How College Football Rankings Work

There are three major college football ranking systems in the United States, each of which ranks the top 25 NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) college football teams throughout the season and helps determine the winner of the NCAA FBS National Championship.

The three ranking systems are the:

  • Associated Press Top 25 poll
  • Amway Coaches poll powered by USA Today Sports
  • NCAA College Football Playoff rankings

Each employs either sports writers and broadcasters, a pool of coaches, or a selection committee made up mostly of NCAA athletic directors, former NCAA coaches, and NCAA All-American athletes to determine the rankings.

These experts rank teams based on a variety of criteria, including recent results and current win-loss records, the strength of opponents, and any head‐to‐head games or games against common opponents.

The NCAA uses these ranking systems to determine which four college football teams will take part in the FBS College Football Playoff at the end of the season. Michigan sportsbooks use the rankings to set lines and define the odds on various bets.

However, you can use the rankings to help guide your own FBS college football betting strategy.

Read on to find out how college football ranking systems work and how you can use these rankings to help you bet on FBS college football in Michigan.

The difference between college football rankings and ratings

College football rankings and college football ratings are two different things.

College football rankings list the top NCAA Division I FBS college football teams in order of strength based on expert opinion.

Ratings use a mix of data, statistics, and opinions to determine the strength of various college football teams and are often used to inform or develop independent rankings.

Major college football polls

The three major college football systems ranking the top NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams are the Associated Press Top 25 poll, the Amway Coaches poll, and the NCAA College Football Playoff rankings.

Here’s how each works:

Associated Press top 25 poll

The AP Poll has been around since 1936.

The poll is put together by a panel of 62 sports writers and broadcasters. Each voter does a top-25 ranking that gives a team 25 points for a first, 24 for a second, and so on. The numbers are then combined to produce the AP Top 25 rankings and voter ballots are made public.

The AP began conducting a Top 25 college football preseason poll in 1950. It now does that preseason poll annually in mid-August and a weekly AP Poll that comes out every Sunday throughout the regular season.

Up until 1947, the final AP Poll came out following the last week of the regular season, and the team in the top spot was named the Associated Press National Champion. In 1947, the AP released its first unofficial poll following bowl season. In 1968, this post-bowl season poll became official and the naming of the AP National Champion now reflected bowl game results.

The AP poll and the BCS

In 1997, the NCAA launched the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) to determine a national champion. The AP Poll, along with the Coaches Poll and a computer-based poll, were used to help determine BCS rankings. The AP National Championship Trophy was still awarded independently of the BCS and its National Championship Game.

In 2004, the AP asked that its poll no longer be used because of various ranking controversies, including a split of the national title in 2003 between USC, which did not play in the BCS National Championship Game, and the winner of the game, LSU.

The AP poll and the CFP

In 2014, the NCAA launched the College Football Playoff (CFP) four-team postseason tournament to determine a national champion. Four teams play in two semifinal bowl games with the winners advancing to the CFP National Championship game.

The AP Poll is not officially used to determine which teams are invited to the CFP. Instead, a CFP Selection Committee puts out its own college football standings every week beginning in November, leading up to the naming of the four teams on Selection Day in early December.

However, the AP Poll clearly influences Selection Committee members and the results of the CFP influences the final AP Poll of the season. A final AP Top 25 College Football Poll naming the AP National Champion now comes out the day after the CFP National Championship game. The winner of the CFP National Championship game has been in the top spot on the final AP Top 25 College Football Poll every year since the CFP’s inception.

Amway Coaches Poll powered by USA Today sports

The Coaches poll has been around since 1950 using a panel of NCAA head coaches to rank the top college football teams in the country. The poll was initially published by United Press. USA Today and CNN took over from 1991 thru 1996, USA Today and ESPN from 1997 to 2004 and USA Today began publishing the poll alone in 2005 and still does to this day.

Amway became the title sponsor in 2014 and it is now officially The Amway Coaches Poll powered by USA Today Sports.

The poll is now conducted once in August during the preseason and weekly throughout the regular season using a panel of 62 head coaches at FBS schools to rank the top college football teams in the country.

Like the AP Poll, each coach on the panel does a top 25 ranking giving a team 25 points for a first, 24 for a second, and so on. The numbers are then combined to produce the Coaches Poll rankings.

The coaches panel itself is put together using a random draw from a pool of coaches who have indicated a willingness to participate.

Up until 1974, the final Coaches Poll came out following the final week of the regular season, and the team in the top spot was awarded the AFCA National Championship Trophy. Since 1974, the Coaches Poll has conducted its final poll in January, after the bowl season.

