Through the Coaches Poll and Associated Press (AP) Poll, college football teams are ranked based on their performance. A week after the start of football season (approximately two months later), the College Football Playoff Rankings are released. These rankings determine which teams will compete for the national championship.
Determining College Football Team Rankings
Each week during football season, rankings for college football teams change as aggregate performance impacts how each team compares to the rest.
College Football Playoff Rankings
With the 2014 season, the College Football Playoff (CFP) replaced the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). In the end, it is the CFP ranking system that has the most significance. The CFP rankings determine which teams will be invited to participate in the playoffs, and the playoffs determine which teams have a chance at winning the national championship.
Those who determine the CFP rankings are a mixture of football experts (athletic directors, former NCAA and conference representatives, and former head coaches) as well as leaders outside the sport (as of 2015, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Lieutenant General Mike Gould (Ret., U.S. Air Force) serve on the committee.).
The CFP rankings aren’t released until mid-season, when teams have had a few months to establish their track records, unlike the Coaches Poll and AP Poll, which are released at the beginning of the football season. The CFP rankings are updated each week throughout the season, until selection day, which occurs after the last conference championship game.
The CFP rankings aren’t released at the beginning of the season, but every game, and even every play, is taken into account. “Conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, comparison of results against common opponents, and other factors are taken into account.”
The Coaches Poll is sponsored by USA Today and Amway, so it is known as the Amway Coaches Poll. Head football coaches at Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools are randomly selected to determine rankings. A panel of college football experts submits their top 25 team recommendations each week.
The panel members do not simply submit a list of team names. In their votes, they specify what position they believe each team should be in based on their performance so far in the season, taking into account any relevant factors. First place votes are worth 25 points, second place votes are worth 24 points, and so on.
During the season, new poll results are released each week, and a preseason list of the top 25 teams is released before the season begins.
Press members contribute to the Associated Press (AP) Poll, as its name implies. AP rankings are determined by a panel of 60 sports reporters who have covered college football. The panel includes both writers and broadcasters.
Every week, panel members vote on which teams they think are the 25 best in college football, in order of preference. We use the same points/place system (25 points for first place, 24 points for second place, etc.). Voters can consider any relevant factors.
The preseason AP top 25 list is released before each season, and new results are released each week.
All three approaches to ranking college football teams are important in the sport, even though playoff participation and national championship chances are the only ones that matter. In addition to the teams themselves, serious fans are interested in how their teams compare to others throughout the season. Though the Coaches Poll and AP Polls sometimes differ, they are usually pretty consistent and are good indicators of performance. Additionally, they provide bragging rights throughout the season.
While the CFP selection committee doesn’t take Coaches Poll or AP Poll results into consideration when releasing its rankings, they won’t be too far off from either poll, simply because of the similarities of factors that head coaches and expert sports reporters likely take into consideration when casting their votes. With the CFP rankings released, the playoff picture begins to take shape for those teams leading the pack into the post season and potentially a championship run.