter the stadium | Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Many college football teams engage in the tradition of walking through campus to the football stadium on Saturday mornings as fans line up and cheer them on. You won’t see anything like that on the NFL level, where players show up to play in swanky team buses or expensive automobiles.

Next: A more obvious difference …

3. The ‘school factor’ in general

Team of students studying together for the university exa

Team of students studying together | iStock.com/Ridofranz

This difference is probably obvious, but it needs to be addressed nonetheless. One of the things that makes college football so different from the pros is that NFL players are only expected to worry about playing football. College football players, commonly referred to as “student-athletes”, are expected to attend classes and maintain a certain GPA in order to play. And even after that, they have to play at an exceedingly high level.

Next: One of the most controvesial topics surrounding college sports …

4. Money isn’t supposed to be involved in college ball

Johnny Manziel of the Texas A&M Aggies takes the stage after he was picked #22 overall by the Cleveland Browns during the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on May 8, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Johnny Manziel doing the “show me the money” gesture | Elsa/Getty Images

Professional football is, of course, a full-time job. And like all other jobs, it comes with a paycheck. The student-athletes playing on the collegiate level, on the other hand, are not supposed to be making money off of their play. This is why some of the biggest scandals in college football history involve players trying to make money.

Next: Here’s where things may interesting …

5. Having an agent

The NCAA logo outside the Georgia Dome | Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The NCAA logo outside the Georgia Dome | Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

This one is pretty self-explanatory: The NCAA forbids college football players from having agents in an effort to separate collegiate sports from professional sports. Interestingly enough, however, the NCAA recently ruled that college basketball players can have agents if they follow certain criteria. So whether this rule could encompass football as well remains to be seen.

Next: Now that’s a lot of potential opponents …

6. Number of competitors

The Rose Bowl in Southern California

Many teams have played in the annual Rose Bowl game | Harry How/Getty Images

The NFL has 32 teams, all of which the general football-viewing public is familiar with. In college ball, however, there are a whopping 129 NCAA Division I teams. This makes things particularly interesting around Bowl season when less well-known teams have the opportunity to play on the national stage.

Next: Speaking of which …

7. Bowl season vs. the Super Bowl

Quarterback Nick Foles #9 of the Philadelphia Eagles raises the Vince Lombardi Trophy

The Vince Lombardi Trophy | Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Even though the college football bowl game schedule ends with a national championship game, the long list of games — which typically takes place around the holidays — still pails in comparison to the Super Bowl. College football bowl games may garner huge crowds, but they don’t draw in fans and viewers like the Super Bowl does.

Next: College football certainly has its characters …

8. Coaches personas

The always-animated Jim Harbaugh | Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a group of characters more animated than college football coaches.  Coaches at the professional level are typically not as openly emotional as their brethren on the collegiate level. And some of the most animated coaches in the NFL previously coached NCAA teams. (Former San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is a prime example.)

Next: Something to consider …

9. Career prep vs. career longevity

Peyton Manning’s pro career was much more involved than his college football career | Elsa/Getty Images

For student-athletes, it’s all about improving on their football abilities so they can prepare to play in the NFL. While players in the pros also work constantly to play to the best of their abilities, they also have to start conditioning themselves in ways that will keep them in the league for as long as possible.

Next: Perhaps the biggest difference of all …

10. Defenses are much better in the pros

Ray Lewis Baltimore Ravens.

The Ray Lewis-led defense was a juggernaut in Baltimore for many seasons | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One of the biggest differences between college football and the NFL is the defense. College defenses only work together for a few years — at least. Some of the most successful d-corpse in the pros, however, get to play together for multiple seasons and create a chemistry that makes them unstoppable.

Next: Regular football watchers know this difference quite well …

11. Pace of play

Derek Carr

Quarterback Derek Carr sees speedier defenses in the pros than he did in college ball Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Sure, college and professional football run on the same clock. But if you watch a college and pro game back-to-back, you may notice the NFL tilt seems to move faster. Due to the higher level of play — and in some cases, the higher level of coaching — pro games develope at a much quicker pace.

Next: This difference is extra noticable at the NFL level …

12. Number of years of experience

Veteran quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Drew Brees

Veteran quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Drew Brees | Stacy Revere/Getty Images

This kind of goes along the same lines as why NFL defenses are better than collegiate ones. College football players typically have a couple years of high school football experience under their belts. Pro players have more than that, especially if they stay healthy and remain in the league for multiple seasons.

Next: You may have noticed this difference before …

13. Coach involvement

Nick Saban leads his team onto the gridiron | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When it comes to college football, coaches are much more involved in the college players’ lives. (This is due to the fact college players are still students and therefore are under more supervision.) At the NFL level, coaches don’t usually intervene in players’ lives unless said player is causing trouble.

Next: Which brings us to …

14. The level of tolerance for screwing up

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 15: Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks on before the preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings on August 15, 2015 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Buccaneers 26-16. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Jameis Winston got into a fair share of trouble during his college playing career | Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Because of the scrutiny and surveillance student-athletes are subject to under the NCAA, college football players also appear to be on a much shorter leash than professional players are. This is something the NFL has come under scrutiny for quite a few times over the last several years, as select players have seemingly received lax punishment for off-field issues.

Next: Last but not least …

15. Not all college stars make it in the NFL

NCAA football

Footballs on the field | Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Likewise, there are some so-so college players who end up having successful NFL careers. (Just look at Tom Brady!) The differences between college football and NFL pigskin make it so players who excel at one level may not have the same success at another level.

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