The Coaches Poll and the BCS

In 1997, the NCAA launched the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) to determine an official NCAA Football National Champion. The Coaches Poll, along with the AP Poll and a computer-based poll, were used to help determine BCS rankings and ultimately the two teams that would play in the BCS National Championship Game.

The Coaches Poll signed a contract with the NCAA ensuring the winner of the BCS National Championship Game would be named the top team on the season’s final Coaches Poll and awarded the AFCA National Championship Trophy in a postgame presentation.

The Coaches Poll and the CFP

In 2014, the NCAA launched the College Football Playoff (CFP) four-team postseason tournament to determine a national champion. Four teams now play in two semifinal bowl games with the winners advancing to the CFP National Championship game.

The Coaches Poll is no longer officially used to determine which teams play for the national title. The CFP’s own Selection Committee does that now. Additionally, the Coaches Poll is no longer contractually obligated to award the AFCA National Championship Trophy and the top spot on the season’s final poll to the CFP National Championship Game winner and the trophy is awarded in a separate ceremony.

Like the AP Poll does, the Coaches Poll must influence the CFP Selection Committee and the results of the CFP influences the final Coaches Poll of the season.

The winner of the CFP National Championship Game has been in the top spot on the final Coaches Poll every year since the CFP’s inception.

NCAA college football playoff rankings

In 2014, the NCAA launched the College Football Playoff four-team postseason tournament to determine the NCAA Division I FBS National Champion. Four teams now play in two semifinal bowl games and the winners advance to play for the National Championship in the CFP National Championship game.

A 13-member CFP selection committee, made up mostly of NCAA athletic directors, former coaches, and former players, now decide which teams will be invited to the College Football Playoff four-team postseason tournament and have the chance to play for a national itle.

The committee meets in-person beginning in the first week of November and produces an interim top 25 rankings each week for five weeks. In the following sixth week, the committee meets for selection day to determine which four teams will play in the CFP semifinal bowl games.

Officially, the Coaches Poll and AP Poll are no longer used to help determine which teams play for the CFP National Championship. However, the polls generally align with the selection committee’s choices, suggesting they influence various committee members’ decisions.

Selection committee protocol

In its published Selection Committee Protocol, the NCAA admits ranking football teams is an art, not a science and that perfection or consensus in rankings is not possible. It also says a prolonged playoff system is not possible because of the physical impact on student athletes, and therefore a four-team playoff was established aiming to invite the four best teams from several legitimate contenders.

The committee’s selection process places an emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule, and head‐to‐head competition.

Committee members can take data, like polls, into consideration. However, the polls must be completely open and transparent to the public and members are required to discredit preseason polls that establish rankings before any games are played.

Voting process

The CFP selection committee voting process begins with each committee member creating a list of the top 30 teams in the country. Teams listed by three or more members remain under consideration and other teams can be added by a vote of three or more members.

Committee members then list the best six teams. The six teams receiving the most votes make up a pool in consideration for the top rankings. These teams are then ranked and each gets one point for first, two for second, and so on. The three teams receiving the fewest points become the top-ranked and the other three are held over for the next ranking step.

Committee members then rank the best six out of the remaining teams. The three teams receiving the most votes are added to the three teams held over from the first round of votes. Committee members then rank these six teams. Again, each team gets one point for first, two for second, and so on. The three teams receiving the fewest points become the next three in the rankings.

The process is repeated until the top 25 teams have been ranked.

Understanding preseason college football rankings

The College Football Playoff rankings are unique in that they first come out in November, with the season already well underway. The CFP selection committee produces a top 25 ranking for five-straight weeks and a final top 25 that determines which four teams go to the playoff, playing in either a No. 1 vs. No. 4 or No. 2 vs. No. 3 semifinal.

The AP Poll and Coaches Poll both release preseason polls, a top 25 rankings each week throughout the regular season and a final ranking after the CFP National Championship game and bowl season is over.

CFP Selection Committee members can use regular-season polls to influence their voting but are instructed not to use preseason polls because they are not based on actual game data and because preseason college football polls are conducted before teams play they may be subject to regional and other biases.

Without game data to go on, writers and broadcasters in the AP Poll are likely to vote for the teams they cover or teams with a larger national profile. Voters in the Coaches Poll might also be more likely to vote for their own team or teams in their conference before games are played giving them real data on which to base votes.

The accuracy of both preseason polls may also differ. The preseason Coaches Poll usually comes out in early August before player suspensions for various team and NCAA infractions are announced. The preseason AP Poll comes out two weeks later when much of that information is already public. Plus, teams under NCAA sanctions are not allowed in the Coaches Poll, but could still end up in the AP Poll.

