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College Sports Basics in 5 Minutes

This article is for people who are new to watching college sports. A heavy emphasis is placed on the top two NCAA Division I spectator sports: men’s football and men’s basketball.

The NCAA (pronounced “N-C-Double-A”) is the major organizing body for sports in college. Within the NCAA, there are three divisions: Division I (often called DI- pronounced “D-One”), Division II (DII, “D-Two”), and Division III (DIII, “D-Three”). The divisions are determined mainly by the size of the school, with larger schools competing in DI. The NCAA organizes 88 total championships each year (10 across all divisions, 26 DI, 25 DII, and 27 DIII). The NCAA includes better-known sports, such as football, baseball, and basketball, as well as other sports, such as gymnastics, wrestling, and lacrosse. DI is the most competitive level of play and schools with teams in DI attract the best student athletes from across the country (and around the world, in some cases).

DI Conferences:
Within DI sports, teams are further divided into conferences. Teams compete mostly against other teams in their conference. Typically, a conference champion is declared for each sport, either through a play-off or tournament near the end of the season. Major DI conferences include the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Pacific 10 (Pac-10), Southeastern Conference (SEC), Sun Belt, and the Western Athletic Conference (WAC, pronounced “Wack”).

Spectator Sport:
While all college sports can be fun to watch, men’s DI football and basketball attract the most fans. People unfamiliar with American college sports often don’t grasp the fan base for men’s football and basketball. Football games draw tens of thousands of fans (UCLA’s Rose Bowl stadium seats over 90,000 people), and often many spectators arrive at the stadium hours before the game to tailgate (pre-game barbeques near the stadium with food and drinks). Millions more spectators watch college football on national TV. College basketball stadiums seat fewer fans (UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion seats up to 13,000), but basketball games are more frequent than football games.

Each school usually has one major rival that is typically in the same conference and is in close geographic proximity. Rivalries can be fierce. The best comparison for foreigners is regional professional soccer rivalries. In the Pac-10, major rivalries include UCLA vs. USC, CAL vs. Stanford, Arizona vs. Arizona State, Oregon vs. Oregon State, and Washington vs. Washington State. Other famous rivalries outside the PAC-10 include Michigan vs. Ohio State, Army vs. Navy, and Alabama vs. Auburn.

College Football: [click here to learn more about football rules and basics]
Throughout the season, there are both conference and non-conference (in which a team plays other teams outside its conference) football games. All games count toward a team’s overall record. Winning the conference is important, but the ultimate goal is to be selected to a bowl game. Bowl games are the most prestigious and most highly watched games at the end of the season. To be eligible for a bowl game, teams must finish the season with an overall winning record (more wins than losses). In total, there are just over 30 bowl games, but the best bowl games include the four Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games. The BCS Bowls are the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, and Fiesta Bowl.

Each year, the game that determines the “national champion” rotates between the four BCS bowls. The system for determining who will compete in this national championship game is complicated and controversial. College football is the only sport in the NCAA that doesn’t use a play-off game to determine the winner. The best explanation for this is tradition and money: bowl games have a long history and generate enormous revenue for the schools, conferences, and advertisers. A computerized ranking system, known as the BCS rankings, attempts to match up the top two teams in the country. The BCS system is confusing, but it involves several factors, including national polls and strength of schedule, to determine the rankings. Other bowl games are determined by ranking, conference, match-ups, number of spectators, potential revenue, and several other factors.

Readers who liked this section also liked our 10 minute guide to football and tips for the new football fan.

Basketball Championship: [click here to learn more about basketball rules and basics]
More information will be posted before the start of the upcoming basketball season.

Interesting statistics:

Most NCAA team championships
UCLA- 99
Stanford- 92
USC- 84
Oklahoma State- 48
Arkansas- 43
(View more)

Most Football Championships since 1901
Notre Dame- 13
Alabama- 11
USC- 11
Oklahoma- 9
Mighigan- 7
(View more)

Recent Football Champions
2005 Texas
2004 USC
2003 USC & LSU
2002 Ohio State
2001 Miami FL
2000 Oklahoma

Most Basketball Championships
UCLA- 11
Kentucky- 7
Indiana- 5
North Carolina- 4
Duke- 3
(View more)

Recent Basketball Champions
Florida (def. UCLA)
UNC (def. Illinois)
UConn (def. Georgia Tech)
Syracuse (def. Kansas)
Maryland (def. Indiana)
Duke (def. Arizona)
Michigan State (def. Florida)