College Football Rankings Explained

Understanding college football rankings just got a little easier. These quick facts help explain how they work.

Updated August 8, 2023
American football players running on the playing field.

If you're a football fan, understanding how college football teams are ranked can help give you a clue in figuring out if your team will have a shot at the national tournament or not. The rankings aren't an end-all, be-all, but teams with higher standings will likely have a better shot at the four playoff slots for the national championship.

How College Football Team Rankings Are Determined

Rankings for college football teams change every week throughout the football season as aggregate performance impacts how each elite team compares against the others. But having just one handy graph that was updated every week with the latest rankings would make things too easy. Instead, there are multiple sources reporting varied information you can use to track performance throughout the season:

College Football Playoff Rankings

Beginning on October 31st (approximately two months after the beginning of football season), you can keep up with the weekly rankings that the College Football Playoff (CFP) release.

The College Football Playoff system began with the 2014 season, replacing the former Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Ultimately, the CFP ranking system is the most meaningful, as it directly affects teams' playoff prospects. That's because CFP rankings are the ones that determine which teams will be invited to participate in the playoffs, and how teams perform in those playoffs determine which teams have a shot at winning a national championship.

CFP rankings are determined by a selection committee that consists of a mixture of people with expertise in football (such as athletic directors, former NCAA and conference representatives and former head coaches) and leaders outside the sport have occasionally served on the committee as well.

Unlike the Coaches Poll and the AP Poll that're published from the very beginning of the football season, CFP rankings aren't released until mid-season, when teams have had a few months to establish their track records. After the initial release date, CFP rankings are updated each week throughout the season, until selection day, which occurs after the last conference championship game's been played.

Need to Know

Even though CFP rankings aren't released from the beginning of the season, every game, and even every play, are taken into consideration when determining rankings. Factors taken into consideration include "conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, comparison of results against common opponents and other factors."

Coaches Poll

USA Today is behind the Coaches Poll, a rankings poll compiled from the Top 25 lists of 65 American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) head coaches at Bowl Subdivision schools. Every week, panel members submit these recommendations for the top 25 teams in college football.

The panel members don't just submit a list of team names. Instead, the votes they turn in specify which position they feel each team should be in based on performance-to-date in the season, taking any factors they feel are relevant into consideration. A first place vote is worth 25 points, a second place vote is worth 24 points and so on.

But the AFCA Coaches Poll isn't limited to just the Bowl Subdivision. In 2018, the AFCA FCS Coaches Poll (previously administered by the Southern Conference) launched, and it follows the same basic premise for predicting the top 25 of the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) schools.

And in 2000, the company also created the same type of poll for DII schools, known as the AFCA DII Coaches Poll.

Each of these polls are listed and updated on the same page of the AFCA website.

AP Poll

As the name suggests, the Associated Press (AP) Poll is created with input from members of the press. AP rankings are determined by a panel of 60 sports reporters, each of whom has experience covering college football. Because of the nature of the Associated Press, writers and broadcasters are also included in the panel.

As with the Coaches Poll, panel participants cast votes each week specifying which teams they feel are the 25 best in college football, in rank order. The same points/place system (25 points for a first place vote, 24 points for a second place vote, etc.) is used. They can take any relevant factors into consideration when casting votes.

Need to Know

The preseason AFCA and AP top 25 lists are released before each season, with new results being released each week throughout the season.

Why the Rankings Matter

While the College Football Playoff system rankings are the only rankings that impact playoff participation and a chance to win a national championship, all three of these approaches to ranking college football teams are important in the sport. They're important to the teams themselves as well as to serious fans who want to know how their teams are comparing to others throughout the season.

Because the Coaches Poll and the AP Polls are constantly evolving as performances go up and down each week, there's some discrepancy between the numbers. But they're usually pretty consistent and are good indicators of overall performance. And ranking high on either of these polls give you and your team bragging rights leading up to the season and beyond.

While the CFP selection committee doesn't take Coaches Poll or AP Poll results into consideration when releasing its rankings, they aren't likely to be too far off from either poll, simply due to the similarity of factors that head coaches and expert sports reporters will likely take into consideration when casting their votes. Of course, when the CFP rankings start to be released, the playoff picture starts to come into focus for those teams leading the pack into post season and a possible championship run.

Sports Is a Numbers Game, Too

Most people love watching sports for the competition, camaraderie, and displays of elite physical feats, and not for the math. While you don't need to have the weekly rankings to know when a win's a win and a loss is a loss, knowing how the team's doing from a statistical standpoint can be an interesting way to engage with college ball in a way you've never done before.

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College Football Rankings Explained