College football is one of the most popular spectator sports throughout much of the United States, and the top schools generate tens of millions of dollars in yearly revenue. Top FBS teams draw tens of thousands of fans to games, and the ten largest American stadiums by capacity all host FBS teams or games. College athletes are not paid, but colleges are allowed to provide players with non-monetary compensation such as athletic scholarships that provide for tuition, housing, and books.
Unlike other NCAA divisions and subdivisions, the NCAA does not officially award an FBS football national championship, nor does it sanction a playoff tournament to determine such a champion on the field. Instead, organizations such as the Associated Press and AFCA have historically sought to rank the teams and crown a national champion, by taking a vote of sports writers and coaches, respectively. In place of such a playoff, various cities across the United States hold their own post-season contests, called bowl games, in which they traditionally invite teams to participate in them. Historically, these bowl games were mostly considered to be exhibition games involving a payout to participating teams. However, in the modern era they are considered the de facto post-season. There have been agreements in recent decades (such as the Bowl Coalition from 1992 to 1994, the Bowl Alliance from 1995 to 1997, the Bowl Championship Series from 1998 to 2013, and the College Football Playoff from 2014 to the present) by the premier FBS conferences and bowl games to organize matchups so that the FBS national championship is decided on the field.
Although FCS programs can draw thousands of fans per game, many FCS schools attempt to join the FBS in hopes of increased revenue, corporate sponsorship, alumni donations, prestige, and national exposure. However, FBS programs also face increased expenses in regards to staff salaries, facility improvements, and scholarships. The athletic departments of many FBS schools lose money every year, and these athletic departments must rely on subsidies from the rest of the university. The 2014 decision by UAB (an FBS program) to discontinue the football program generated national headlines, and other FBS programs have also considered discontinuing their football program. In many states, the highest-paid public employee is the head coach of an FBS team. FBS schools are limited to a total of 85 football players receiving financial assistance. Nearly all FBS schools that are not on NCAA probation give 85 full scholarships.
In order to retain FBS membership, schools must meet several requirements. FBS schools must have an average home attendance of at least 15,000 (over a rolling two-year period). An FBS school must sponsor a minimum of 16 varsity intercollegiate teams (including football), with at least six men's or coeducational teams and at least eight all-female teams. Across all sports, each FBS school must offer at least 200 athletic scholarships (or spend at least $4 million on athletic scholarships) per year, and FBS football teams must provide at least 90% of the maximum number of football scholarships (which is currently 85).
The FBS season begins in late August or early September and ends in January with the College Football Playoff National Championship game. Most FBS teams play 12 regular season games per year, with eight or nine of those games coming against conference opponents. All ten FBS conferences hold a conference championship game to determine the winner of the conference. Between conference games, non-conference games, a conference championship game, and one bowl game, a top FBS team could play 14 games in a season. A team that plays in the national championship game could play up to 15 games, as any team playing in the national championship must first win a playoff semifinal bowl game. The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors and teams that play at Hawaii get a special exemption and are allowed to play a thirteenth regular season game in order to defray travel costs, so an FBS team that plays 13 regular season games, a conference championship game, a semifinal bowl game, and in the national championship game could theoretically play 16 games in a season.
For non-conference regular season games, FBS teams are free to schedule match-ups against any other FBS team, regardless of conference. A small number of FBS teams are independent, and have total control over their own schedule. Non-conference games are scheduled by mutual agreement and often involve "home and homes" (where teams alternate as hosts) and long-established rivalries. A 2014 study found that teams from the stronger conferences frequently play non-conference games against teams from the weaker conferences or, occasionally, against FCS teams. FBS teams are free to schedule up to forty percent of their games against FCS teams, but FBS teams can only use one win per season against an FCS team for the purposes of bowl eligibility. Additionally, the FCS opponent must have averaged at least 90% of the FCS limit of 63 scholarship equivalents over a rolling two-year period.[c] An FBS team must schedule a total of five home games per year; for the purposes of scheduling, a "home game" must take place at a venue in which the team plays 50% of its "home games", although a team is allowed to count one neutral-site game against an FBS team toward the "home game" requirement. FBS-FCS games, known as "money games," are often home games for the FBS team, and victories by FCS teams are usually considered to be upsets. FCS teams receive hundreds of thousands of dollars for their participation in these games.