Preseason poll accuracy

All that said, both preseason polls have been fairly accurate in predicting who the four CFP teams will be since the CFP’s inception in 2014. In that first year, all four CFP teams were ranked in the top five in the preseason AP Poll and the top six in the preseason Coaches Poll.

In the 2015-16 season, every CFP team was ranked in the top 25 of both polls, but two were ranked outside of the top 10, with Clemson ranked No. 12 and Oklahoma No. 19.

In 2016-17, all four teams were ranked in the top 20 of both preseason polls, but only three CFP teams were in the top 10. Washington made the CFP after being ranked 14th in the AP Poll and 18th in the Coaches Poll.

In 2017-18, all four teams were ranked in the top 15 of both preseason polls, but again only three CFP teams were ranked in the top 10. Georgia made the CFP after being ranked 15th in both the AP Poll and Coaches Poll.

The next season, all four CFP teams were ranked in the top 12 in both preseason polls, but one fell outside of the top 10, with Notre Dame being ranked 12th in the preseason AP Poll and 11th in the preseason Coaches Poll.

Finally, in the 2019-20 season, all four CFP teams were ranked in the top six in both preseason college football rankings polls. Both polls had an identical top six, including:

  1. Clemson
  2. Alabama
  3. Georgia
  4. Oklahoma
  5. Ohio State
  6. LSU

Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and LSU all made the semifinals, with LSU taking the finals over Clemson.

How to use rankings to bet on college football

The best NCAA college football betting strategies all revolve around good research, which almost always includes a close examination of the teams in the AP Poll, the Coaches Poll, and the NCAA College Football Playoff rankings.

These lists can’t tell you when a ranked team will cover the spread against an unranked team, when a lower-ranked team will upset a higher-ranked team or the outcome of any game involving ranked or unranked teams for that matter. However, Michigan sportsbooks clearly lean on the rankings when setting lines. By studying the teams in these rankings you may be able to find value and identify mistakes oddsmakers might be guilty of in doing so.

Try to identify teams moving down the rankings that are ripe for an upset and make sure to extend your research to unranked teams as well.

As you can see from the information above, the preseason AP Poll and Coaches Poll have been accurate enough since the inception of the CFP that each can be used to inform NCAA football futures bets ahead of the start of the season.

Making your own college football rankings

If you’ve got a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from an Ivy League school, you might be able to build a spreadsheet with an algorithm that will help you predict the outcome of any college football game and make your own top 25 NCAA football rankings.

Until then, you can lean on major rankings and various media and predictive model rankings to help you make informed college football betting decisions. You can even use these college football standings to help develop your own rankings based on betting success.

The College Football Playoff rankings determine which teams will play for the national championship and in the biggest of the New Year’s Day bowl games. You can bet the teams on the top of this ranking are winning more often than not.

The preseason AP and Coaches polls have both proven to be remarkably accurate in predicting which teams will make the CFP and even who will win a Bowl Game, with the team with the higher preseason ranking winning close to 60% of the time.

Computer-based rankings

The hundreds of computer-based college football rankings you can find all over the internet can also help. The problem is many have a tough time quantifying strength of schedule and may give too much or too little credit to the margin of victory in a sport where running up the score is discouraged.

Of course, there are some computer-based college football rankings that consider in-game data alongside the final results and stats and these can be even more accurate.

ESPN’s Football Power Index is one such ranking. It can help predict what’s next for a team by basing its rankings on data compiled from every drive. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ does something similar while coming up with a whole new set of analytics for college football.

The Massey-Peabody Index, developed by a professor at the Wharton School of Business and a professional sports bettor, takes predictive college football modeling back to basic stats. The Fremeau Efficiency Index focuses on a points-per-possession stat to determine ranking.

There are dozens of these rankings out there, it’s just a matter of deciding which one is built on the stats you think are critical to winning college football games.

Either way, using a combination of all these rankings to develop your own Top 25 NCAA Football rankings is a good research-based way to improve your FBS picks and become successful betting NCAA college football.

Key takeaways on college football rankings

The major college football ranking systems identify the top NCAA Division I FBS teams throughout the college football season.

The AP Top 25 Poll, USA Today Coaches Poll, and College Football Playoff rankings all help determine who plays for the NCAA FBS National Championship. They also help Michigan sportsbooks set lines and post odds on every FBS game.

These rankings can help you make more informed NCAA FBS college football picks and the dozens more media and predictive model rankings out there can help as well. As such, college football ranking will remain a big part of NCAA Division I FBS football and NCAA Division I FBS football betting for decades to come.

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