College Football Rankings Explained

In the world of college football, ranking systems are the compass by which fans, teams, and players navigate the landscape of the sport. These rankings aren’t just about bragging rights; they have a profound impact on everything from postseason play to recruiting. And as a football recruit, it’s important to understand the terminology and systems that control the college football rankings.

In this article, The Wire will dive into the intriguing history of college football rankings, explore the significance of these rankings, and demystify the various systems that govern them. 

The Background of the college football Rankings

Before we dissect the intricacies of modern college football rankings, let’s take a trip back in time to the sport’s early days. In the late 19th century, football was primarily an intercollegiate endeavor, and games were often informal affairs. The idea of ranking teams nationally was virtually non-existent.

The birth of rankings can be traced back to 1936 when the Associated Press (AP) initiated its college football poll. The goal was simple: assess the nation’s best college football team at the end of each season. This inaugural poll laid the foundation for the extensive and complex ranking systems we have today.

Take a look at the history and origins of different ranking systems:

Coaches’ Poll (1950)

In 1950, the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) introduced the Coaches’ Poll. Coaches from major college football programs ranked the top 20 teams. Like the AP Poll, this was another influential ranking system, but it also had its limitations, including potential biases and a lack of consistency.

Bowl Coalition (1992) and Bowl Alliance (1995)

During the 1990s, college football saw the emergence of systems like the Bowl Coalition (1992) and later the Bowl Alliance (1995). These systems aimed to match the top two ranked teams in a designated bowl game, often leading to split national championships. These efforts demonstrated the complexities involved in ranking college football teams and highlighted the need for a more definitive system.

The BCS Era (1998-2013)

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was introduced in 1998 in an attempt to provide a more structured way of determining a national champion. The BCS used a combination of polls, computer rankings, and strength of schedule to rank teams. Despite its efforts, controversy still arose due to the lack of transparency in the computer rankings and the reliance on subjective human polls.

College Football Playoff (CFP) Era (2014-Present)

The College Football Playoff (CFP) marked a significant shift in college football rankings. In 2014, a selection committee was formed to choose the top four teams to compete in a playoff format, ultimately leading to the crowning of a national champion. The CFP rankings consider various factors, including win-loss records, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and conference championships.

Why Rankings Matter

College football rankings are far from mere numbers on a page. They wield considerable influence and impact several aspects of the sport:

  • Postseason Play: The most obvious impact is on postseason play. Rankings determine which teams secure coveted spots in prestigious bowl games and the highly sought-after College Football Playoff (CFP). High rankings translate to favorable matchups and larger audiences.
  • Recruiting: Rankings are a powerful recruiting tool. High school athletes aspire to play for top-ranked programs. Coaches use their team’s ranking as a selling point, which can sway a recruit’s decision.
  • Fan Engagement: Rankings generate buzz and fuel debates among fans. A highly ranked team has a passionate fan base that follows every game with bated breath.
  • Media Exposure: Media coverage often focuses on ranked teams. They attract more attention, better TV slots, and higher-profile games.

The Triad of Ranking Systems

Now, let’s dive into the three primary ranking systems that currently govern college football: the Coaches’ Poll, the AP Rankings, and the College Football Playoff Rankings.

  1. Coaches’ Poll: The Coaches’ Poll, initiated in 1950 by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), was an integral part of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). This ranking system involves head coaches from NCAA Division I football programs. Coaches vote on the top 25 teams, and it has historically been a key component in determining bowl matchups.
  2. AP Rankings: The Associated Press (AP) Rankings, introduced in 1936, are decided by a panel of media members. This group of sportswriters and broadcasters vote for their top 25 teams each week during the college football season. The AP Rankings have no official bearing on postseason play but are widely recognized and respected in the sport.
  3. College Football Playoff Rankings: The newest and most influential ranking system is the College Football Playoff Rankings. Established in 2014, this system determines which four teams earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. A 13-member committee, comprising former coaches, players, and administrators, evaluates the teams based on various criteria, including strength of schedule, head-to-head matchups, and performance against common opponents.

The Evolution of Rankings

Over the years, college football rankings have evolved and adapted to the sport’s changing landscape. From the BCS era to the current College Football Playoff era, the emphasis has shifted from polls and algorithms to a more comprehensive and human-centered approach.

The introduction of the Playoff Selection Committee marked a significant shift. It aimed to provide a more accurate and balanced view of teams’ strengths and weaknesses, reducing the influence of automated computer rankings that defined the BCS era.


College football rankings are more than just lists of teams; they’re the lifeblood of the sport. They dictate postseason matchups, inspire aspiring athletes, and drive impassioned debates among fans. 

Understanding the historical context and nuances of these rankings can deepen your appreciation for the complexity and excitement of college football. So, as you watch the latest rankings unfold, remember that behind each number is a rich history and a world of implications for the sport we all love. 


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