In 1869, students at Rutgers invited students from Princeton over for sport. They played an evolving New England game sort of like soccer and sort of like rugby and mostly just brawling in a field. A week later, a rematch. And they wanted to have a tie-breaker, but faculty complained about the students spending all their time brawling in fields. And so ended the first season of American football. Since then, not much has really changed, other than it now being inconceivable that academics could ever stop a college football game from happening. And yes, Princeton claims to have won the 1869 national championship.
Who's in charge of college football? No one is in charge of college football. Not the NCAA, which was created to literally keep players from killing each other, then expanded itself to run a lucrative basketball tournament and ensure players don't make money, and is now looking at a long-term future in which the big schools go start their own governing body at some point. The NCAA is a homeowner's association. The closest thing we have to a panel of (totally self-interested) overseers is the group of power conferences (the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC) and the largest television networks, mainly ESPN. And the Big Ten has played that role almost since the very beginning. It was founded in 1896 as The Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, but we learned back when football returned in 1870 just how much power the faculty have around here.
If you ever need a way to capture just how young college football players are, remember that World War II claimed the prime of a generation's athletic talent. Dozens of schools stopped fielding football teams, leaving Army and Navy as the sport's top tier, since they had all the students they could need. One of the greatest games in sport history pitted those two absolutely loaded programs in 1944. Since the end of the war, though, winning at the military academies has only gotten harder and harder.
By 1959, every Major League Baseball team had featured at least one black player. By 1962, even racist Redskins owner George Marshall had signed or drafted four black players. In 1966, the NBA had not just black players, but a black head coach, Bill Russell. But college football rosters weren't truly integrated until the 1970s. Several schools even dropped football along the way over race issues. On the other side, Penn State's greatest tradition -- the "We Are" chant -- was born in 1948, when All-American guard Steve Suhey is said to have shot down SMU's request to meet about the Nittany Lions taking black players to Texas. "We are Penn State," he supposedly said. "There will be no meetings."
The United States has about 4,600 degree-granting institutions. Nearly one-fourth of them field football teams against teams from other colleges. 128 compete in the NCAA's Division I FBS, the top level, which is followed by FCS, D2, and D3, with many non-NCAA organizations as well. Considering college football has been expanding for a century and a half and has gone through another recent gold rush, it's possible we're nearing the sport's peak. Some confluence of medical concerns, the higher education bubble, the rising popularity of other sports, and the debts of a century of amateurism is on its way. But there is a season for everything, and this is the season for college football.
So which of those 1,170 teams have won national titles at the highest levels? Well, a total of 58 schools have been awarded 354 distinct top-level titles by dozens of NCAA-recognized things called "selectors," which include everything from the BCS-sanctioned Coaches Poll to the AP Top 25 to computer programs that go back in time and try to figure out the best team based on nothing but scoring margin. That's 354 first-place finishes in only 144 years of the sport, so you can imagine how much historical controversy this involves. While there's never been any such thing as an NCAA FBS champion (though the NCAA does crown a champ in all its other levels), there's never a shortage of titles to claim -- even decades later. Going forward, the College Football Playoff trophy will be the gold standard.
How do you win at college football? You can invent brilliant schemes. You can outpractice and outrun and outlift everyone. You can strategize to perfection on gameday. But the single most reliable way to beat an opponent is to have better players. Since college football doesn't have a draft, this gives certain teams big advantages. If you're in an all-weather-football area like the Southeast, Texas, Southern California, or the DMV, you have a leg up. If you're near a big city with lots of high school athletes, you have another edge. Wherever you are, if you can combine talent and system, you might be in championship range.
With the bulk of the nation's hyper-elite talent coming from the South, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the Southeastern Conference dominates recruiting on an annual basis. SEC powers have the high school recruit's dream combination of facilities, tradition, NFL pipelines, and the close-to-home factor. Add in the fact that many of the nation’s best recruiters are on SEC coaching staffs — 14 of the top 25 in 2014, according to 247Sports — and it’s an almost unfair advantage. In the last recruiting cycle, all 14 teams from the conference ranked among the nation’s top 50 classes on National Signing Day, 11 were in the top 30, and seven were in the top nine.
So the SEC has more talent than anybody else. How is it that the Pac-12's only a step behind in quality? It's one part massive revenue, one part great coaching hires, and one part geography. Of the big three blue-chip recruiting states, California is the one that most belongs to a single conference. Florida is split between ACC and SEC schools. Texas is the Big 12's breadbasket, but its current recruiting chief is an SEC school, Texas A&M. Compare that to Cali, where only a small handful of non-West Coast powers (like Florida, Notre Dame, Oklahoma ...) can even hope to steal a five-star. Almost all of the Pac-12 is closer to the West Coast's hotbeds than schools from other conferences are; Nick Saban's coaches have to travel 2,000 miles to swipe from high school star-studded Los Angeles, but only 600 to invade longtime Big 12 stronghold Dallas. Plus the Pac-12 controls big metros elsewhere, like in growing Arizona and Washington. (And by the way, the map to the right? That's with conference flagship USC suffering NCAA sanctions.)
