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Wayne Staats | | August 15, 2022

College football rankings: Every poll explained and how they work

Clemson rolls Alabama for the CFP national title

There are many polls to keep track of during the college football season, from the AP Poll and College Football Playoff rankings in the FBS to the FCS and Division II polls. Here's what you need to know about the major polls — and how college football rankings work.

Some of these polls go back decades. Others, like the College Football Playoff rankings, have been around for only five completed seasons.

College football rankings: Every poll explained and how they work

Guide to the College Football Playoff rankings system

Unlike other polls, the College Football Playoff rankings come out only until well into the season. And unlike other polls, it's the only one that really matters, as it's for the four-team playoff. The CFP Selection Committee ranks its own Top 25, using factors like strength of schedule, results, championships won, common opponents and more. The top four teams go to the playoff, which plays two semifinals before the national title game in a No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3 format.

The CFP, which started with the 2014 season, has its committee members meet in person to rank teams. 

Along with selecting the teams in the CFP, the committee also assigns teams to New Year's bowls. Some conferences are already contracted to send their champions to specific bowls, provided that champion doesn't make the CFP (Big Ten and Pac-12 to the Rose Bowl; SEC and Big 12 to the Sugar Bowl; ACC to the Orange Bowl against highest-ranked available team from the SEC, Big Ten and Notre Dame). If a conference champion makes the CFP, the bowl will pick a replacement from the same conference. Also, when one of these bowls is part of the CFP and the conference champion is not picked for the CFP, that team will play in one of the other bowls.

The rankings also matter for selection for the highest-ranked "Group of 5" champion (The American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and the Sun Belt). That team automatically goes into a New Year's Six game. UCF has gone the last two years.

There is no new CFP rankings after the bowl games or the championship game.

Here is a list of the first No. 1 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings, the final CFP No. 1 team and the eventual national champion for each season of the College Football Playoff rankings:

Year First CFP No. 1 Final CFP No. 1 National Champion
2014 Mississippi State Alabama Ohio State
2015 Clemson Clemson Alabama
2016 Alabama Alabama Clemson
2017 Georgia Clemson Alabama
2018 Alabama Alabama Clemson

Here are the College Football Playoff Selection Committee members:

  • Rob Mullens, Chair (University of Oregon)
  • Gary Barta (University of Iowa athletics director)
  • Frank Beamer (Former Virginia Tech head coach)
  • Paola Boivin (Arizona State University professor)
  • Joe Castiglione (University of Oklahoma athletics director)
  • Ken Hatfield (Former head coach)
  • Chris Howard (Robert Morris University president)
  • Ronnie Lott (Former Southern California All-American)
  • Terry Mohajir (Arkansas State University athletics director)
  • Ray Odierno (Former Chief of Staff, United States Army)
  • R.C. Slocum (Former head coach, Texas A&M interim athletics director)
  • Todd Stansbury (Georgia Tech athletics director)
  • Scott Stricklin (University of Florida athletics director)

Guide to the AP Poll Top 25

Starting with the preseason poll, the Associated Press Poll will rank the Top 25 teams each week during the season and after the bowl games and the College Football Playoff.

The 61 sportswriters and broadcasters from throughout the country vote individually. Teams are given points on a scale: No. 1 gets you 25, No. 2 gets you 24, etc. These ballots, which are made public each week, are then combined for one AP Top 25 poll.

Once the season starts, the poll is released each Sunday afternoon.

Last season, Alabama received 42 first-place votes in the preseason poll and started the season ranked No. 1. It remained No. 1, though its first-place votes changed many weeks, until Clemson beat the top-ranked Tide in the CFP title game matchup. Clemson then finished the season No. 1, receiving all 61 No. 1 votes.

But the AP Poll voters are not obligated to rank the CFP winner No. 1. In the 2017 season, undefeated UCF, which beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, received four No. 1 votes. The last time the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll had different No. 1 teams at the end of the season was in 2003, during the BCS era. That year, LSU beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to win the BCS National Championship and thus the ESPN/Coaches Poll No. 1 ranking. The AP, however, ranked Southern California No. 1 after the Trojans defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Alabama has the most season-ending No. 1 rankings in AP Poll history with 11. The Crimson Tide finished No. 1 in 1961, 1964, 1965, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2017. Notre Dame is second with eight, winning most recently in 1988.

Minnesota won the first AP title, ranking No. 1 in 1936. The final AP Poll finally came out after the bowl games for good starting with the 1968 season.