The Football Bowl Subdivision gets its name from the bowl games that many FBS teams play at the end of the year, although other college divisions also have their own bowl games. FBS bowl games are played at the end of the season in December or January, and collectively generate over $400 million per year as of 2012. For the 2017–18 bowl season, there were 40 bowl games. In order to be bowl eligible, an FBS team must have a winning record. In certain cases, 5-7 and 6-7 teams can also be selected to bowls, usually to fill bowl vacancies.
College football has been played for over one hundred years, but the game and the organizational structure of college football have evolved significantly during that time. The first college football game was played in 1869, but the game continued to develop during the late 19th and early 20th century. During this period, Walter Camp pioneered the concept of a line of scrimmage, the system of downs, and the College Football All-America Team. The 1902 Rose Bowl was the first bowl game in college football history, and the event began to be held annually starting with the 1916 Rose Bowl. In the 1930s, other bowl games came into existence, including the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl Classic, and the Orange Bowl. The 1906 college football season was the first season played under the IAAUS (which would later change its name to the NCAA) and the first season in which the forward pass was legal. The IAAUS had formed after President Theodore Roosevelt, responding to several deaths that had occurred during football games, requested that colleges find ways to make football a safer sport. In 1935, the Heisman Trophy was presented for the first time; the award is generally considered to be college football's most prestigious individual award. In 1965, the NCAA voted to allow the platoon system, in which different players played on offense and defense; teams had previously experimented with the concept in the 1940s. In 1968, the NCAA began allowing freshmen to compete in games; freshmen had previously been required to take a redshirt year. In 1975, after a growth of "grants-in-aid" (scholarships given for athletic rather than academic or need-based reasons), the NCAA voted to limit the number of athletic scholarships each school could offer. In 1968, the NCAA required all teams to identify as members of either the University Division (for larger schools) or the College Division (for smaller schools), and in 1973, the NCAA divided into three divisions. At the urging of several larger schools seeking increased autonomy and commonality, Division I-A was formed prior to the 1978 season; the remaining teams in Division I formed the Football Championship Subdivision or FCS (then known as Division I-AA). In 1981, members of the College Football Association attempted to create a fourth division consisting solely of the most competitive schools, but this effort was defeated. In the 1992 season, the SEC split into divisions and played the first FBS conference championship game. The Big 12 and Western Athletic Conference did the same for the 1996 season, and most conferences eventually adopted divisions and championship games.
The NCAA does not officially award an FBS football championship, but several teams have claimed national championships. Other organizations have also sought to rank the teams and crown a national champion. The Dickinson System and other methods were formed in the early 20th century to select the best team in the country, and the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll began rankings teams in the middle of the 20th century. In many seasons, selectors such as the AP and the Coaches Poll designated different teams as national champions. Often, more than one team would finish undefeated, as the top teams were not guaranteed to play each other during the regular season or in bowl games. In 1992, five major conferences established the Bowl Coalition in order to determine the FBS champion. In 1998, the two remaining major conferences joined with the other five conferences to form the Bowl Championship Series. The BCS used a rankings system to match up the top two teams in the BCS National Championship Game. However, even the BCS era saw split national championships, as in 2003 the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll selected different national champions. The College Football Playoff, with a four-team field, replaced the BCS starting with the 2014 season.
Currently as of March 2020, there is no unified system to provide FBS football players with financial compensation aside from collegiate scholarships. Leading the forefront of the movement on compensation is California governor Gavin Newsom. Newsom stated, "Collegiate student athletes put everything on the line — their physical health, future career prospects and years of their lives to compete. Colleges reap billions from these student athletes' sacrifices and success but, in the same breath, block them from earning a single dollar," he said in a statement. "That's a bankrupt model — one that puts institutions ahead of the students they are supposed to serve. It needs to be disrupted." Newsom passed a law in California called the "Fair Play to Pay Act" making it the first state to allow student athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. The law is scheduled to go in effect on January 1, 2023.
National networks such as CBS, ABC, NBC, several ESPN networks, several Fox networks have all covered the FBS, as have several regional and local networks. As conferences negotiate their own television deals, each conference is affiliated with a network that airs its home games. In the mid-2000s, college and conferences began to create their own television networks; such networks include the Big Ten Network, BYUtv, the Longhorn Network, and the Pac-12 Network. In 2012, college football games drew over 400 million viewers.