Texas has the best-developed high school football culture in the country. With year-round camps, seven-on-seven opportunities, friendly weather, and massive high school stadiums, players are fine-tuned from an early age, often entering college more polished than competition from other states. That's especially true for quarterbacks, often hailed as local folk heroes whose legends only grow as they move on to one of the state's many college powerhouses. And this list of current NFL starters from Texas doesn't include future pros like Baylor's Bryce Petty, who went to high school just south of Dallas, and Shane Carden, who's helped bring the air raid to ECU.
College football players look pretty much the same everywhere, but teams do end up reflecting local demographics to a degree. Depending on where teams are from, the names on their rosters look a little different from each other. Pacific Island names often show up on West Coast rosters, for example, all throughout the Mountain West and Pac-12 and at BYU.
Texas is king. Not only do the Horns have the country’s most football-crazed state, Big 12 money, other successful sports, and a 100,000-seat football stadium, they have a 20-year, $300 million ESPN Longhorn Network contract. They tend to be followed among public schools by other power-conference athletic departments like Alabama, Florida, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Private schools don't have to share how much money they make, but assume Notre Dame and USC are right up there. The top school not on this map? Auburn, which places 13th in USA Today’s 2013 database but falls more than $40 million shy of in-state rival Bama.
College football has some gigantic stadiums -- seven of the world's 10 biggest stadiums belong to Big Ten or SEC schools. Eight college football venues can hold at least 100,000 people, with Michigan Stadium leading the way at 109,901 capacity. Despite some low population levels in surrounding areas, SEC schools and other dominant programs in the South and Midwest (like Oklahoma, Florida State, Clemson, and Nebraska) are able to fill huge stadiums due to devoted fanbases and a relative lack of pro sports teams.
Georgia Tech’s Bill Alexander, one of 22 coaches inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural 1951 class, is billed as being from Mud River, Kentucky. Take note: Mud River is not the name of a city or town, but a literal river in western Kentucky. Hall of Fame coaches come from everywhere, not just rivers -- five were born in Europe, and 38 different states have given us at least one each. But the Midwest lives up to its reputation -- Miami University in Ohio is nicknamed "the Cradle of Coaches," due to helping produce Earl Blaik, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Paul Brown, and many other greats -- as there’s a definite concentration in Pennsylvania and Ohio. (Also we’ve included Indiana native Howard Schnellenberger, who’s ineligible for induction according to the Hall’s rules, and there’s nothing you can do about it.)
While conferences organize themselves somewhat geographically, many other factors contribute to flashes of realignment every few years. A combination of geography, tradition, recruiting potential, and money (read: television markets) is taken into account when a league wants to steal a school from another conference. The mid-tier conferences then resupply with the best of the small conferences, and these days the smallest conferences raid the FCS ranks. Realignment's died down for now, but it'll be back. College conferences are sort of cultural and academic associations, but mostly they're ways for schools to capitalize on the ever-growing commercialism of college sports.
The Big Ten's 2014 additions of Rutgers and Maryland might not make sense for a conference with roots in the Midwest. The two schools don't bring a ton to the table in football success. But they bring something that the Big Ten badly wants: Washington D.C. and New York City. These two cities are also full of graduates from Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, and other Big Ten schools, which helps the whole conference make millions off the Big Ten Network. It also gives everyone more access to the fertile East Coast recruiting grounds. As far as alumni concentration is concerned, the Big Ten is now the dominant conference in Chicago, New York City, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, the Twin Cities, and Baltimore, all top-20 markets.
Texas A&M and Missouri both bring strong football traditions to the football-mad SEC, as well as pipelines to new recruits in Texas, but they also bring important access to new cities. With the addition of the new schools, the SEC can now double the number of top-20 U.S. metro areas in which it can claim the most graduates. A&M and Mizzou give the SEC the highest market concentration among power teams in Dallas, Houston, and St. Louis, and the league already had Atlanta and Tampa-St Pete. Because of markets and fan passion, the SEC Network launched in August and is already college sports' most successful conference network.
