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Wayne Staats | | November 2, 2021

How the first College Football Playoff rankings predict the semifinals

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All of the weekly College Football Playoff rankings generate debate. But is there anything we can learn from the first one of the season?

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:

  • Seventeen of the 28 teams to make the CFP were ranked in the top four in the first poll that season.
  • The 2020 season marked the first time the top four in the first rankings all made the CFP. However, there was one fewer weekly release than in other years — and two fewer than in 2014.

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 20 CFP appearances and have won six of the seven 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 (No. 7) 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
2019 Ohio State No. 1 Yes No. 2
2019 LSU No. 2 Yes No. 1
2019 Alabama No. 3 No No. 13
2019 Penn State No. 4 No No. 10
2020 Alabama No. 1 Yes No. 1
2020 Notre Dame No. 2 Yes No. 4
2020 Clemson No. 3 Yes No. 2
2020 Ohio State No. 4 Yes No. 3

If you're keeping track, of the 28 teams to rank in the top four of the first CFP rankings, more than half ended up in the semifinals (17, or 60.7 percent). Considering there are some big games toward the end of the season, including rivalries and conference championship games, a 60-percent rate seems pretty good.

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However, Alabama and Clemson skew those hit rates a bit. Of those 17 teams to start in the top four and finish there, the Crimson Tide and the Tigers are a combined 10 for 11 on the hit rate — only 2019 Alabama missed after debuting in the top 4. Other teams are 7 for 17 when they start in the top 4 when it comes to eventually reaching the semifinals.

Those high hit rates for Alabama and Clemson make sense. Not only have they had a monopoly on the top of the polls, but they've combined for 14 of the 21 wins in the CFP semis and finals.

School Times ranked in first CFP poll Times making CFP Percentage
Clemson 5 5 100 percent
Alabama 6 5 83.3 percent
Rest of nation 17 7 41.1 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.

Here's how the season's first No. 1s have finished in the final CFP rankings. Six of the seven safely made it to the semifinals. Last season, Alabama was the first to bring home the championship.

  • 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
  • 2019: Ohio State; Made CFP, lost semifinal
  • 2020: Alabama; Made CFP, won title

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Here's when the 2021 CFP rankings come out each week

Of course, with about 40 percent of the first top-4 CFP ranked teams missing, that means 11 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
2019 Clemson No. 5 No. 3
2019 Oklahoma No. 9 No. 4

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

  • Six of the 11 teams ranked Nos. 5 or 6, with another two ranked No. 7
  • Only two ranked outside the top 10

Oklahoma has been the most consistent program to rise from the outside to make the semifinals. The Sooners made the field after starting No. 15 (in 2015), No. 5 (in 2017) and No. 9 (2019).

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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