Tip Top 25 in helmets, smaller

How to Rate College Football Teams

Baby placing college team blocksWhether you are a voter in the AP poll, the coaches' poll, the Harris poll, a fan poll, or are just interested in ranking college football teams yourself, I am here to help you get better at it. And looking at various poll results over the years, chances are you have room for improvement.

Writers vs. Coaches

I will be focusing on the AP poll for all of my examples in this guide, and throughout this website, because I think it is the best widely recognized top 25, though that unfortunately isn't saying much. The coaches' poll is interesting precisely because coaches (supposedly) vote in it, but that is also why it shouldn't be taken seriously.

Theoretically, the coaches' poll is the combined opinion of the truest football experts. But coaches already have a more-than-full-time job in coaching their own teams. They don't have time to pay much attention to teams other than their own programs and their specific opponents, let alone to put in the time it takes to fashion a logical and fair ranking of the top 25 national teams.

But the bigger problem is that coaches will naturally be biased toward their own teams, conferences, and friends' teams. More to the point, they have too strong an incentive to inflate the ratings of their own teams and conferences. Given this problem, it is amazing to me that the BCS has used the coaches' poll as part of its selection basis since the beginning. But this is so obviously a terrible idea (to all but the BCS) that it doesn't even merit further discussion.

Writers suffer from many of the same problems coaches do as raters of college football teams, from lack of time (game day is also their big work day, with their top 25 due the next morning) to home team bias (most AP voters cover a specific team and/or conference). However, writers do not directly gain from inflating the ratings of their home teams or regions.

The Criteria

The first question to ask before ranking the top 25 college football teams is: What are the criteria? Most polls don't offer criteria to their voters, they just ask for the lists. In recent years, however, the AP poll has been reminding its readers to pay attention to head-to-head results, because unfortunately they were not doing so (and in fact they are still not doing so, regardless of the helpful reminder).

So what are the proper criteria for a valid and logical top 25? Simple: each team should be ranked according to their record. Not just their win-loss total, but who they won and lost against. Factors such as head-to-head results and strength of schedule are already there in the record.

Next: The Record

Sections that follow "The Record":
Head to Head Results
Strength of Schedule
Other Criteria: Performance, Improvement, and Common Opponents
How to Rank the Top 25 Teams
How Not to Rank Teams