Despite the fact that it is played by 20-somethings who'd prefer to sleep in, college football is not for late risers. Games come in waves, beginning at noon on the East Coast. A proper pregame tailgate demands a spread stretching yards past the actual tailgate and enough time to eat and drink it all before kickoff. In September, when the days are longer, proper tailgating begins as the sun comes up; by November, the spread comes before the dawn. A late kickoff is a blessing that provides no more sleep but precious additional hours of tailgating. A proper college football Saturday doesn't end after the final gun, though. The party returns to the parking lot, where prime real estate is near anyone with leftover food and cocktails. Of course, a television and a satellite dish is a bonus, as the next wave of games begins. Sleeping is for basketball season.
College football tailgating and home-viewing have even more local character once you factor in food. Considering most of the world's sports leagues only include a couple dozen or so teams each, and that few sporting associations cover as much territory as college football does, and that few of those leagues are in nations as gloriously diverse as the United States is, it's quite possible that our sport boasts the greatest regional cuisine variety in all of sport. From clam bakes in New England to the all-fried everything Red River Shootout to wine-and-cheese in places as disparate as Harvard and Mississippi to the godly wonders of the Bayou, it's about so much more than just burgers and dogs. And that's not even touching the battle lines drawn by our country's single most varied regional potpourri: smoked meat, a.k.a. actual barbecue. If you want to taste America, you go to college football tailgates.
Unlike pro sports leagues, college football fans don't necessarily congregate in major cities. Eugene, Lincoln, Norman, Tallahassee, and Columbus are some of college football's greatest towns ... that aren't often known for a whole lot besides college football. Fans do graduate, sadly, and leave dear old State U to spread the gospel of the nation's most virtuous and lovely football program, whichever one that might be. Nothing makes that gospel spread more quickly than winning, though.
And while American pro fans claim they hate their division rivals, do they hoard 100-year-old rivalry trophies and sing damnation across the state even when playing someone else? Do their teams face off exactly once a year, amplifying the animosity and wagering 365 days of bragging rights on one November Saturday afternoon? Do pro teams ever hate so much they obsess over not playing each other? If you think Seahawks-49ers, Celtics-Lakers, or Yankees-Red Sox is the pinnacle of rivalry, we have so much to teach you.
Some experts have predicted the decline of America’s most popular sport as people learn more about the dangers of head injuries. Fewer kids are playing tackle football. This doesn’t mean that football will disappear, but it’s clear the NCAA and NFL need to do something about it. While the NCAA still claims it has no legal duty to protect athletes — it did reach a $70 million proposed lawsuit settlement in July 2014 — it also realized it’s time to do something about player safety and concussions. That’s why it announced in May that it is teaming up with the Department of Defense for a $30 million initiative to study head injuries, including creating a concussion database. There is work to be done. With the proper research and funding, college football and its players can much better be protected against their biggest threat.
When Northwestern football players were ruled to be school employees, the potential power of athletes within the NCAA’s system sprawled. If the national labor office upholds the decision, players at other schools will have the right to unionize. Since the ruling only applies to private schools, we projected where a union could happen next. Beyond the private schools, it gets messy. If the NCAA decides to loosen its compensation rules, then the effects of unionization would be less drastic. But if the NCAA’s rules continue to restrict, schools with unions could have heavy recruiting advantages, even if they pay a little more for benefits. Unions are unlikely to be allowed in right-to-work states. This poses a problem for SEC schools, which are located in mostly right-to-work states and could finally be at a recruiting disadvantage.
Years ago, just getting to a bowl game was a major accomplishment. 1902's Rose Bowl, the first postseason game, pitted a monstrous Michigan team against an overwhelmed local, Stanford. Apparently somebody made money, because by 1938 there were five bowls — the Rose, Sugar, Sun, Orange and Cotton. Then there were 15 in 1980, and 25 in 2000, with plenty dying along the way. And now, if you include the College Football Playoff championship, there are 39. Even with the implementation of the four-team Playoff, the prestige of the top bowl games has been maintained. Most experts agree that such a profitable system will expand to include eight to 16 teams, and the question becomes what happens to the bowl games then. There will still be a plethora of games, because try as we might to find more productive things to do, we'll still end up on the couch watching Ohio and Nevada duke it out in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The money is there, meaning bowls aren't going away any time soon.
The SEC is king in college football, and while the Big Ten has been equally successful financially (and close in popularity), it has increasingly struggled to keep up on the field. And unfortunately for the Big Ten, it is going to keep getting worse. Teams that recruit better have a huge advantage, and more and more players are coming from SEC country. The near-term future of media markets also favors the Pac-12 and SEC, with the country’s fastest-growing states including Colorado, Florida, Texas, and Utah. The Sun Belt (the region, certainly not the conference) already has inherent advantages, like better weather that helps players develop on the field year-round, but its biggest asset is its growing populations. And as Americans keep moving South and West, the football in the North will continue to suffer at the SEC’s and Pac-12’s expense.