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College football rankings: How preseason Top 25 polls shape the CFB Playoff

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In college football, Top 25 rankings can make or break teams.

Early in the season, the AP Top 25 poll gives fans an idea of which are the best teams in the country. 

From there, the College Football Playoff selectors reveal their own rankings for the semifinal games that go on to determine the national champion.

But how important are the preseason rankings, really

Well, during the College Football Playoff era, they're actually a good predictor for whether or not a team will make the semifinal at season's end.

Preseason No. 1 rankings and the College Football Playoff

Ohio State Buckeyes college football team schedule, rankings

Ohio State won the first-ever College Football Playoff

Of all the preseason top-ranked teams during the College Football Playoff era, all but one have made the final four semifinal.

2014: Florida State (made CFP)

2015: Ohio State (didn't make CFP)

2016: Alabama (made CFP)

2017: Alabama (made CFP, won title)

2018: Alabama (made CFP)

2019: Clemson (made CFP)

2020: Clemson (made CFP)

2021: Alabama (made CFP)

Ohio State in 2015 was the sole preseason No. 1 team to not make the College Football Playoff, but it was very close.

The Buckeyes were in the top four rankings all season until Nov. 22, a day after losing to No. 9 Michigan State at home. That Spartans team finished at No. 3 and qualified for the CFP, losing to Alabama, 35-0, in the Cotton Bowl semifinal.

But notably, only one preseason No. 1 team has won the national championship in the CFP era: Alabama (11-1) made the Playoff despite not playing for the SEC Championship (it lost to No. 6 Auburn, the SEC West champion), jumping ahead of Big Ten champion, two-loss Ohio State.

Bama went on to win the national championship in overtime that year over Georgia (preseason No. 15), which also lost to Auburn in the regular season before beating them in the SEC title game.

RELATED: College Football Playoff Rankings Schedule for 2022 Season

Where else should you be ranked?

Alabama coach Nick Saban has built arguably the greatest dynasty in college football history.

Alabama holds College Football Playoff records in games and national championships

Few teams get the honor of being ranked No. 1 in the country in the preseason, and it's clearly not a good predictor of who will win the national championship. 

So where else is a good place to be ranked? Let's take a look at where the College Football Playoff champions placed in their respective preseason polls.

2014: Ohio State (preseason No. 5)

2015: Alabama (preseason No. 3)

2016: Clemson (preseason No. 2)

2017: Alabama (preseason No. 1)

2018: Clemson (preseason No. 2)

2019: LSU (preseason No. 6)

2020: Alabama (preseason No. 3)

2021: Georgia (preseason No. 5)

If history is any guide, future national champions need to be ranked in the top five in the preseason poll. 

Or if you want to get really specific, taking all the preseason polls into consideration and averaging out the eventual national champions, the best place to debut in the preseason rankings is exactly 3.375.

But it's not just top teams

Michigan, the only unranked preseason team to make the College Football Playoff

Michigan, the only unranked preseason team to make the College Football Playoff

Sure, everyone wants their team to rank at or near the top of the AP Top 25 poll. But it turns out, being just average could also be a good place to start out.

One team from outside the preseason top 10 has a chance to make the final four College Football Playoff rankings, based on recent seasons.

Provided, of course, they play a good schedule and win all their games.

Which schools made the CFP ranked No. 10 or lower in the preseason?

2021: Michigan (preseason unranked)

2021: Cincinnati (preseason No. 10)

2020: Notre Dame (preseason No. 10)

2018: Notre Dame (preseason No. 12)

2017: Georgia (preseason No. 15)

2016: Washington (preseason No. 14)

2015: Oklahoma (preseason No. 19)

2015: Clemson (preseason No. 12)

Of those teams, only Clemson (2015) and Georgia (2017) advanced to their respective national championship games. Alabama defeated both teams in both years.

To date, Michigan is the first and only team to not be ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 poll and make the College Football Playoff.

Where College Football Playoff teams ranked in preseason Top 25

Let's take a look at where every eventual College Football Playoff team ranked in that year's preseason Top 25 poll. 

Preseason AP rankings for each team are in parentheses, and national champions are in bold.

