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Why the college game is so important to the NFL

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(© Sergey Nivens – stock.adobe.com)

The historical importance of college football in the U.S. is black and white—without it the sport would not exist. The first iteration of football was birthed back on November 6 1869 when students from Princeton and Rutgers universities gathered to take part in the first collegiate football game. Whilst many rule changes occurred over the first few decades (in early games each team fielded 25 players) eventually it morphed into the version of gridiron football that we all know and love today. By 1906, the National Collegiate Athletic Association had been established and colleges all around the US began handing out scholarships to ball players en masse before the first NFL draft in 1936.

Originally, there were no limitations on the amount of scholarships that schools could hand out. In fact, many schools had as many as 150 players on their roster. This went on until 1973 when limitations were placed on how many could be handed out before changing again in 1978 and one final time in 1992 to its current number of 85 (63 for division I-AA). So that is a brief history of college football, but just what does it mean to the NFL?

Annually, each of the 32 teams in the NFL are given the chance to infuse their rosters with new talent that they pluck from college football by way of the draft. Hundreds of college football players declare themselves for the draft every year in hopes of making it to the promised land and in 2021 there were 259 in total chosen from a pool of 657 players. It has become one of the biggest events on the sporting calendar and the odds on which players are going to be drafted is even covered by the sportsbooks. As essentially every player will come through the collegiate football system before entering the draft, it is integral to the sport and the teams involved that the quality of the game remains high so they are ready to do it on the big stage. Former offensive lineman and current president of the players’ association, Eric Winston, said of college football “I definitely think college football is sort of the minor leagues in a way. Like a breeding ground for the NFL.” And coaches know this. College football programs sell themselves to players based on how well they can mold them into a pro. They want to be seen as a fast track to the big leagues (and the big money) and will boast of the recruits they have helped in moving onto the NFL. So, whilst the NFL may be the biggest game in town, NCAA football may just be the most important.

The college to NFL pipeline is not always pretty for student athletes, however and is full of hurdles. In the 2021 draft there were 89 different universities represented in the talent pool. To put that in perspective, there are over 893 college football programs in the US spanning 16 conferences and five division levels. This means that most top level, D1 schools will not have anyone drafted during a draft year. In 2019, of the 16,380 draft eligible players, only 1.6% were drafted. Furthermore, it is extremely hard to even make it onto a college football program that will allow you the chance to enter the draft. With 1,093,234 high school football players in the United States only 6.5% of them will play in college giving you a chance of around 1 in 1,282. In fact, high school footballers have a 50% chance of never even encountering a future pro player during an average season. Even after managing to get yourself drafted, becoming successful in the NFL is yet another hurdle to jump and plenty of players will have short, uneventful careers. With the average career length of an NFL player clocking in at an extremely short 3.3 years, the hard work truly never stops and it is a testament to the longevity of some of the leagues best and most popular players.

Regardless of just how tough it is for college athletes to make it, the relationship between college football and the NFL is sure to continue to grow. College football is huge business in the U.S., the college football betting odds markets are incredibly popular, which is unique to this part of the world. The fact that between 1985 and 2010 the salary for football coaches rose 650%, further emphasizing the popularity of the college game. The sheer improbability of reaching the NFL has done nothing to dissuade student athletes and every year more and more young men are putting it all on the line in hopes of securing a better future for themselves.

The importance of college football, both historically and presently, is clear to see. It was the blueprint for the game so many of us love today and has gifted us some of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen. The pool of talent continues to one up itself every year and NFL scouting departments work night and day in hopes of finding the players who will take their franchise to the next level. Come draft day, every team has done their homework and they are ready to make the impossible dream come true for over 250 players. College football is a lynchpin of the American sporting culture and the strength, skill and determination of the athletes make them a credit to their sport.

Story by Mark Langfield