Modern American football has its origins in various games, all known as "football", played at public schools in England in the mid-19th century. By the 1840s, students at Rugby School in England were playing a game in which players were able to pick up the ball and run with it, a sport later known as Rugby football. The game was taken to Canada by British soldiers stationed there and was soon being played at Canadian colleges. The first football game played between teams representing American colleges was an unfamiliar ancestor of today's college football, as it was played under soccer-style Association rules. The game between teams from Rutgers College (now Rutgers University) and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) took place on November 6, 1869 at College Field (now the site of the College Avenue Gymnasium at Rutgers University) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rutgers won by a score of 6 "runs" to Princeton's 4. The 1869 game between Rutgers and Princeton is important in that it is the first documented game of any sport called "football" (which also encompasses the game of Association Football) between two American colleges. It is also notable in that it came a full-two years before a codified rugby game would be played in England. The Princeton/Rutgers game was undoubtedly different from what we today know as American football. Nonetheless it was the forerunner of what evolved into American football. Another similar game took place between Rutgers and Columbia University in 1870 and the popularity of intercollegiate competition in football would spread throughout the country.
The American experience with the rugby-style game that led directly to present-day college football continued in 1874 at a meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between Harvard University and Montreal's McGill University. The McGill team played a rugby union-style game, while Harvard played under a set of rules that allowed greater handling of the ball than soccer. The teams agreed to play under compromise rules. The Harvard students took to the rugby rules and adopted them as their own.
The first game of intercollegiate football in America between two American colleges that most resembles the game of today was between Tufts University and Harvard on June 4, 1875 at Jarvis Field in Cambridge, Mass., won by Tufts 1-0. A report of the outcome of this game appeared in the Boston Daily Globe of June 5, 1875. Jarvis Field was at the time a patch of land at the northern point of the Harvard campus, bordered by Everett and Jarvis Sts. to the north and south, and Oxford St. and Massachusetts Avenue to the east and west. In the Tufts/Harvard game participants were allowed to pick up the ball and run with it, each side fielded eleven men, the ball carrier was stopped by knocking him down or 'tackling' him, and the inflated ball was egg-shaped - the combination of which marks this game as the first game of American football. A photograph of the 1875 Tufts team commemorating this milestone hangs in the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana. Harvard and Yale also began play in 1875 though under rules that made their game, as well as the aforementioned Princeton/Rutgers game, significantly different from what we know as American Football compared to the Tufts/Harvard contest which is more closely the antecedent to American Football than these other games. The longest running rivalry and most played game between two American colleges is between Lafayette College and Lehigh University.
Walter Camp, known as the "Father of American Football", is credited with changing the game from a variation of rugby into a unique sport. Camp is responsible for pioneering the play from scrimmage (earlier games featured a rugby scrum), most of the modern elements of scoring, the eleven-man team, and the traditional offensive setup of the seven-man line and the four-man backfield. Camp also had a hand in popularizing the game. He published numerous articles in publications such as Collier's Weekly and Harper's Weekly, and he chose the first College Football All-America Team.
College football increased in popularity through the remainder of the 19th century. It also became increasingly violent. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban the sport following a series of player deaths from injuries suffered during games. The response to this was the formation of what became the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which set rules governing the sport. The rules committee considered widening the playing field to "open up" the game, but Harvard Stadium (the first large permanent football stadium) had recently been built at great expense; it would be rendered useless by a wider field. The rules committee legalized the forward pass instead. The first legal pass was thrown by Bradbury Robinson on September 5, 1906, playing for coach Eddie Cochems, who developed an early but sophisticated passing offense at St. Louis University. Another rule change banned "mass momentum" plays (many of which, like the infamous "flying wedge", were sometimes literally deadly).
Even after the emergence of the NFL, college football remained extremely popular throughout the U.S. Although the college game has a much larger margin for talent than its pro counterpart, the sheer number of fans following major colleges provides a financial equalizer for the game, with Division I programs — the highest level — playing in huge stadiums (five of which have seating capacity exceeding 100,000). In many cases, the college stadiums employ bench-style seating (as opposed to individual seats with backs and arm rests). This allows them to seat more fans in a given amount of space than the typical professional stadium, which tends to be a bit more luxurious. Overall, college football draws greatly more attendees than its professional counterpart.
College athletes, unlike professionals, are not permitted by the NCAA to be paid salaries. Many do receive scholarships and financial assistance from the university.
The college football season currently begins Labor Day weekend, one week earlier than the NFL. From 1982 until 2003, the regular season was officially ushered in by the Kickoff Classic (other pre-season games such as the Eddie Robinson Classic and the Pigskin Classic have also been played). Recent NCAA rules changes have eliminated these games. The regular season continues through early December with the season's penultimate weekend holding several conference championship games and rivalry games. Starting in the 2009 season, the regular season finale, the Army–Navy Game, is one week later.
The postseason consists of a series of bowl games that showcase the top 64 college teams. Bowl games generally match two teams of similar standing from different conferences. Division I Bowl Subdivision (still widely known by its former designation of Division I-A) football is the only NCAA sport which does not decide its champion with a playoff. In the past, the unofficial national champion was determined by various polls, such as the AP Poll, Coaches Poll, and the United Press International Poll. This system was problematic because two polls often named different champions and the two highest ranked teams after the regular season were not guaranteed to meet in a bowl game.
Since 1998, the (still unofficial) National Championship has been determined by the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). This formula, incorporating numerous computer rankings and human polls, is used to determine the top two teams in the country. From 1998 to 2005, the two teams competed in one of the four BCS bowl games in a set rotation. Starting in the 2006 season, the BCS National Championship Game, was added. The game is played after completion of the BCS Bowls and the site rotates every year between the four BCS Bowls: the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl, and Sugar Bowl. The first BCS Championship game was held on January 8, 2007 in the new University of Phoenix Stadium, the new home of the Fiesta Bowl. This system is not without controversy. Some critics argue that the system unfairly favors teams from large conferences and that the process used to select the teams can be just as arbitrary as the earlier poll system. Also, the Bowl Championship Series champion has not always been the undisputed national champion; for example, in 2003, the Associated Press and Bowl Championship Series chose different champions, which is what the system was designed to prevent. However, most years do have a consensus national champion. On the other hand, as recent years have proven, a team with an unblemished, undefeated record does not always guarantee at least a share of the National Championship.
Following the season, a series of all-star bowl games are played in January with the nation's best seniors being selected to participate. These games include the East-West Shrine Game, the Hula Bowl, the Senior Bowl, and the newly-established Texas vs. The Nation Game, although in 2009 the Hula Bowl was not played due to lack of interest. Under NCAA rules, players with remaining college eligibility are not allowed to participate in these games.
The length of the season has gradually increased over the course of the game's history. In spring 2005, the NCAA ruled that teams could schedule twelve regular-season games (up from eleven) beginning in the 2006 season. (NCAA teams in Alaska and Hawaii, and their home opponents, are allowed to schedule an extra game over and above this limit.) This decision was met with some criticism from those who claimed that expanding the season would overwork the athletes. Furthermore the ACC, Big 12, C-USA, MAC, and the SEC all offer conference championship games, while others, like the Big East, Big Ten, MWC, Pac-10, Sun Belt, and WAC, do not. This extends the season for the teams who play in a conference championship game, while teams from the latter six conferences do not have to play or practice an extra week.