Throughout football season, college teams are ranked based on their performance, via the Coaches Poll and the Associated Press (AP) Poll. Beginning in November (approximately two months after the beginning of football season), the College Football Playoff Rankings are released each week - and it's these rankings that ultimately determine which teams will have an opportunity to vie for the national championship.
Determining College Football Team Rankings
Rankings for college football teams change every week throughout football season as aggregate performance impacts how each elite team compares against the others.
College Football Playoff Rankings
The College Football Playoff (CFP) system began with the 2014 season, replacing the former Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The CFP ranking system is the one that, ultimately, is the most meaningful. That's because CFP rankings are the ones that determine which teams will be invited to participate in the playoffs, and the playoffs determine which teams have a shot at winning a national championship.
CFP rankings are determined by a selection committee that consists of a mixture of people with expertise in football (such as athletic directors, former NCAA and conference representatives and former head coaches) and leaders outside the sport (as of 2015, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Lieutenant General Mike Gould (Ret., U.S. Air Force) serve on the committee).
Unlike the Coaches Poll and the AP Poll that are published from the very beginning of football season, CFP rankings aren't released until mid-season, when teams have had a few months to establish their track records. After the initial release date, CFP rankings are updated each week throughout the season, until selection day, which occurs after the last conference championship game has been played.
Even though CFP rankings aren't released from the beginning of the season, every game, and even every play, are taken into consideration when determining rankings. Factors taken into consideration include "conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, comparison of results against common opponents and other factors."
USA Today is behind the Coaches Poll, and Amway is the name sponsor, so it is referred to as the Amway Coaches Poll. Rankings are determined by a randomly selected panel of head football coaches at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools. Every week, panel members submit their recommendations for the top 25 teams in college football.
The panel members don't just submit a list of team names. Instead, the votes they turn in specify which position they feel each team should be in based on performance-to-date in the season, taking any factors they feel are relevant into consideration. A first place vote is worth 25 points, a second place vote is worth 24 points and so on.
A pre-season list of the top 25 teams is released prior to the beginning of the season, and new poll results are released each week throughout the season.
As its name indicates, the Associated Press (AP) Poll is created with input from members of the press. AP rankings are determined by a panel of 60 sports reporters, each of whom has experience covering college football. Both writers and broadcasters are included in the panel.
As with the Coaches Poll, panel participants cast votes each week specifying which teams they feel are the 25 best in college football, in rank order. The same points/place system (25 points for a first place vote, 24 points for a second place vote, etc.) is used. They can take any relevant factors into consideration when casting votes.
The preseason AP top 25 list is released before each season, with new results being released each week throughout the season.
While the only rankings that impact playoff participation and a chance to win a national championship, all three of these approaches to ranking college football teams are important in the sport. They are important to the teams themselves as well as to serious fans who want to know how their teams are comparing to others throughout the season. There is sometimes a bit of deviation between the Coaches Poll and AP Polls, but they are usually pretty consistent and are good indicators of performance. They also provide bragging rights leading up to the season and beyond.
While the CFP selection committee doesn't take Coaches Poll or AP Poll results into consideration when releasing its rankings, they aren't likely to be too far off from either poll, simply due to the similarity of factors that head coaches and expert sports reporters will likely take into consideration when casting their votes. Of course, when the CFP rankings start to be released, the playoff picture starts to come into focus for those teams leading the pack into post season and a possible championship run.