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The cord-cutter's guide to (legally) watching college football

Wanna save a few bucks and still catch almost every game? It's pretty simple, and you can use a lot of this stuff for other sports, shows, and movies, too.

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Are you a frugal college football fan and/or a hip Millennial? Chances are, you’re one of many American TV consumers who’ve cut the cord!

But now that it’s college football season, you might feel obligated to buy back into the morass of high-dollar cable and satellite providers, just to enjoy the fabulous myriad of games across multiple networks each week.

Don’t do that, friend! We’ve assembled a quick guide on how to watch almost every college football game via non-traditional digital and streaming platforms.

Let’s start with ESPN Networks.

Want a standalone format like HBO’s TV-less streaming service for ESPN’s live sports content? Still a pipe dream. But almost all of ESPN’s live games can be accessed without a traditional cable subscription, thanks to Sling TV and PlayStation Vue.

Both are basically streaming versions of cable TV, but cheaper. For a monthly charge, you can access a package of live networks without fees or contracts, you can use equipment that you’ll also use to watch non-sports content, and you can cancel anytime, like Netflix.

Vue’s largest package is Elite Slim. It varies in price depending on your location in the United States, but every zip code I entered was priced at the same $45 monthly rate.

Elite Slim gets you ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and the SEC Network, but not Longhorn Network. More importantly, you can access the WatchESPN app with a Vue login. In addition, an ESPN representative confirmed Longhorn Network content is available via WatchESPN with a Vue login, just not as a standalone network.

Vue also has a $30 Access plan, which includes ESPN, ESPN2, FS1, and a Core plan, which adds ESPNews, ESPNU, the SEC Network, and others.

Sling’s $20 Orange plan includes ESPN and ESPN2. If you add the Sling Sports Package for $5 more, you’ll get ESPNews, ESPNU, SEC Network and ESPN Goal Line (not available on Vue) but not Longhorn Network.

Sling also allows you to log into the WatchESPN service. Normally, WatchESPN is available only with a traditional cable or satellite subscription.

Now let’s add Fox Sports.

Vue carries FS1 and FS2 in its $30-and-up packages, and Sling includes them in its $25 Blue plan. Both allow users to log into Fox Sports GO, Fox’s "watch anywhere" app and streaming service (it’s like WatchESPN).

Here’s where it gets a little tricky. Vue offers the Fox College Sports Networks, which air college football games on the Fox regional networks (Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Midwest, etc.).

Sling doesn’t offer the Fox College Sports Networks, but does offer certain Fox regional networks, depending on your location.

What’s that mean? If you’re a fan of a school whose conference holds rights with Fox, check your regional availability with Sling.

I’ve decided to enjoy Big Ten Football. Is cord-cutting an option for me?

The Big Ten Network is technically an extension of Fox and is available on PS Vue, which includes the BTNa alternate broadcasts. Vue also allows you to log into the BTN2Go app on mobile providers and set top boxes like Roku, and the BTN2Go app is available via Chromecast and Roku.

Sling does not carry Big Ten Network.

Is anyone allowed to watch the Pac-12 Networks?

Update: On September 8, Sling announced that the Pac-12 Networks would be available immediately on Sling. Not only that, but viewers can access all of the Pac-12 six regional channels (Los Angeles, Bay Area, Arizona, Washington, Mountain and Oregon). The Pac-12 Networks are available as part of the Sling Orange Sports Extra $5 add-on package.

PS Vue does not carry Pac 12 Networks.

What about broadcast networks?

There are multiple ways to access games that air on The Big Four (ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS).

  1. If you’re watching on TV, the easiest option is an HD antenna. They’re relatively cheap (most cost around $40), easy to connect, and not as unsightly as the rabbit ears of old. An HD antenna will pick up any broadcast signals in your area, including the ABC primetime game, the SEC on CBS, or Notre Dame on NBC.
  2. Games airing on regular CBS can be streamed for free at or on the CBS Sports app. If you live in one of 150 eligible U.S. TV markets you can sign up for CBS All Access, a subscription service that allows you to stream live, local CBS for a varying monthly fee (usually $6).
  3. Most ABC and Fox games are available through the WatchESPN and Fox Sports Go platforms, respectively, but local blackouts are possible. For instance, if a game is on ABC in your immediate area, you might experience a blackout on the WatchESPN app.
  4. Notre Dame games and others on NBC can be streamed at or via the NBC Sports app.

I enjoy more niche college football programming. What are my options?

Pretty good! Many smaller conferences and teams are available on ESPN networks and WatchESPN, for starters.

NBCSN has deals ranging from the SWAC to the Ivy League and is available on Vue and Sling.

If you’re a Conference USA fan, international network beIN Sports will be debuting college football this season. The games aren’t available as standalone stream, but beIN is available on Vue and Sling.

Some Mountain West Conference games will air online via Campus Insiders, which can be accessed as an app on Roku, Apple TV, iOS, Amazon Fire and Android. And it’s free!

Other platforms are also emerging, but aren’t anything to rely on just yet. Week 1’s Weber State vs. San Jose State game will air live on Twitter, in addition to the Mountain West’s online video platforms.

Some college football is still legally unavailable to cord-cutters.

If your game is on the CBS Sports Network (most notably certain C-USA and American Athletic Conference games) in 2016, you’ll need a cable or satellite subscription. Both of those are unavailable on Sling or Vue and can’t be accessed via apps without first logging in through a cable provider.

Should I choose Vue or Sling?

Since both are almost identical, it really comes down to what device you’re using.

  • Both are on Roku, Android and iOS.
  • Sling is available on Apple TV. Vue isn’t.
  • Vue can be accessed via a PlayStation 3 or 4. Sling can’t.
  • Which side of the Rose Bowl are you on? Vue carries BTN exclusively. Pac 12 Networks are available only on Sling.And if you’re in the market for a set top box or dongle, check out this buyer’s guide from our friends at The Verge; the Apple TV (about $120 online), Roku 4 ($130) and Amazon Fire ($85) rate highly, with the $35 Google Chromecast rated just a step behind.

Anything else I need?

To receive quality without constant buffering, Sling’s site recommends you have an internet connection of at least 5 Mbps to achieve one HD-quality (1080p) stream. Vue recommends a minimum of 10 Mbps.

If you’re planning on streaming multiple games simultaneously or using the same connection for other purposes (like visiting for great content!) while watching games, a connection of at least 10 Mbps is wise.

So, how much will all of this run me?

PS Vue’s fuller packages run $30 or more a month, and Sling’s plans range from $20 to $30. Multiply that by five months (September through January), and it’s $150 or less for a season.

Compare that to the $60 or more per month you’d need to spend on DirecTV’s currently listed packages in order to get all the channels games you want, or the $55 or more on Dish’s, for example. Both of those also come with 24-month contracts.

That's not a huge savings each month, but this is a big and complicated sport with disparate TV deals all over the place.

Adding on the cheapest available set-top streaming device, Google’s Chromecast (it works with Sling TV and runs about $35), and an HD antenna ($40) could total less than $250. And all equipment could of course be used with other services during and after the season, as well.

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