The Big Ten (then popularly known as the Western Conference) was founded in 1896, after which several other schools joined together to form conferences, including the Pacific Coast Conference, the MVIAA, the Southwest Conference, the Southern Conference, the Mountain States Conference (also known as the Skyline Conference), and the Border Conference. In 1928, six schools seceded from the MVIAA to form the Big Six Conference, which later expanded to the Big Eight in 1957; the remaining schools formed the Missouri Valley Conference. In 1932, several Southern schools formed the SEC after breaking away from the Southern Conference, and in 1953 several more schools seceded from the Southern Conference to form the ACC. In 1946, several Midwestern schools formed the MAC. Several elite Northeastern schools had formed the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball League in 1901, and its members (plus Brown University, not an EIBL member at the time) signed the Ivy Group Agreement, which governed football competition between the signatories, in 1945; the Ivy League was formally founded in 1954, when the agreement was extended to cover all sports. In 1959, the Pacific Coast Conference dissolved, and most of its former members formed the new Athletic Association of Western Universities, which became the Pac-8 when more former PCC members joined. In 1962, several schools from the Mountain States Conference and the Border Conference formed the Western Athletic Conference. In 1969, the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (PCAA), later known as the Big West Conference, was formed by several Division II California schools that sought to join Division I.
Most of the 130 FBS schools are members of an FBS conference, but there are also a small number of independent schools. Since the Western Athletic Conference discontinued football sponsorship prior to the 2013 season, there have been ten conferences in the FBS. All of the FBS conferences have between ten and fourteen members, although independent Notre Dame has a scheduling agreement with the fourteen-member ACC. The ten conferences are split into two groups for the purposes of the College Football Playoff. The "Power Five conferences" consist of most of the largest and best-known college athletic programs in the country. A school from one of the Power Five conferences won every BCS National Championship Game (which operated from 1999 to 2014), and has won every College Football Playoff National Championship. The remaining five conferences are known as the "Group of Five." Any conference may split its teams into two divisions, and only the American Athletic Conference and Big 12 Conference do not use divisions. The American had used divisions before UConn left the league in July 2020, while the Big 12 has not used divisions since the early-2010s conference realignment left it with 10 members. As of the 2018 season, all conferences hold a championship game that determines the conference champion. The Sun Belt was the last conference to launch a championship game, as well as the most recent to split into divisions for football, with both the title game and the divisional alignment debuting in 2018. That conference chose to form football divisions despite having only 10 football members.
^While the Ivy League prohibits athletic scholarships across all sports, the Pioneer Football League prohibits scholarships only in football, and Georgetown chooses not to offer football scholarships, wins against such schools may potentially count toward bowl eligibility. NCAA rules interpretations allow academic aid to count toward the 90% requirement. This issue came up in the 2017 season when Florida State was thought to be bowl-ineligible because one of its six wins that season was over Delaware State, a school that did not meet the 90% requirement with football-related aid. However, once academic aid was counted, Delaware State met the threshold and FSU played in its bowl game.
^Includes numbers for the Big East in 1993 and 2003.
^The conference was founded in 1979 as the original Big East Conference. It renamed itself the American Athletic Conference following a 2013 split along football lines. The non-FBS schools of the original conference left to form a new conference that purchased the Big East name, while the FBS schools continued to operate under the old Big East's charter and structure. The American also inherited the old Big East's Bowl Championship Series berth for the 2013 season, the last for the BCS.
^Navy is a football-only member, and Wichita State is a full member that does not sponsor football.
^Notre Dame is a full member except in football, in which it remains independent. It has committed to play at least five games each season against ACC opponents, and to play each other ACC member at least once every three years.
^The conference was founded in 1995, with football competition starting in 1996.
^Note that "Independents" is not a conference; it is simply a designation used for schools whose football programs do not play in any conference. All of these schools have conference memberships for other sports.
^Since 2012, Hawaii has been a football-only associate member, with most of its remaining teams in the non-football Big West Conference.
