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College Football Polls: Explaining the rankings

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The season’s here, so let’s take a quick look at the rankings and polls used throughout the season.

2017 US College Football Sydney Cup
“Never run the Wildcat again,” Tabbi the Koala whispers to David Shaw
Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Big things are expected of the Cardinal this season and if all goes well they’ll be in the discussion to win the Pac-12 and maybe even make an appearance in the College Football Playoff. With the dismantling of Rice out of the way, let’s take a look at the major polls and rankings that Stanford will hopefully show up in all season. Every week we’ll take a look at the rankings and let you know if you should be happy or angry (probably angry), and once the official College Football Playoff rankings come around, discussions are sure to be lively.

Amway Coaches Poll
Release: Sundays at 9AM Pacific, all season
Voter demographic: From the Amway Coaches Poll official page,

The Amway Coaches Poll is conducted weekly throughout the regular season using a panel of head coaches at FBS schools. The panel is chosen by random draw, conference by conference plus independents, from a pool of coaches who have indicated to the American Football Coaches Association their willingness to participate.

Voting process:

Each coach submits a Top 25 with a first-place vote worth 25 points, second place 24, and so on down to one point for 25th.

Usefulness: Not really.

The Coaches Poll is usually the very first poll to release each week, giving us a glimpse into what later polls might look like and whetting our appetite for a few hours. Unfortunately, it’s really not all that useful. During the season, how realistic is it that sitting head coaches who have games to prepare for have time to watch hours and hours of other teams playing football? If Bret Bielema has a game on Saturday, is it really all that likely that before and after the game he has the time to watch all the other games that happened on that same day and then submit a ballot by Sunday morning? Some coaches might even just hand their ballot off to someone else on their staff to fill, which kind of defeats the purpose of a “Coaches” poll in the first place.

And, not to slander any coaches, but it’s not totally out of the question that a coach may rate their own team higher than normal, or rate their future opponents highly to make their own team look good. Coaches already put ungodly amounts of effort into trying to win, fudging a little bit with rankings is just one more way to prop up their team.

AP Poll
Release: Sundays at 11AM Pacific, all season
Voter demographic:

A panel of 61 sports writers and broadcasters from around the country votes on the poll weekly. All of the voters have an extensive background in covering college football.

Voting process:

The AP Top 25 is determined by a simple points system based on how each voter ranks college football's best teams. A team receives 25 points for each first place vote, 24 for second place and so on through to the 25th team, which receives one point. The rankings are set by listing the teams' point totals from highest to lowest.

Usefulness: Somewhat

The AP Poll is a little more useful than the Coaches poll because it’s somewhat more likely that sports writers, whose job it is to watch football, would have time to actually watch all the games as compared to working head coaches. Also, unlike the Coaches Poll, the AP Poll actually releases individual ballots, so there’s a little bit more transparency with the AP Poll. While the Coaches Poll is generally seen as an appetizer that may or may not be that great (not unlike spinach dip), the AP Poll is the main course until the College Football Playoff rankings come out later in the season. Until then, expect to spend most of your Sundays arguing over the AP Poll and not the Coaches Poll.

College Football Playoff Rankings
Release: Tuesdays at 4PM Pacific, starting after Week 9 (October 31 this season)
Voter demographic: College Football Playoff committee, consisting of former head coaches and sitting athletic directors, among others (Of note to Stanford fans, Condoleezza Rice was on the committee for its first 3 seasons, father-of-QB-great Oliver Luck for a single season, and former head coach Tyrone Willingham is a current member)
Voting process: It’s a doozy (read here for the absolutely insane process that involves recusals and multiple rounds of rankings) but essentially the small committee discusses it in person and comes out with a single consensus poll, using this criteria:

conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, and comparison of results against common opponents to decide among teams that are comparable.


Usefulness: Very

This one’s the big kahuna: the only one that matters. While it’s fun to argue about the Coaches and AP Poll, this is the singular ranking used to determine who gets into the Playoff. The idea of releasing weekly rankings leading up to the Playoff may be suspect (why not just release the final Playoff 4 and that’s it? Oh right, TV ratings), but having the rankings release and getting a look into the committee’s mindset is sure to foster a lot of fun discussion. Once these start being released, we’ll be sure to delve deep into why the committee is ranking teams where they are, and heading into the final rankings we’ll attempt to put ourselves in their shoes and predict what the final playoff teams will be. And, without those weekly rankings, we as college football fans would’ve never been graced with Jeff Long’s strange “Stanford Body Clock” comments (which singlehandedly kept the Cardinal out of the playoff in 2015).