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How are College Football Teams Ranked?

By David White
Updated May 23, 2024
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College football teams in the US are ranked in two ways: by human voters and by computers that use mathematical formulas. Some rankings are polls that use qualified voters who cast ballots indicating their opinions of the best teams in order. Other rankings are compiled by computers based on factors such as the outcomes of games, the scores of the games, the location of the games and perhaps other criteria in the formulas. At the highest level of US college football, a collection of both types of rankings has been used to determine which two teams will play in the annual Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship Game.

Human Polls

Voters in college football polls are chosen by the organization that is conducting the poll. In most cases, the voters are journalists, coaches, school employees or former players. Since the mid-1930s, The Associated Press has polled sportswriters and broadcasters. A poll of coaches has been conducted since 1950 and has been sponsored by various organizations, including United Press International, USA Today and ESPN. The Harris Interactive poll, which uses a combination of media personnel, coaches, school administrators and foreign players, was first conducted in 2005.

Computer Rankings

There are many mathematical formulas that computers use to rank college football teams. The six most prominent are those developed by Jeff Sagarin, Richard Billingsley, Wesley Colley, Kenneth Massey, Dr. Peter Wolfe and the team of Jeff Anderson and Chris Hester. The factors and methods used by each are different. For example, some of the formulas do not consider the scores of games — only whether a team won or lost. Not all of the formulas that are used by the computers have been publicized.


College football rankings typically are released each week during the season. Many of them also are published before the first game of the season and are known as preseason rankings. Before the late 1960s, it was uncommon for the polls to be updated after the bowl games, which are additional, end-of-season games played by successful teams, but it has become the norm since then. Some polls avoid rankings until after the first several weeks of the season, based on the belief that preconceptions and previous seasons should not affect the current season's rankings.

Number of Teams Ranked

Rankings that are based on voters' ballots typically include the top 25 teams, with any other teams that received votes being given honorable mention in the order of their voting totals. Before the 1990s, some polls often listed only the top 10 or top 20 teams. Computer rankings typically include every team — more than 100 of them in the highest division of college football.

The Bowl Championship Series

Starting in 1998, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) began using the BCS to determine which football teams would play in the championship game for its highest level of competition, which was named the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). These rankings also are used to help determine which teams will play in a few other of the most prestigious bowl games. The BCS system combines the most prominent human polls and computer rankings, along with other factors, into another set of rankings. This system is regularly evaluated by the NCAA, and changes might be made between seasons if the organization's officials determine the adjustments to be necessary.

Lower Divisions

Although most people are more familiar with the rankings of FBS teams, rankings also exist for football teams at lower levels of the NCAA and for teams that belong to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which is for small colleges. Just like the voter rankings for FBS teams, those for lower-level teams typically are based on ballots submitted by people such as media members, coaches or other school employees. One difference is that the polls are often done on a regional basis because it is more difficult for voters to have a great deal of knowledge about small-college teams that are in other areas. In some cases, these rankings might be compiled on a regional as well as on a national basis.

Sports n' Hobbies is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon138391 — On Dec 31, 2010

I feel that there needs to be some changes in the way that colleges are ranked and the way that teams get to bowl games. There are a bunch of smaller schools that never have that chance to play in a bowl game because of what their schedule is and the quality of those programs. Need a better bracket system like basketball. Let's see what they talent they have through playoffs, instead of allowing sports polls to dictate.

By malena — On Feb 02, 2008

Rankings are sometimes not that accurate, especially with the coaches poll. Since coaches don't have much time to really see how each team is doing in a particular year, then their rankings can be inaccurate for a variety of reasons. They may vote more so on name recognition or for teams in their conference therefore less well known, good teams might not be ranked even though they are worthy of a ranking.

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