College Football Rankings Explained

For many sports fans, the college football season is the most wonderful time of the year. 

The pageantry and tradition, the action on the field and dozens of games weekly are some reasons for its enormous appeal.

Sports bettors are well in tune with the excitement as well, as college football attracts tons of betting action at online sportsbooks.

All through the preseason and during the campaign, debates rage on about the top teams. There are several polls and analysis pieces devoted to making sense of it all, but they inevitably lead to even more conjecture.

So, how do we make sense of it all and separate the wheat from the chaff? 

The College Football Playoff rankings are a huge piece of the puzzle. Here’s what you need to know.

Rankings vs. ratings vs. polls

First things first, the term “rankings” can mean a few different things when it comes to NCAA football. Here are the three main variations:

  • Rankings: This refers to actual rankings of all the teams in the sport, from top to bottom. Several weekly ranking systems are released to the public, generally cover the top 25 teams in the US.
  • Ratings: A rating attempts to accomplish the same thing. A numerical value is assigned to each team based on numerous strengths and weaknesses. The teams are then listed from top to bottom in descending value.
  • Polls: Highly regarded polls, such as the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll, are released in advance of the season and every week of the campaign. The College Football Playoff rankings are typically released weekly beginning in early November.

It’s important to understand all three areas to have a complete picture of the college football rankings.

Once that’s under your belt, you’ll have a foundation so you can begin using rankings while handicapping games.

What’s the difference between college football rankings and ratings?

Rankings and ratings both attempt to do the same thing, which is assign some order to the overall hierarchy in college football. However, the difference comes in the way the two methods go about it.

On the rankings side, teams are ranked from top to bottom based on perceived strength.

Overall records, team quality, the strength of schedule, margins of victory and the eye test are among the main factors that receive consideration for a well-designed set of rankings.

When it comes to ratings, it’s more of a mathematical approach. While many of the same factors are considered, a more in-depth look is given to key stats and other advanced performance metrics.

All the variables are put in the same pot, and the result is a numerical rating for each squad.

In theory, when two teams square off on the field, you can compare their ratings and factor in any home-field advantage to come up with what would be a fair point spread.

From there, bettors compare the number to listed point spreads in a quest to find potentially profitable opportunities. Naturally, there are no guarantees that the ratings will be precisely on the money as anything can happen when two teams step on the field.

However, ratings are a vital part of the handicapping puzzle for many seasoned bettors and an invaluable resource when the goal is to attempt to project the outcome of games.

As for rankings, they can still be useful in projecting games. The teams at the top are the strongest, followed by those in the next tier down and so on.

When programs square off, comparing them based on overall strength — absent the numerical value — can still give you a sense of the more likely outcome of the contest.

Again, this is not foolproof as upsets happen all the time, and the home field can skew the dynamic. That said, it’s worth taking the time to walk through this step in the weekly research process to gain a sense of the full picture for the game at hand.

Understanding NCAA football polls

Here are the details you need to know about the most-watched college football polls in the land:

  • AP Top 25 Poll: This is the poll from the Associated Press, which traces its roots to the 1930s. It’s a compilation of rankings from 65 sportswriters and broadcasters, which is then compiled into a final set released to the public weekly during the season.
  • Coaches Poll: The Coaches Poll has been around since the 1950s and follows the same general method as the AP. However, the rankings are compiled from the individual assessments of college football coaches.
  • College Football Playoff Rankings: As the season hits the stretch run, the first set of College Football Playoff rankings are released to the public. The CFP committee puts it together, and those who rank highly are in line for playoff spots or lofty bowl games.

All three of the polls receive plenty of attention, and any discrepancies between the different sets of rankings open up even more debate.

Preseason college football rankings

Since there’s a good amount of attrition in college football from year to year, it can be a bit challenging to assess how squads will perform in the coming season.

For the top programs in the country — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, etc. — it’s likely that they’re going to be strong every year. The further you go down the list, it’s not as clear cut.

However, that doesn’t stop many from trying to make sense of it all. 

Preseason polls are generally viewed as the benchmark, and certain sets of highly regarded power ranking systems also help to set the bar.

For those looking to get a further handle on the lay of the land, there’s another free piece of research out there that’s widely accessible.

The college football futures market is incredibly active, and you’ll find odds listed for several categories:

  • Team win totals
  • Conference and division winners
  • Playoff teams
  • National champion

By studying the market, you can gain a sense of general expectations for each team. You also may be able to spot teams that are being over- or under-valued based on how you perceive the coming season.

If you’re in the category of those who like to do their research, here are some areas to examine to determine which teams may be in line for solid or disappointing seasons:

  • Coaching Staff Continuity: Head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator.
  • Returning Starters: All positions are essential, but give an extra nod to continuity on the offensive line, returning starting quarterbacks and top defenders.
  • The previous season performance versus ranked and top teams 
  • The schedule for the coming season and any expected trouble spots

How to use College Football Playoff rankings for handicapping

Standard rankings that place teams in order, from top to bottom, can help break down games. However, actual power rankings that assign a numerical to each team can take it to a new level.

For example purposes, we’ll use a fictitious set of rankings for four of the top programs in the land:

  • LSU: 0
  • Clemson: 0
  • Ohio State: 0
  • Alabama: 0

Let’s say that all four of these teams were set to square off in the upcoming week: LSU at Clemson and Alabama at Ohio State.

Armed with the power rankings up above, we can begin figuring out what a spread should look like by comparing the numbers for the teams involved:

  • LSU at Clemson: 2-point advantage to LSU
  • Alabama at Ohio State: 2-point advantage to Ohio State

There’s one more step, and that’s to factor in the home-field advantage. 

For most power rankings systems, you’ll add another 3 points to the home team’s number. If we do that for these two games, here’s what we get:

  • LSU at Clemson: 1-point advantage to Clemson
  • Ohio State at Alabama: 5-point advantage to Ohio State

We can now compare this “fair spread” to the spreads that are available by oddsmakers. Also, look for situations that might be exploitable.

How to make your college football rankings

There are several solid power ranking systems online, which are entirely free to use.

Here’s a few for you to research:

  • Sagarin Ratings
  • Massey Ratings
  • Sonny Moore Ratings
  • TeamRankings

If you’re looking to build out your own set of rankings, one easy way to start is by consulting individual team win totals from the NCAA football futures markets.

When comparing two teams set to face off in the early part of the year, each half-win of difference can be treated as one point toward the spread. Once you factor in 3 points for the home field, you can build off of the ballpark line from there.

Let’s say LSU and Ohio State are set to face off at the latter. LSU is pegged for 10.5 wins in the futures market, while Ohio State is set at 11. That would make Ohio State a 1-point favorite without home-field factored in, and a 4-point favorite once you accounted for that.

When used correctly, College Football Playoff rankings can be a welcome addition to the handicapping toolbelt.