For some sports fans, fall is always welcome as the season when baseball finally gets interesting. But for countless other fanatics, autumn is about one thing: football. And not professional football, either. From Maine to California and all points in between, the last four months of the year are when college football is in full swing. It doesn’t really matter all that much whether a school is in the SEC or the Big Ten; the Ivy League or Big Sky; Division I, II or III: when summer’s over, every Saturday is football Saturday, and every game — especially against a long-time rival (Army-Navy, OSU-Michigan State, Cal-Stanford and on and on) — feels like a matter of life and death.
From the time LIFE began publishing as a weekly in 1936, the magazine covered college football as closely and as breathlessly as it covered the other three most popular American sports of the middle part of the 20th century: baseball, boxing and horse racing. And for decades, professional football played second fiddle to college ball in the pages of LIFE. Then again, those were also the years when the magazine devoted page after page to teams from schools like Yale, Princeton and Trinity; hardly powerhouses today, but back in the ’40s and ’50s those squads could play with any teams in the country.
Here, LIFE.com celebrates the players, fans, cheerleaders and coaches who made the action on and off the college gridiron back in the day so downright picturesque. There are big players here (Heisman winners like Glenn Davis and Steve Spurrier) and famous teams (Notre Dame, LSU, et al.). There are highly emotional coaches and worked-up fans. There are, in short, scenes that capture the emotional and visual scope of college football in the middle part of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of LIFE photographers.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.