Final AP No. 1 teams since the 2000 season:

  • 2000: Oklahoma
  • 2001: Miami (FL)
  • 2002: Ohio State
  • 2003: Southern California
  • 2004: Southern California
  • 2005: Texas
  • 2006: Florida
  • 2007: LSU
  • 2008: Florida
  • 2009: Alabama
  • 2010: Auburn
  • 2011: Alabama
  • 2012: Alabama
  • 2013: Florida State
  • 2014: Ohio State
  • 2015: Alabama
  • 2016: Clemson
  • 2017: Alabama
  • 2018: Clemson

All FBS teams can earn rankings in the poll, as can FCS programs. In 2007, Appalachian State upset then-No. 5 Michigan, 34-32, prompting the AP Poll to allow voters to rank FCS teams ("Appalachian State Rule)". In 2016, North Dakota State upset then-No. 11 Iowa and received 74 votes in the AP Poll. 

Guide to the college football Coaches Poll

Like the AP Poll, the Coaches Poll starts with a preseason Top 25 and continues weekly on Sundays during the season and after the bowl games. There are 62 coaches voting in the poll, which gives teams points on a scale from 1 to 25 (25 for ranking a team No. 1, 24 for No. 2, etc.).

Like the AP Poll, the Coaches Poll isn't obligated to vote the College Football Playoff winner as the national champion, though it's been awarded to the same team each year.

The Coaches' Trophy is awarded to the national champion. Before the CFP, this went to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) winner. The College Football Playoff has its own trophy.

Through the 1973 season, the final Coaches Poll came out at the end of the regular season but before the bowl games.

Clemson received the Coaches' Trophy as the final Coaches Poll No. 1 this past season. The Tigers also finished No. 1 in the AP Poll after routing Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

College Football: Split national titles

Though the College Football Playoff has eliminated (almost) all worries about avoiding a split national champion, there are instances where there are multiple national champions in a single season. Some of that had to do with different national champions for the AP and Coaches Poll.

Here are the years with split national champions, per this list of champions on, since 1970.

Year Schools (Polls)
2003 LSU (Coaches), Southern California (AP)
1997 Michigan (AP), Nebraska (Coaches)
1991 Miami (FL) (AP), Washington (Coaches)
1990 Colorado (AP), Georgia Tech (Coaches)
1978 Alabama (AP), Southern California (Coaches)
1974 Oklahoma (AP), Southern California (Coaches)
1973 Alabama (Coaches), Notre Dame (AP)
1970 Nebraska (AP, FWAA), Texas (Coaches, NFF), Ohio State (NFF)

How the FCS rankings work

Like in FBS, there is more than one poll for the Football Championship Subdivision. The weekly STATS poll is voted on by the media, while the Coaches Poll is voted on by FCS coaches. Both of these polls release a preseason Top 25 and continue to vote weekly through the end of the regular season and again after the conclusion of the 24-team playoff.

During the 2018 season, North Dakota State started as the preseason No. 1 in both the STATS and Coaches Poll. They remained in the top spot all season long, as the Bison beat Eastern Washington, 38-24, to win the FCS National Championship for the seventh time in eight years.

How the DII football rankings work

Before 1973, champions for the then "NCAA College Division" were decided by polls at the end of the regular season. Starting with 1973, there has been the DII Football Championship, which had 28 teams in the 2018 edition. Valdosta State beat Ferris State, 49-47, for the national crown.

In the final AFCA Coaches Poll, Valdosta State received all 33 first-place votes; Ferris State ended No. 2.

There are also regional rankings, which play a major role in deciding the playoff participants. The 28-team playoff is made up of seven teams from each of these four regions. Participants in each region are determined by regional rankings. A conference's highest-ranked team qualifies automatically if it ranks in the top nine. Other participants are determined by the region rankings.

