Commentary

Explaining the Prestige Rankings

Updated: January 23, 2009, 6:24 PM ET
By Chris Fallica, Nick Loucks and Harold Shelton | ESPN Research

Who is No. 1? That debate rages weekly during each college football season, and often long after the season is over and the trophies have been handed out. The debate is as much a part of the annual ritual as the touchdowns, fight songs and bowl games.

If you think that process can spark a debate, try ranking each FBS team's all-time position in college football history.

But the ESPN Research Department devised a plan to settle the argument. Its system lets the numbers do the talking.

ESPN's Prestige Rankings are a numerical method of ranking the best FBS college football programs since the 1936 season. Point values were assigned for certain successes (win a national title, earn 25 points) and failures (get your program banned from the postseason, lose two points). The research department ran all the numbers through the computer to come up with the No. 1 program (and Nos. 2 to 119) of the past 73 seasons.

Why start with the 1936 season?

The AP poll was introduced that season, making it the first time the longest-standing news organization in the United States began ranking teams and crowning a national champion. Starting in 1937, the NCAA began recognizing "major college programs" (now known as the FBS). To accrue points, a program had to be recognized as one of these major programs by the NCAA. Those years are listed on pages 426 and 427 of this year's NCAA Football Record Book.

Explanation of the scoring system

A national title earns the biggest point value, but berths in major bowls, Heisman winners, bowl wins, conference record and top-5 finishes in the AP poll all were big point-getters, too. Conversely, postseason bans, probation and television bans are assigned negative point values. Here's a complete breakdown of the scoring system:

National title: 25 points
The full 25 points were awarded to any team that won one of the two major poll titles (AP, UPI or coaches) that season. No season had more than two title winners.

Berth in one of the major bowls: 10
Major bowls were defined as every Rose, Orange and Sugar bowl since '36; every Cotton Bowl from 1940 to '94 (i.e., from when it started taking the SWC champ until the Cotton was booted from the Bowl Alliance); and every Fiesta Bowl since the '86 season when the historic No. 1 Miami-vs.-No. 2 Penn State game changed the landscape of college football.

Major bowl win: 10

Best win/loss record in conference regular season: 10
These points were awarded to every team that had at least a share of the best overall record in a major football conference, regardless of divisional alignment. Independent schools were awarded the bonus if they were ranked ahead of at least three of the big six conference champions in a final regular-season poll that season.

Final AP top-5 finish: 10
All final poll points were awarded for the final poll put out by the AP that season.

Heisman winner: 8

Final AP top 6-10 finish: 6

Conference title championship-game bonus: 5
This bonus was given to a school only if it hadn't already gotten credit for having the best record in its conference's regular season.

Final AP top 11-25 finish: 4

Bowl appearance: 3
This was awarded for any NCAA-sanctioned bowl, and would be added to the previously mentioned major bowl points.

Bowl win: 3
10-win season: 2
Week as AP No. 1: 2
Win over AP No. 1: 1
Each consensus All-American: 1
First-round NFL draft pick (since '70): 1
Losing season: minus-2

There were lots of variables for when a school was handed penalties by the NCAA for infractions. Those penalties were graded as such:
Each year of television ban: minus-1
Each year of postseason ban: minus-2
Each year of overall probation: minus-1
Each year of financial-aid penalty: minus-1
Each year of recruiting penalties: minus-1
Each penalty of "show cause action:" minus-2

Now you know how the numbers were crunched. So when do you get to see the results? Here's the schedule:

Monday: 21-119
Tuesday: 16-20
Wednesday: 11-15
Thursday: 6-10
Friday: 1-5

Chris Fallica, Nick Loucks and Harold Shelton are researchers at ESPN.