College football is America’s ranking-est sport. There’s no universally agreed-upon way to decide who’s good or not in FBS, because each team only plays 11 or so of the other 129 teams each regular season.
So we’ve all agreed to fill the gap with subjective rankings, which sometimes have zero body of evidence behind them. But then, who will rank the rankings?
Here are the rankings, ranked by how much they matter.
1. The College Football Playoff ranking on Selection Sunday
The only ranking that has anything to do with which teams play in the main events. After this ranking, no other ranking directly matters on the field.
2. Recruiting rankings
How many stars a team’s players were awarded when they recruit has a strong correlation with how good that team is. These are also fun things to keep track of during the offseason or when your team’s out of contention, which is often.
Money helps decide which teams can hire expensive coaches and build expensive facilities, but it’s not exactly the most fulfilling bragging-rights material.
4. The postseason Associated Press poll
The CFP rankings don’t circle back around after bowl season, so this is the final ruling on how each team did. But we already know who won the FBS title, thanks to the Playoff — unless we have another 2003-style dispute.
5. Rankings that have your team ranked above your rival
If a poll doesn’t do this, it’s deeply flawed.
6. The Playoff ranking from Halloween until the first weekend in December
7. The AP Poll from Week 1 until Halloween
Both are ultimately futile, but they’re each the most noteworthy thing going for a time. They help decide which games look the most important on each Saturday and give people things to yell about for one hour each week.
For a variety of reasons*, college football has tons of computer rankings, with the best ones properly adjusted for opponent strength, giving a sense of a team’s true quality. S&P+ is my favored advanced stat, a system based on play-by-play data. The Massey Composite is another good example: it combines almost every ranking out there into a single list.
Do these influence the Playoff rankings? Nope. The committee is afraid of computers, because of the BCS. But they’re great indicators of whether teams are actually good or not, and that influences everything.
Also, if you’re a betting person, you’d better be taking a look at things like this each week. Vegas is.
* A lack of a single historical authority, the fact that many FBS teams don’t even play a 10th of FBS in a given year, a long tradition of needing weapons to use in arguments, a proximity to college math departments, the fact that no one person could effectively rank this many teams without math, and so on.
9. The former BCS computers
This ranking once had the #1 ranking. This group excluded margin of victory, making them incomplete judges of team quality.
Now they do include margin of victory, but now they only matter if you find yourself in need of red meat to win an internet fight. They’re basically the same as the group right above them in this ranking, but punished for their association with the departed BCS.
10. Internet posts that rank rankings
This post you’re reading is one of college football’s most important rankings.
11. APR rankings
In FBS, the NCAA’s flawed academic progress measure mostly matters because it helps determine which 5-7 team gets to take the 80th bowl spot.
12. The AP Poll in August, before the season starts
Based entirely on hype. Subject to a complete overhaul as soon as Week 1 hits and it starts to be clear that teams we thought were good are, in fact, bad. Despite annual fretting, appears to have no actual impact on the final rankings that matter.
13. Oddball publications that join national title controversies
14. Other national championship selectors from history, like the Helms Athletic Foundation, National Championship Foundation, National Football Foundation, Football Writers Association of America, United Press International, USA Today/CNN, and the College Football Researchers Association
These have all ranked much higher in the past. Some of these groups only made retroactive championship selections, so they were more rankers of one top team than purveyors of rankings. I appreciate their efforts, and they’re valuable historical tools, but they’re no longer needed going forward.
15. The AP Poll after the first Playoff ranking comes out around Halloween
The AP becomes the firstborn child who gets ignored once there’s a new baby in the house. Everyone stops buying it gifts and telling it how much they love it.
16. The FWAA-NFF Grantland Rice Super 16 Poll
A real thing.
17. The Coaches Poll
That coaches don’t actually vote in this poll is no longer even an open secret. It’s just a broadly accepted fact. It should be called the Sports Information Directors poll.
The only fun thing about this poll is that sometimes the PR folks mess up, and Arkansas has to apologize to bowl opponent Virginia Tech because the team communications director accidentally forgot to put the Hokies on “Bret Bielema’s” top-25 ballot.
18. The Harris Poll (2005-2013)
A now-defunct creation that, in 2005, replaced the AP Poll in the endlessly tinkered-with BCS formula. The Harris Poll loses points by its association with an unpopular system, but it was also just weird. Some market research company with no apparent ties to the sport conjured it up, and suddenly it had a key role in sorting out who’d get to play for the national championship. Nobody paid attention to it on its own. Now this poll collects dust.