FBS: Championship History

National Champions

2018 Clemson CFP
2017 Alabama CFP
2016 Clemson CFP
2015 Alabama CFP
2014 Ohio State CFP
2013 Florida State BCS
2012 Alabama BCS
2011 Alabama BCS
2010 Auburn BCS
2009 Alabama BCS
2008 Florida BCS
2007 Louisiana State BCS
2006 Florida BCS
2005 Texas BCS
2004 Southern California* BCS
2003 Louisiana State, Southern California BCS, AP, FWAA
2002 Ohio State BCS
2001 Miami (Fla.) BCS
2000 Oklahoma BCS
1999 Florida State BCS
1998 Tennessee BCS
1997 Michigan, Nebraska AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/ESPN
1996 Florida AP, FWAA, NFF,USA/CNN
1995 Nebraska AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1994 Nebraska AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1993 Florida St. AP, FWAA,NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1992 Alabama AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1991 Washington, Miami (Fla.) FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI,AP
1990 Colorado, Georgia Tech FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, AP, UPI
1989 Miami (Fla.) AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1988 Notre Dame AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1987 Miami (Fla.) AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1986 Penn St. AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1985 Oklahoma AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1984 Brigham Young AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1983 Miami (Fla.) AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1982 Penn St. AP, FWAA, NFF, USA/CNN, UPI
1981 Clemson AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1980 Georgia AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1979 Alabama AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1978 Alabama, Southern California AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1977 Notre Dame AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1976 Pittsburgh AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1975 Oklahoma AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1974 Southern California, Oklahoma FWAA, NFF, UPI, AP
1973 Notre Dame, Alabama AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1972 Southern California AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1971 Nebraska AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1970 Nebraska, Texas, Ohio St. AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI, NFF
1969 Texas AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1968 Ohio St. AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1967 Southern California AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1966 Notre Dame, Michigan St. AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI, NFF
1965 Michigan St., Alabama FWAA, NFF, UPI, AP
1964 Alabama, Arkansas, Notre Dame AP, UPI, FWAA, NFF
1963 Texas AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1962 Southern California AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1961 Alabama, Ohio St. AP, NFF, UPI, FWAA
1960 Minnesota, Mississippi AP, NFF, UPI, FWAA
1959 Syracuse AP, FWAA, NFF, UPI
1958 LSU, Iowa AP, UPI, FWAA
1957 Ohio St., Auburn FWAA, UPI, AP
1956 Oklahoma AP, FWAA, UPI
1955 Oklahoma AP, FWAA, UPI
1954 UCLA, Ohio St. FWAA, UPI, AP
1953 Maryland AP, UPI
1952 Michigan St. AP, UPI
1951 Tennessee AP, UPI
1950 Oklahoma AP, UPI
1949 Notre Dame AP
1948 Michigan AP
1947 Notre Dame AP
1946 Notre Dame AP
1945 Army AP
1944 Army AP
1943 Notre Dame AP
1942 Ohio St. AP
1941 Minnesota AP
1940 Minnesota AP
1939 Texas A&M AP
1938 Texas Christian AP
1937 Pittsburgh AP
1936 Minnesota AP
1935 Minnesota CFRA, HAF, NCF
1934 Minnesota CFRA, HAF, NCF
1933 Michigan CFRA, HAF, NCF
1932 Southern California CFRA, HAF, NCF
1931 Southern California CFRA, HAF, NCF
1930 Alabama, Notre Dame CFRA, HAF, NCF
1929 Notre Dame CFRA, HAF, NCF
1928 Georgia Tech. CFRA, HAF, NCF
1927 Illinois, Yale HAF, NCF, CFRA
1926 Alabama, Stanford CFRA, HAF, NCF, HAF
1925 Alabama CFRA, HAF, NCF
1924 Notre Dame CFRA, HAF, NCF
1923 Illinois, Michigan CFRA, HAF, NCF, NCF
1922 California, Cornell, Princeton NCF, HAF, CFRA, NCF
1921 California, Cornell CFRA, NCF, HAF
1920 California CFRA, HAF, NCF
1919 Harvard, Illinois, Notre Dame, Texas A&M CFRA, HAF, NCF, CFRA, NCF, NCF
1918 Michigan, Pittsburgh NCF, HAF, NCF
1917 Georgia Tech. HAF, NCF
1916 Pittsburgh HAF, NCF
1915 Cornell HAF, NCF
1914 Army HAF, NCF
1913 Harvard HAF, NCF
1912 Harvard, Penn St. HAF, NCF, NCF
1911 Penn St., Princeton NCF, HAF, NCF
1910 Harvard, Pittsburgh HAF, NCF, NCF
1909 Yale HAF, NCF
1908 LSU, Pennsylvania NCF, HAF, NCF
1907 Yale HAF, NCF
1906 Princeton HAF, NCF
1905 Chicago HAF, NCF
1904 Michigan, Pennsylvania NCF, HAF, NCF
1903 Michigan, Princeton NCF, HAF, NCF
1902 Michigan HAF, NCF
1901 Michigan HAF, NCF
1900 Yale HAF, NCF
1899 Harvard HAF, NCF
1898 Harvard HAF, NCF
1897 Pennsylvania HAF, NCF
1896 Lafayette, Princeton NCF, HAF, NCF
1895 Pennsylvania HAF, NCF
1894 Yale HAF, NCF
1893 Princeton HAF, NCF
1892 Yale HAF, NCF
1891 Yale HAF, NCF
1890 Harvard HAF, NCF
1889 Princeton HAF, NCF
1888 Yale HAF, NCF
1887 Yale HAF, NCF
1886 Yale HAF, NCF
1885 Princeton HAF, NCF
1884 Yale HAF, NCF
1883 Yale HAF, NCF
1882 Yale NCF
1881 Yale NCF
1880 Princeton, Yale NCF, NCF
1879 Princeton NCF
1878 Princeton NCF
1877 Yale NCF
1876 Yale NCF
1875 Harvard NCF
1874 Yale NCF
1873 Princeton NCF
1872 Princeton NCF
1871 None selected NCF
1870 Princeton NCF
1869 Princeton, Rutgers NCF

* Southern California’s participation in the 2004 championship was vacated by the NCAA Committee on Infractions.

