As the college sports editor for USA Today, Joe Arace says he occasionally has to rouse football coaches from their sleep. Arace supervises the USA Today/CNN coaches' poll of the top 25 major college football teams. Sixty-two participating coaches are obliged to phone in their rankings to a special USA Today 800 number each week by 8:30 Sunday morning, Eastern Time. When anyone fails to submit his vote, ''we hunt them down,'' says Mr. Arace, who grants sleep-deprived coaches 10 or 15 minutes to gather their senses.
Such is the behind-the-scenes stuff of college football ratings, which have been more numerous than most people imagine. In a history of the poll systems given in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's 1995 record book, 21 different polling groups are identified. Some are defunct or have changed hands.
The most prominent of these are a writers' and broadcasters' poll conducted by the Associated Press since 1936 and a coaches' poll, begun by the United Press news service in 1950 but taken over by USA Today and the Cable News Network in 1991. Burger King has even created a fans' top- 10 poll this year, with callers using a 900 phone number that costs 79 cents a minute.
In 1974, Oklahoma did not appear in the coaches' top 20 despite its 11-0 record and No. 1 AP ranking. That's because the coaches made it their policy not to acknowledge teams on NCAA probation.
Often, the two major polls concur after the bowls on the identity of the No. 1 team. They differed just twice in the last 16 years: in 1990, when Colorado and Georgia Tech were nonconsensus picks; and in 1991, when Washington and Miami (Fla.) both claimed No. 1 honors.
Frank Dascenzo of the Durham, N.C., Herald-Sun has voted in the AP poll at various times the last three decades. He says that the advent of network and cable-TV coverage of college football makes it more possible for writers and broadcasters to assess teams across the United States.
Coaches, busy with their own games, may have fewer opportunities to make informed judgments. But in a protection stipulated by the American Football Coaches Association, the participating coaches are not identified publicly until the season ends, and even then their individual votes are not disclosed.