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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | August 19, 2021

How the AP preseason football poll predicts the College Football Playoff

Preseason AP football poll: Breaking down the first 2021 rankings

In the 2020 college football season, Clemson was the preseason No. 1 for the second time in program history. The first came in 2019, when the Tigers were ahead of Alabama in the preseason AP Poll.

"But how much do preseason polls actually matter?" you might ask. We analyzed the data and it turns out fans of the AP preseason No. 1 team should be pretty excited.

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From the 2014 season through 2020, the No. 1 team in the AP preseason poll made the playoff six times — 2015 preseason No. 1 Ohio State was the only team from that group to not make the playoff.

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 3.0 1 7 0 6
2 5.3 1 13 0 4
3 7.4 1 NR 1 3
4 15.6 4 NR 2 1
5 6.0 1 20 0 4
6 14.4 1 NR 2 2
7 12.1 2 NR 1 2
8 15.4 7 NR 1 0
9 22.4 6 NR 3 0
10 15.6 4 NR 2 1
11 23.4 6 NR 5 0
12 16.3 1 NR 3 2
13 23.6 5 NR 4 0
14 13.3 4 20 0 1
15 21.1 3 NR 3 1
16 25.6 12 NR 4 0
17 23.6 12 NR 4 0
18 20.0 9 NR 3 0
19 18.6 4 NR 3 1
20 19.1 8 NR 3 0
21 19.7 6 NR 3 0
22 29.3 25 NR 6 0
23 25.0 10 NR 5 0
24 24.1 15 NR 4 0
25 24.4 11 NR 4 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.

Through a sample size of seven years, recent history says it's best to be ranked No. 1, No. 2 or No. 5 in the preseason AP poll. The preseason No. 4 team made the College Football Playoff for the first time in 2019 (Oklahoma).

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Teams ranked No. 1 through No. 7 in the preseason AP poll have combined for 22 of the 28 CFP appearances, with Oklahoma in 2015 making the biggest jump to the top four from No. 19 in the preseason AP poll.

Three of last season's playoff teams were ranked No. 1 (Clemson), No. 2 (Ohio State) and No. 3 (Alabama) in the AP poll, while Notre Dame was preseason No. 10.

The first seven 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 roughly three out of four years. Notre Dame was that team in the 2018 season, having been ranked No. 12 in the preseason. Clemson (No. 12 in 2015), Washington (No. 14 in 2016), Georgia (No. 15 in 2017) and Oklahoma (No. 19 in 2015) have also proven it's possible to climb into national title contention from a lower ranking in the preseason poll.

If you're feeling confident, pick a team from just outside the top 10, along with three schools ranked in the top seven of the preseason poll, because recent history says that's usually the recipe for determining who will be playing for a shot at the national championship.

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