College Football Playoff rankings: How much does first poll matter?

College Football Playoff rankings: How much does first poll matter?

The 11-person College Football Playoff committee, after meeting at the Gaylord Texan Report in Grapevine, Tex., will release its initial Top 25 rankings via ESPN on Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET.

How much do these rankings mean? Technically, not much, since nothing is guaranteed until Selection Sunday on Dec. 5, when the four invitations to college football’s eighth playoff tournament will be handed out.

But not only does the initial ranking give the college football world a window into how this specific committee is evaluating teams, we can also look at some history to see how the initial ranking can reflect the actual four playoff teams that emerge.

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In the last four years, an average of three eventual playoff teams have found themselves in the top four spots of the initial ranking. Last season, all four teams — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame — were inside the coveted top four both in the initial and final rankings.

That was a far cry from the first playoff selection in 2014, when just one team inside the top four of the initial ranking reached the playoff. Three SEC West teams — Mississippi State, Auburn and Ole Miss — were ranked No. 1, 3 and 4 respectively in the first poll. But it was a fourth SEC West team — Alabama — that landed in the playoff as the No. 1 seed, while the others were on the outside looking in.

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No team ranked lower than No. 9 in the initial release has reached the playoff since 2015, and only two teams outside the top 10 have ever reached the playoff. In 2014, Ohio State came from No. 16 in the initial ranking all the way to No. 4, and then won the national championship. The next year, Oklahoma was ranked No. 15, but then rose to No. 4 on Selection Sunday.

In the last five years, every No. 1 and 2 in the initial rankings has reached the playoffs.

The No. 1 team in the initial poll has reached the playoff in each of the last six years. Only Mississippi State in 2014, coached by Dan Mullen, did not get a bid.

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The most precarious position in the initial poll has been No. 3, where only once in seven years has that team reached the playoff.

Here is a look at the history of the CFP rankings, with the teams in the playoff field listed with their ranking from the initial release in parentheses.

2020

Ranking Teams
Initial ranking Alabama*, Notre Dame*, Clemson*, Ohio State*
Playoff field Alabama (1), Clemson (3), Ohio State (4), Notre Dame (2)

* – made playoff

2019

Ranking Teams
Initial ranking Ohio State*, LSU*, Alabama, Penn State
Playoff field LSU (2), Ohio State (1), Clemson (5), Oklahoma (9)

* – made playoff

2018

Ranking Teams
Initial ranking Alabama*, Clemson*, LSU, Notre Dame*
Playoff field Alabama (1), Clemson (2), Notre Dame (4), Oklahoma (7)

* – made playoff

2017

Ranking Teams
Initial ranking Georgia*, Alabama*, Notre Dame, Clemson*
Playoff field Clemson (4), Oklahoma (5), Georgia (1), Alabama (2)

* – made playoff

2016

Ranking Teams
Initial ranking Alabama*, Clemson*, Michigan, Texas A&M
Playoff field Alabama (1), Ohio State (6), Clemson (2), Washington (5)

* – made playoff

2015

Ranking Teams
Initial ranking Clemson*, LSU, Ohio State, Alabama*
Playoff field Clemson (1), Alabama (4), Michigan State (7), Oklahoma (15)

* – made playoff

2014

Ranking Teams
Initial ranking Miss. State, Florida State*, Auburn, Ole Miss
Playoff field Alabama (6), Oregon (5), Florida State (2), Ohio State (16)

* – made playoff

 





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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.