FCS: Championship history

2018 North Dakota State Chris Klieman 38-24 Eastern Washington Frisco, Texas
2017 North Dakota State Chris Klieman 17-13 James Madison Frisco, Texas
2016 James Madison Mike Houston 28-14 Youngstown State Frisco, Texas
2015 North Dakota State Chris Klieman 37-10 Jacksonville State Frisco, Texas
2014 North Dakota State Chris Klieman 29-27 Illinois State Frisco, Texas
2013 North Dakota State Craig Bohl 35-7 Towson Frisco, Texas
2012 North Dakota State Craig Bohl 39-13 Sam Houston State Frisco, Texas
2011 North Dakota State Craig Bohl 17-6 Sam Houston State Frisco, Texas
2010 Eastern Washington Beau Baldwin 20-19 Delaware Frisco, Texas
2009 Villanova Andy Talley 23-21 Montana Chattanooga, Tenn.
2008 Richmond Mike London 24-7 Montana Chattanooga, Tenn.
2007 Appalachian State Jerry Moore 49-21 Delaware Chattanooga, Tenn.
2006 Appalachian State Jerry Moore 28-17 Massachusetts Chattanooga, Tenn.
2005 Appalachian State Jerry Moore 21-16 UNI Chattanooga, Tenn.
2004 James Madison Mickey Matthews 31-21 Montana Chattanooga, Tenn.
2003 Delaware K.C. Keeler 40-0 Colgate Chattanooga, Tenn.
2002 Western Kentucky Jack Harbaugh 34-14 McNeese State Chattanooga, Tenn.
2001 Montana Joe Glenn 13-6 Furman Chattanooga, Tenn.
2000 Georgia Southern Paul Johnson 27-25 Montana Chattanooga, Tenn.
1999 Georgia Southern Paul Johnson 59-24 Youngstown State Chattanooga, Tenn.
1998 Massachusetts Mark Whipple 55-43 Georgia Southern Chattanooga, Tenn.
1997 Youngstown State Jim Tressel 10-9 McNeese State Chattanooga, Tenn.
1996 Marshall Bob Pruett 49-29 Montana Huntington, W.Va.
1995 Montana Don Read 22-20 Marshall Huntington, W.Va.
1994 Youngstown State Jim Tressel 28-14 Boise State Huntington, W.Va.
1993 Youngstown State Jim Tressel 17-5 Marshall Huntington, W.Va.
1992 Marshall Jim Donnan 31-28 Youngstown State Huntington, W.Va.
1991 Youngstown State Jim Tressel 25-17 Marshall Statesboro, Ga.
1990 Georgia Southern Tim Stowers 36-13 Nevada Statesboro, Ga.
1989 Georgia Southern Erk Russell 37-34 Stephen F. Austin * Statesboro, Ga.
1988 Furman Jimmy Satterfield 17-12 Georgia Southern Pocatello, Idaho
1987 Louisiana-Monroe Pat Collins 43-42 Marshall Pocatello, Idaho
1986 Georgia Southern Erk Russell 48-21 Arkansas State Tacoma, Wash.
1985 Georgia Southern Erk Russell 44-42 Furman Tacoma, Wash.
1984 Montana State Dave Arnold 19-6 Louisiana Tech Charleston, S.C.
1983 Southern Illinois Rey Dempsey 43-7 Western Carolina Charleston, S.C.
1982 Eastern Kentucky Roy Kidd 17-14 Delaware Wichita Falls, Texas
1981 Idaho State Dave Kragthorpe 34-23 Eastern Kentucky Wichita Falls, Texas
1980 Boise State Jim Criner 31-29 Eastern Kentucky Sacramento, Calif.
1979 Eastern Kentucky Roy Kidd 30-7 Lehigh Orlando, Fla.
1978 Florida A&M Ruby Hubbard 35-28 Massachusetts Wichita Falls, Texas

* -- Stephen F. Austin's participation in 1989 championship vacated.

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