2014

  1. Alabama (No. 2)
  2. Oregon (No. 3)
  3. Florida State (No. 1)
  4. Ohio State (No. 5)

2015

  1. Clemson (No. 12)
  2. Alabama (No. 3)
  3. Michigan State (No. 5)
  4. Oklahoma (No. 19)

2016

  1. Alabama (No. 1)
  2. Clemson (No. 2)
  3. Ohio State (No. 6)
  4. Washington (No. 14)

2017

  1. Clemson (No. 5)
  2. Oklahoma (No. 7)
  3. Georgia (No. 15)
  4. Alabama (No. 1)

2018

  1. Alabama (No. 1)
  2. Clemson (No. 2)
  3. Notre Dame (No. 12)
  4. Oklahoma (No. 7)

2019

  1. LSU (No. 6)
  2. Ohio State (No. 5)
  3. Clemson (No. 1)
  4. Oklahoma (No. 4)

2020

  1. Alabama (No. 3)
  2. Clemson (No. 1)
  3. Ohio State (No. 2)
  4. Notre Dame (No. 10)

2021

  1. Alabama (No. 1)
  2. Michigan (Unranked)
  3. Georgia (No. 5)
  4. Cincinnati (No. 10)

How AP preseason No. 1 teams fare

While it's common for preseason No. 1 teams to make the College Football Playoff, those schools don't often go on to win the national championship.

In the CFP era, only Alabama pulled it off: the Crimson Tide began the 2017 season at No. 1, and stayed there until a regular season finale loss to Auburn.

Bama, then ranked No. 4, made the Playoff despite not playing for the SEC Championship.

How have preseason AP No. 1 ranked teams finished during the College Football Playoff era?

2014: Florida State (finished No. 5)

2015: Ohio State (finished No. 4)

2016: Alabama (finished No. 2)

2017: Alabama (finished No. 1)

2018: Alabama (finished No. 2)

2019: Clemson (finished No. 2)

2020: Clemson (finished No. 3)

2021: Alabama (finished No. 2)

College Football Playoff 2022-23

Dec. 31, 2022 Fiesta Bowl

Dec. 31, 2022 Peach Bowl

Jan. 9, 2023 National Championship

Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff championship after the 2014 season. Alabama has appeared in every playoff except one since its founding, and leads the nation with three CFP national championships.

Here's a rundown of every College Football Playoff to date.

2014

Rose Bowl — No. 2 Oregon 59, No. 3 Florida State 20

Sugar Bowl — No. 4 Ohio State 42, No. 1 Alabama 35

CFP National Championship — No. 4 Ohio State 42, No. 2 Oregon 20

2015

Orange Bowl — No. 1 Clemson 37, No. 4 Oklahoma 17

Cotton Bowl — No. 2 Alabama 38, No. 3 Michigan State 0

CFP National Championship — No. 2 Alabama 45, No. 1 Clemson 40

2016

Fiesta Bowl — No. 2 Clemson 31, No. 3 Ohio State 0

Peach Bowl — No. 1 Alabama 24, No. 4 Washington 7

CFP National Championship — No. 2 Clemson 35, No. 1 Alabama 31

2017

Rose Bowl — No. 3 Georgia 54, No. 2 Oklahoma 48 ( 2 OT)

Sugar Bowl — No. 4 Alabama 24, No. 1 Clemson 6

CFP National Championship — No. 4 Alabama 26, No. 3 Georgia (OT)

2018

Orange Bowl — No. 1 Alabama 45, No. 4 Oklahoma 34

Cotton Bowl — No. 2 Clemson 30, No. 3 Notre Dame 3

CFP National Championship — No. 2 Clemson 44, No. 1 Alabama 16

2019

Peach Bowl — No. 1 LSU 63, No. 4 Oklahoma 28

Fiesta Bowl — No. 3 Clemson 29, No. 2 Ohio State 23

CFP National Championship — No. 1 LSU 42, No. 3 Clemson 25

2020

Rose Bowl — No. 1 Alabama 31, No. 4 Notre Dame 14

Sugar Bowl — No. 3 Ohio State 49, No. 2 Clemson 28

CFP National Championship — No. 1 Alabama 52, No. 3 Ohio State 24

2021

Cotton Bowl — No. 1 Alabama 27, No. 4 Cincinnati 6

Orange Bowl — No. 3 Georgia 34, No. 2 Michigan 11

CFP National Championship — No. 3 Georgia 33, No. 1 Alabama 18

This is the ninth year that college football has a playoff system, which replaced the former Bowl Championship Series (BCS) ahead of the 2014 season.


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