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Wayne Staats | | October 30, 2018

How the first College Football Playoff rankings predict the semifinals

Bryan Lynn | USA Today Sports Images Alabama football

Though there are plenty of games and weeks to go, the College Football Playoff isn't as far off as we might think. On Tuesday, the selection committee announced the first CFP rankings of the season — with Alabama, Clemson, LSU and Notre Dame topping the poll.

RELATED: First CFP poll features Alabama, Clemson at the top | Complete Top 25

The top four teams in the final CFP poll will make the semifinals and compete for a national championship. But how much correlation has there been between the first rankings and the final rankings? We wondered how likely it is that teams ranked in the top four in the first ranking end up making the playoff. Here's what we found:

  • Eight of the 16 teams to make the CFP were ranked in the top four in the first poll that season.
  • Alabama and Clemson are the most successful teams, making the CFP all three times they ranked in the top four in the season's first ranking.

College Football Playoff rankings: How the first rankings predict the semifinals

Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have been the big four when it comes to dominating CFP conversations. Combined, they have 11 CFP appearances and have won all four CFP titles.

RELATED: Playoff turnover: 6 of 13 members new to CFP selection committee

But none of those four was the first team to be ranked No. 1 in the CFP.

That would be 2014 Mississippi State. The Bulldogs were No. 1 in the first three rankings, dropping out of the top spot after losing to Alabama. The Crimson Tide then jumped to No. 1.

Mississippi State lost once more in the regular season and then again to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, missing out on the first CFP semifinals and then a top-10 finish in the final polls.

Here's how the top four teams in the first CFP rankings of the season have finished:

Year Team First CFP rank Make CFP? Final CFP rank  
2014 Mississippi State No. 1 No No. 7  
2014 Florida State No. 2 Yes No. 3  
2014 Auburn No. 3 No No. 19  
2014 Ole Miss No. 4 No No. 9  
2015 Clemson No. 1 Yes No. 1  
2015 LSU No. 2 No No. 20  
2015 Ohio State No. 3 No No. 7  
2015 Alabama No. 4 Yes No. 2  
2016 Alabama No. 1 Yes No. 1  
2016 Clemson No. 2 Yes No. 2  
2016 Michigan No. 3 No No. 6  
2016 Texas A&M No. 4 No NR  
2017 Georgia No. 1 Yes No. 3  
2017 Alabama No. 2 Yes No. 4  
2017 Notre Dame No. 3 No No. 14  
2017 Clemson No. 4 Yes No. 1  

If you're keeping track, of the 16 teams to rank in the top four of the first CFP rankings, half ended up playing in the semifinals. Considering there are some big games toward the end of the season, including rivalries and conference championship games, a 50-percent hit rate seems pretty good.

However, Alabama is the, well, elephant in the room. Of the eight teams to start in the top four and finish there, the Crimson Tide are 3-for-3. Non-Alabama teams are then 5-for-13 on making the CFP if they start in the top four (38.5 percent). That's closer to 1/3 than 1/2.

RELATED: How to watch every College Football Playoff rankings release

Same goes for Clemson. The Tigers are 3-for-3 making the CFP when they start in the top four.

Those 100 percent hits for Alabama and Clemson make sense. Not only have they had a monopoly on the top of the polls, but they've met in the CFP three seasons in a row, including two national championship games. They've combined for the last three titles, too.

So here's the tough news for non-Alabama and non-Clemson teams. Through the first four years of the CFP, if you were ranked in the first four of the first poll, you made the CFP...only 20 percent of the time.

School Times ranked in first CFP poll Times making CFP Percentage
Alabama 3 3 100 percent
Clemson 3 3 100 percent
Rest of nation 10 2 20 percent

But does the specific ranking matter? Mississippi State's 2014 miss aside, does ranking No. 1 in the first poll help? In theory, that allows for a team to drop three spots and still make the semifinals.

MORE: How strength of schedule affects your CFP chances

Here's how the season's first No. 1s have finished in the final CFP rankings. Three of the four safely made it to the semifinals. But those three teams all lost in the National Championship Game.

  • 2014 Mississippi State: Missed CFP
  • 2015 Clemson: Made CFP, lost title
  • 2016 Alabama: Made CFP, lost title
  • 2017: Georgia: Made CFP, lost title

Of course, by half of the first four CFP ranked teams missing, that means eight teams have crashed into the field. Here's how far they've come from the outside:

School First CFP ranking Final CFP ranking
2014 Alabama No. 6 No. 1
2014 Oregon No. 5 No. 2
2014 Ohio State No. 16 No. 4
2015 Michigan State No. 7 No. 3
2015 Oklahoma No. 15 No. 4
2016 Ohio State No. 6 No. 3
2016 Washington No. 5 No. 4
2017 Oklahoma No. 5 No. 2

Most of the crashers weren't far from the initial top four:

  • Five of the eight teams ranked Nos. 5 or 6, with another ranked No. 7
  • Only two ranked outside the top 10

Last year, only Oklahoma moved into the top four after falling short in the first poll — and the Sooners were ranked No. 5.

But one team proved that a bad first ranking doesn't condemn a team to fail. In the first year of the CFP, Ohio State ranked No. 16 in the initial poll. The Buckeyes moved to No. 4 after trouncing Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and then beat Alabama and Oregon for the national championship.

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