Breaking rank

Since 1936, the AP poll has been a lightning rod for controversy or the most reliable way to rank nation's best college football teams. It all depends on whom you ask. Illustration by Frank Stockton for ESPN The Magazine

IN THE WEE hours of an autumn Saturday night-turned-Sunday morning, America sleeps. Many people are passed out, having celebrated their favorite school's latest gridiron triumph. Others struggle to fight off images of rivals celebrating at their expense. Either way, long after most college football fans and players hit the sack, their collective fate and self-image are -being decided.

In a West Coast kitchen one man shuffles Post-its with the names and records of 30 worthy teams. In a booth at a Midwestern roadside diner, another slides names up and down an Excel spreadsheet, careful not to get bacon grease on his keyboard. And in a Southern hotel sports bar, beer has been replaced by coffee as someone asks the bartender to take a break from cleaning and turn up the volume on a late- night re-air of College Football Scoreboard.

That's how the Associated Press Top 25, the oldest, most prestigious poll in all of American sports, takes shape. Five dozen voters -- men and women, sportswriters and broadcasters, young and old -- ingest as much late-night data as possible before finalizing their version of the perfect 25. What they eventually cobble together is more than just a list of football teams. It's a lightning rod that electrifies and electrocutes all at once. On Saturday everyone knows how good or bad wins and losses feel. But it isn't until the AP poll is released the following day that the scoreboard's true impact can be measured.

Few sheets of paper catch fire so easily.