^The charter of the Pac-12 dates only to the formation of the Athletic Association of Western Universities (AAWU) in 1959. However, the Pac-12 claims the history of the Pacific Coast Conference, which was founded in 1915 and began competition in 1916, as its own. Of the nine members of the PCC at the time of its demise in June 1959, five were charter members of the AAWU, and three of the four others joined the AAWU by 1964; only Idaho never joined the Pac-12. The PCC's berth in the Rose Bowl passed to the AAWU.
Liberty University began the FBS transition process on July 1, 2017. The NCAA granted the school a waiver from its normal transition rules that require an invitation from an FBS conference before beginning the transition. The Flames played in the Big South Conference in 2017 but were not eligible for the FCS playoffs. For 2018 and beyond, the Flames became an FBS independent. The school initially intended to remain a Big South member in other sports until it received an invitation to an FBS conference, but instead joined the non-football ASUN Conference in 2018.
The most recent school to complete an FBS transition is Coastal Carolina University, which completed its FBS transition for the 2018 season. The Chanticleers' transition began with the school's move from the Big South to the Sun Belt Conference on July 1, 2016. Coastal competed as a non-football Sun Belt member in 2016–17, with the football team playing the 2016 season as an FCS independent. The school then joined Sun Belt football in 2017, playing a full conference schedule.
College football underwent another major conference realignment in the first half of the 2010s. Members of the Big East left the conference to join the Big 12 and ACC. The Big 12 lost members to the SEC, the Pac-12, and the Big Ten, while the Big Ten also gained one former ACC member. The remaining members of the Big East split into two conferences: the American Athletic Conference ("The American") and a new conference that assumed the Big East name but does not sponsor football. The American added several schools from C-USA, but lost one school each to the ACC and Big Ten after its first season. In turn, C-USA added FCS schools and schools from the Sun Belt Conference. The Sun Belt Conference replenished its membership by adding FCS schools and schools from the Western Athletic Conference. The Mountain West lost schools to the Big 12, Pac-12 and the FBS independent ranks, and added several schools from the WAC. After several defections, the WAC dropped its sponsorship of football.
The early-2010s realignment cycle also affected the FBS independent ranks. BYU left the MW in 2011 for football independence and the non-football West Coast Conference. In 2013, Idaho and New Mexico State, the last two football-sponsoring schools in the WAC, became FBS independents, but would return to their former football home of the Sun Belt Conference as football-only members the following year. Also in 2013, Notre Dame became a full but non-football member of the ACC, entering into a scheduling agreement with that conference that calls for the Fighting Irish football team to play five games each season against ACC schools, and to play each other ACC school at least once every three years. Finally, in 2015, Navy became a football-only member of The American, ending more than a century of football independence.
Realignment has continued to this day, though at a considerably lower level. The 2016 season saw FCS Coastal Carolina join the Sun Belt Conference for non-football sports while beginning a transition to FBS football; the football team joined the Sun Belt in 2017. That season was also the last for Idaho and New Mexico State as Sun Belt football members. After 2017, New Mexico State returned to independent status, while Idaho downgraded to FCS football—becoming the first program ever to voluntarily do so—and added football to its all-sports membership in the Big Sky Conference. Also in 2016, UMass went independent after turning down an offer of full membership in the Mid-American Conference. Most recently, UConn went independent in 2020 when the school left The American to rejoin many of its historic basketball rivals in the current Big East Conference.
This map shows Division I-A in 1991, when the Big East was formed and one year before the start of the Bowl Coalition. Hawaii (a member of the WAC) is not shown. Independents that joined an AQ conference by the BCS's inaugural 1998 season (plus Notre Dame, which also automatically qualified for the BCS under certain conditions) are represented by black circles, while the remaining independents are represented by silver pogs.
This map shows schools that have transitioned to the FBS since 1978. Green pogs indicate schools that transitioned before 1990, red pogs indicate schools that transitioned between 1990 and 1999, blue pogs indicate schools that transitioned between 2000 and 2009, and orange pogs indicate schools that transitioned after 2010. White pog denotes Idaho, a school that has transitioned from FCS to FBS (1997) and back to FCS (2018).
^Most of the Penn State campus, including the football stadium, lies outside the municipality of State College, instead lying in a portion of College Township designated by the U.S. Postal Service as University Park, Pennsylvania.
^Virtually all of the SMU campus, including the football stadium, lies in University Park, a separate city contained within the Dallas city limits. The U.S. Postal Service considers all locations within University Park to have a Dallas mailing address.