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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | August 23, 2018

How the AP preseason football poll predicts the College Football Playoff

Alabama debuted at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 preseason poll for the third season in a row, when the poll was released Monday.

"But how much do preseason polls actually matter?" you might ask. We analyzed the data and it turns out Crimson Tide fans can be pretty confident heading into the 2018 season.

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Alabama is the only team that has made the College Football Playoff in all four years of its existence and from 2014 to 2017, the No. 1 team in the AP preseason poll made the playoff three times.

Here's how the preseason AP poll correlates to the final College Football Playoff poll in the CFP era.

The categories below indicate for each preseason ranking in the AP poll, the teams' average ranking in the final CFP poll, the best finish, the worst finish, the number of times a team has been not ranked in the final CFP poll and the number of times a team with that AP preseason ranking made the College Football Playoff.

AP Poll Avg. ranking Best ranking Worst ranking NR CFP
1 3.75 1 7 0 3
2 4.75 1 11 0 2
3 10.25 2 NR 1 2
4 16.5 8 NR 1 0
5 7 1 20 0 3
6 15.25 3 NR 1 1
7 9.25 2 15 0 1
8 15.5 8 25 0 0
9 21.75 6 NR 2 0
10 15.75 5 NR 1 0
11 24.5 8 NR 3 0
12 12.75 1 NR 1 1
13 25 17 NR 2 0
14 13.75 4 20 0 1
15 21.75 3 NR 2 1
16 26.75 17 NR 3 0
17 25.5 12 NR 3 0
18 19.75 9 NR 2 0
19 15.5 4 NR 1 1
20 20 9 NR 2 0
21 17.5 6 NR 1 0
22 30 NR NR 4 0
23 30 NR NR 4 0
24 23.5 16 NR 2 0
25 25 17 NR 2 0

*Note: When calculating average finish in the CFP poll for teams that were ranked in the preseason AP poll, we assigned a rank value of 30 for any team that wasn't ranked in the final CFP poll.

While the sample size is just four years, recent history says it's best to be ranked No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 or No. 5 in the preseason AP poll. The preseason No. 4 team hasn't just never made the College Football Playoff but its best finish is eighth and its worst finish was outside of the top 25.

MORE: Last year's preseason poll shows how hard it is to predict the Top 25

Teams ranked No. 1 through No. 7 in the preseason AP poll have combined for 12 of the 16 CFP appearances with Oklahoma in 2015 making the biggest jump to the top four – from No. 19 in the preseason poll.

If we – cautiously – use this data to look ahead to this season, history says that, on average, three of the top seven teams in the preseason AP poll will make this year's CFP. If that holds true, that means three of the following teams will make the playoff: Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Washington and Oklahoma.

Every school in that group besides Wisconsin has made the playoff and four of them have appeared in the CFP multiple times.

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The first four years of the playoff also tell us that, on average, one team from outside the top 10 of the preseason AP poll will make the CFP. Clemson (No. 12 in 2015), Washington (No. 14 in 2016), Georgia (No. 15 in 2017) and Oklahoma (No. 19 in 2015) have all proven it's possible to climb into national title contention from a lower ranking in the preseason poll.

Who could this year's surprise team be that starts the fall ranked in a similar range?

Michigan State, Notre Dame, Stanford, Michigan, USC, TCU, West Virginia, Mississippi State and Florida State are ranked No. 11 through No. 19.

If you're feeling confident, pick a team from that list, along with three schools ranked in the top seven of the preseason poll, because recent history says that's usually the recipe for the College Football Playoff.