What Is the Difference Between Professional and College Football?

American football players

On the surface, professional football (the NFL, National Football League) and college football (NCAA - National Collegiate Athletic Association) look exactly the same. In many ways they are, but there are some important differences between these two codes of gridiron.

Professional/Amateur Status

In theory, the big difference between professional and college football is the status of their players, those in the NFL being professionals and those in the NCAA being amateurs. The NCAA states: "Amateur competition is a bedrock principle of college athletics. Maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority".

However, the amateurism of the NCAA has been tested by a number of issues in recent years. These ultimately led to a US Court of Appeals judgment in September 2015 that upheld the amateurism status quo. This ensures that athletes cannot receive benefits that are more in value than the cost to attend college. That means that they can have their college fees paid as well as stipend to cover travel and living costs and the judgement has been broadly welcomed.

Pass Reception

There is a difference between college football and the NFL when it comes to how many feet a receiver must have in-bounds for it to be considered a completed pass. In the NFL, the receiver must catch the ball and get both of their feet down. In college football, the receiver only needs to get one foot down when catching the ball for it to be considered a completed pass. However, look carefully at most college games and you will many of them getting both feet down when receiving as most will have an eye on a career in the NFL.

Two Point Conversions

In the professional version of the game, the two point conversion starts on the second yard line. Surprisingly, in the college version of the game, the two-point conversion starts on the third yard line, further away than their professional counterparts.

Two Minute Warning

In the NFL when there is two minutes to go in each half, an automatic time-out is called that is not attributed to either team. This gives each team a chance to regroup and change tactics if necessary. In college football, there is no two-minute warning.

Down by Contact

This is a significant difference between the NFL and NCAA football. In the NFL, you have to be forced down for a play to be over. That means if a player slips or trips without contacting another player, they can pick themselves up and continue the play. In college football, a play is over as soon as any part of the body touches the ground that isn’t the player’s hands or feet. It does not matter whether there was any contact from the opposition or not.

Defensive Holding

Holding is banned in both NCAA and NFL games as the restraining of another player who does not possess the ball compromises fair play and can also increase the risk of injury. In the NFL, such conduct is penalised with a five-yard penalty and an automatic first down. In college football, there is a ten-yard penalty and the down must be repeated.

The Game Clock

The game clock is a subtle but important difference between the NCAA and NFL. In the NFL, after a first down, the clock continues to run (unless there’s a timeout or the player ends up out of bounds). In college football though, the game clock stops after a first down. What effect does this difference have? Mainly that in the college version of the game, it gives the losing team more time to come back.


Overtime is treated differently in college football and professional football. In the NFL, there is a sudden death quarter and a coin toss that decides who kicks and receives. The first team to score wins, making it a big advantage to win the toss and be offensive first. If no-one scores, then the game is declared a tie but in playoff games, the match continues until a winner is found.

In college football, things are a little fairer. Each team has won possession from their opponent’s 25-yard line with the team that is in the lead after both possessions being declared the winner. If the games are still tied, then the match continues until there is a winner, unlike in the NFL, where there can be a tie.