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Wayne Staats | | September 19, 2019

How the first College Football Playoff rankings predict the semifinals

2019 college football running backs to watch

Though there are plenty of games and weeks to go, the College Football Playoff isn't as far off as we might think. The first 2019 CFP rankings will be revealed at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

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:

  • Eleven of the 20 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 four 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 14 CFP appearances and have won all five CFP titles.

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  
2018 Alabama No. 1 Yes No. 1  
2018 Clemson No. 2 Yes No. 2  
2018 LSU No. 3 No No. 11  
2018 Notre Dame No. 4 Yes No. 3  

If you're keeping track, of the 20 teams to rank in the top four of the first CFP rankings, a little more than half ended up in the semifinals (11 of 20). Considering there are some big games toward the end of the season, including rivalries and conference championship games, a better-than-50-percent rate seems pretty good.

CFP RANKINGS RELEASE: The 2019 announcement schedule

However, Alabama and Clemson skew those hit rates a bit. Of the 11 teams to start in the top four and finish there, both the Crimson Tide and the Tigers are 4-for-4. Everyone else is only 3-for-12.

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 four seasons in a row, including three national championship games. They've combined for the last four titles, too.

So here's the tough news for non-Alabama and non-Clemson teams. Through the first five years of the CFP, if you were ranked in the first four of the first poll, you made the CFP...only 25 percent of the time.

School Times ranked in first CFP poll Times making CFP Percentage
Alabama 4 4 100 percent
Clemson 4 4 100 percent
Rest of nation 12 3 25 percent

CFP SCHEDULE: This year's semifinals and title game information

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.

Here's how the season's first No. 1s have finished in the final CFP rankings. Four of the five safely made it to the semifinals. But those four 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
  • 2018: Alabama: Made CFP, lost title

Of course, by nearly half of the first four CFP ranked teams missing, that means nine teams have crashed into the field from outside the top four. 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
2018 Oklahoma No. 7 No. 4

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

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

In each of the last two seasons, Oklahoma moved into the top four after falling short in the first poll — and the Sooners were ranked No. 5 and No. 7. So they didn't need to rise too much.

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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