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College Football: How do AP and Coaches Poll rankings work?

Toward the end of the 20th century, the BCS computer system took the college football world by storm, changing the fact that sportswriters decided who would play for the National Championship.

These days, we have the College Football Playoff, which relies on a committee system and is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. 

With the playoff set to expand to 12 teams in 2024, the relevancy of the AP Poll and Coaches Poll continues to dwindle. 

Nevertheless, these polls still garner a ton of attention early in the season, so let’s dive into how they work.

How do the AP Poll and USA Today Coaches Poll work?

The Associated Press poll provides weekly rankings of the top 25 NCAA teams across multiple sports, in this case, football. 

These football rankings are typically put out every Sunday afternoon and are compiled by polling over five dozen sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the nation.

So how does it work? 

Well, each voter provides their own personal top 25 ranking, and the individual rankings are combined to produce the national ranking. In order to make sense of the chaos, teams are given points on a scale: No. 1 gets you 25, No. 2 gets you 24, etc. These ballots are then combined for a single AP Top 25 poll each week.

The USA Today Coaches Poll follows a similar pattern, with weekly rankings being released every Sunday as well. There are 62 coaches voting in the poll, and the same points-based ranking system is applied here.

Why do rankings matter?

Rrankings matter in the preseason and regular season because they shape our perception of teams, conferences, and the all-important playoff. 

If a conference like the SEC has upwards of seven teams ranked in the AP Top 25 on a given week, this demonstrates that the league is extremely strong and deep, proof that it’s earned its reputation as the best conference in college football.

On the other hand, a conference that is struggling to field teams in the Top 25 of either poll will likely have a public perception problem if the trend continues. Leagues such as the ACC have suffered from this, especially in recent years given Clemson’s struggles at the top of the conference as well.

Rankings are there to serve as a discussion point around college football, but they also generate excitement and ultimately, upsets. That’s what the sport is all about.

What makes this different from the College Football Playoff rankings?

The biggest difference between the College Football Playoff rankings and the rankings from the AP Poll and Coaches Poll is the difference in timing for when they take place. 

The playoff committee doesn’t release their first official rankings until more than halfway into the regular season, while both the sportswriters and coaches drop their rankings as early as mid-August.

IThe AP Poll and Coaches Poll voters are not obligated to rank the CFP winner at No. 1 in their end-of-season rankings. For example, undefeated UCF got four votes for the top spot at the end of the 2017 season, despite Clemson winning the National Championship.

The College Football Playoff committee is also a group of elite individuals, mostly athletic directors who gather together in rooms to discuss the rankings. These are very different from sports journalists or football coaches.

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