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Wayne Staats | | October 31, 2023

How the first College Football Playoff rankings predict the semifinals

The most successful walk-ons in recent college football history

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, at least until expansion to 12 teams starting with the 2024 season. 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:

  • Twenty-one of the 36 teams to make the CFP were ranked in the top four in the first poll that season — that's 58.3 percent.
  • 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 and Ohio State have the most appearances in the semifinals. Combined, they have 18 appearances — so half of all spots — and six of the nine national championships. However, Georgia's dominance the last couple of seasons means the Bulldogs have taken the last two titles.

Still, 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
2021 Georgia No. 1 Yes No. 3
2021 Alabama No. 2 Yes No. 1
2021 Michigan State No. 3 No No. 10
2021 Oregon No. 4 No No. 14
2022 Tennessee No. 1 No No. 6
2022 Ohio State No. 2 Yes No. 4
2022 Georgia No. 3 Yes No. 1
2022 Clemson No. 4 No No. 7
2023 Ohio State No. 1 TBD TBD
2023 Georgia No. 2 TBD TBD
2023 Michigan No. 3  TBD TBD
2023 Florida State No. 4 TBD TBD

If you're keeping track, of the 36 teams to rank in the top four of the first CFP rankings, more than half ended up in the semifinals (21). Considering there are some big games toward the end of the season, including rivalries and conference championship games, a hit rate of nearly 60 percent isn't bad.

However, Alabama and Clemson skew those numbers bit. Of those 21 teams to start in the top four and finish there, the Crimson Tide and the Tigers are a combined 11 for 13 on the hit rate — only 2019 Alabama and 2022 Clemson missed after debuting in the top 4. Other teams are 10 for 23 when they start in the top 4 when it comes to eventually reaching the semifinals.

Those high marks for Alabama and Clemson make sense. Not only have they had a monopoly on the top of the polls for much of the CFP era, but they've combined for 15 of the 27 wins in the CFP semis and finals.

School Times ranked in first CFP poll Times making CFP Percentage
Clemson 6 5 83.3 percent
Alabama 8 6 85.7 percent
Rest of nation 23 10 43.4 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. Seven of the nine safely made it to the semifinals, though Tennessee missed last season.

  • 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
  • 2021: Georgia; Made CFP, won title
  • 2022: Tennessee: Missed CFP
  • 2023: Ohio State: TBD

Of course, with a little more than 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
2021 Michigan No. 7 No. 2
2021 Cincinnati No. 6 No. 4
2022 Michigan No. 5 No. 2
2022 TCU No. 7 No. 3

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

  • Eight of the 15 teams ranked Nos. 5 or 6, with another four 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), No. 7 (2018) 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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