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A quick guide to the ins-and-outs of college football, how the conferences, playoffs and everything else works, plus the rankings going into 2020!

lots of people watching football game during sunset
Photo credit: Andrew Gearhart

Many of us enjoy watching college football and we all have our favourite teams (some better than others) but do we really know how the league and playoff system works? For example, when watching a game on TV and one team has a number against their name and the other doesn’t, what does this mean? If only one team goes undefeated all season should and do they finish top of the rankings? Why is it so important to be ranked within the top four? What is the difference between the Big 10 and the Big 12? Below I will endeavour to answer all these questions and give you the explanation you need to understand this comprehensive system.

The Conferences

Firstly, we need to look at how the league is set up. College, unlike the NFL, is set into three divisions. Divisions 1, 2 and 3. For this piece, we are only going to concentrate on the top division, Division 1. Like most football leagues worldwide (the NFL and BAFA are good examples) the division is split up into subcategories known as conferences. These conferences are usually determined by the area of a college, as well as their size, stature, and past performances. However, teams may choose not to play in a conference and therefore become known as an independent college. A good example of an independent college would be Notre Dame, based in Indiana. There are currently 121 Division 1 college teams (four of which are independent) split between 10 conferences. These conferences expand across the whole of America including Hawaii and are known as:

Full Name

Known as

American Athletic Conference

The American

Atlantic Coast Conference

ACC

Big Ten Conference

Big Ten

Big 12 Conference

Big 12

Conference USA

C-USA

Mid-American Conference

MAC

Mountain West Conference

MW / MWC

Pacific-12 Conference

PAC-12

Southeastern Conference

SEC

Sun Belt Conference

Sun Belt

Out of these conferences, five are classed as the most competitive while generally commanding the best players and getting the most television and fan attention. These are called the Power Five conferences. The conferences that make the Power Five are Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern, Pacific-12 and the Atlantic Coast.

Scheduling

To start your scheduling you have your conference games. These are games against other conference teams. As well as conference games you will also get non-conference games. These are games against teams from another conference. Most conferences are eight-conference game leagues—four at home, and four away. The Pac 12 plays nine conference games; some years you will get four at home, and others get five. Then you have your non-conference games. Some conferences will allow teams a “non-conference weekend”, others will allow non-conference games whenever possible. So, who decides the non-conference games? The colleges do. Therefore, tactical scheduling is rife due to the benefit a team can gain from having favourable fixtures. Paying bigger fees to get bigger teams at home is just one example of how this can work. I will not go into this much in this article, but hopefully, it gives you a better understanding and how the fixtures are decided.

The Rankings

Now you know how the league is set up, how does this affect the rankings? Do the teams at the top of each conference enter the playoff? Do these teams make up the top 10 in the ranking system? The answer is simply, no. As previously discussed, the conferences naturally have different strengths due to demand, money available, players etc. A team that has gone 10-2 in the Sun Belt Conference and finished top may have only got a record of 2-10 in the Big Ten conference and vice versa. Therefore, how are the rankings decided? Well, you ask a panel to do so. Some will say this is not the fairest way, some will say it is. That being said it’s the way the NCAA has decided to it and this format will be running until at least 2026 so we’d all better get used to it.

The two questions that remain are, who are the panel and how do they decide the ranking?

The panel consists of 13 members who generally serve three-year terms, although some initial selections will serve terms both shorter and longer than three years to achieve a rotation of members. The current committee members include one current athletic director from each of the Power 5 conferences. Other members included former coaches, players, athletic directors, and administrators, and even a retired member of the media.

The group will release its top 25 rankings seven times over the season. The first release is usually in October, and the final ranking in December. A team’s strength of schedule will be one of the most important considerations for the committee in making its selections as well as conference championships, team records, head-to-head results, plus other points such as injuries and weather. So what is meant by the strength of schedule? As defined on Wikipedia: “In sports, strength of schedule (SOS) refers to the difficulty or ease of a team’s/person’s opponent as compared to other teams/persons. This is especially important if teams in a league do not play each other the same number of times.”

This is calculated by determining the cumulative won/loss records of the team’s opponents and the cumulative won/loss records of the teams’ opponents’ opponents. The formula will be weighted two-third (66 2/3%) for the opponent’s record and one-third (33 1/3%) for the opponents’ opponents record. There are many examples of this that be found on the internet if you would like to look a little closer into this method.

So, as we know the panel will look at all 121 teams and will pick their top 25. Once they have made their decision, they will release a ranking that looks like this:

RK

TEAM  

RECORD

RK

TEAM

RECORD

1

Florida State

10-0

14

Wisconsin

8-2

2

Alabama

9-1

15

Arizona

8-2

3

Oregon

9-1

16

Auburn

7-3

4

Mississippi State

9-1

17

Georgia Tech

9-2

5

TCU

9-1

18

Boise State

10-0

6

Baylor

8-1

19

Missouri

8-2

7

Ohio State

9-1

20

Utah

7-3

8

Ole Miss

8-2

21

Nebraska

8-2

9

Georgia

8-2

22

Colorado State

9-1

10

Michigan State

8-2

23

Oklahoma

7-3

11

UCLA

8-2

24

USC

7-3

12

Kansas State

7-2

25

Duke

8-2

13

Arizona State

8-2

   

Editor’s note: This is not the official ranking, because you should know Nebraska are not that good.

As you can see, Boise State has the joint-best record in the division but due to their strength of schedule and other factors discussed, they only find themselves in the 18th position. These rankings can be found on many websites as well as televised games. When a ranked team plays a televised game, you will find a number in brackets beside their name. This is here to show the viewer their current ranked position.

The Playoffs

Finishing in the top four is what every team aims for. As of 2014, the teams that finish in the top four at the end of the regular season will enter a tournament with Rank 1 playing rank 4, while ranks 2 and 3 face off in two semi-final games. Following this, the winning teams will meet in the BCS Championship game which will be the final game of the season. The winner of the game will then be crowned the BCS Champions.

There are other bowl games that follow the end of the regular season. Some will be conference tie-in bowls, for example, the Sugar Bowl, which is the winner of the SEC conference versus the winners of the Big 12 Conference. The rest of the bowl games will be selected by the committee who ranks the top 25. The bowl games will be sponsored by big companies and the only thing at stake at these games is prize money and pride. There are around 30 bowl games at the end of the regular season that run from the middle of December to the middle of January.

This is a brief overview of how the College System works and in the future, we will bring you many more in-depth discussions about this subject.

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