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Navigating the College Football Playoff Rankings path

The initial rankings play a role, but the final four teams can come from anywhere.

CFP National Championship Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With the releasing of the initial College Football Playoff rankings, fans of all 25 teams started planning their own specific path into one of the final four spots. The creation of the CFP Poll has been a great step in the right direction for college football, offering a better system to determine a champion and a little more visibility into the selection process.

There are still plenty of unknown factors, however, and the human element makes projecting out the playoff teams fairly impossible. But with four years of data to go off, there are at least some empirical trends that can be used to identify teams’ possibilities of making the playoff.

Initial rankings do matter

Sixteen teams have been ranked in the top four of the initial CFP Poll (obviously) and eight of those teams have ended up in the playoff. In fact, other than No. 1 Mississippi State in 2014 — who lost two of its last three including one against CFP competitor Alabama — and No. 2 LSU in 2015, a team who racked up three straight losses in November, every team ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the initial rankings have made the playoff.

Oddly enough, no team ranked No. 3 in the initial release have ended in the top four (sorry, LSU!), but this is more coincidence than anything notable. What is interesting, though, is while only one of the top four teams ranked in 2014 made the playoff, two teams in each of 2015 and 2016 did make it, as well as three of the teams in 2017. It seems the committee is either getting better with its first rankings, sticking with its initial picks, or both.

Teams who kept their spot

Year Team Initial Final
Year Team Initial Final
2015 Clemson 1 1
2016 Alabama 1 1
2017 Georgia 1 3
2014 Florida State 2 3
2016 Clemson 2 2
2017 Alabama 2 4
2015 Alabama 4 2
2017 Clemson 4 1

Falling out is usually justified

The eight teams who did fall out of the initial top four had no one but themselves to blame. All suffered at least one loss, and no one was ranked higher than No. 6 — Michigan, of course — in the final poll, meaning there is not a clear example of someone who truly got snubbed from their initial spot.

The 2016 Wolverines were initially ranked No. 3 but lost those two painful games down the stretch and had little argument after falling to Ohio State, who did make the playoffs. The previous year, the Buckeyes started at No. 3 but lost to Michigan State, who went on to win the Big Ten and claim a playoff spot. Similarly, No. 1 Mississippi State lost twice at the end of 2014, with one of those losses coming to Alabama who got the SEC title and a playoff berth.

The rest of the teams with an initial high ranking all fell off more sharply. As expected, winning out is enough to maintain a top four spot, and even one loss could be enough to stay. However, more often than not it means playing with fire, especially if the loss comes at the hands of a team who is also in the hunt.

Teams who lost their spot

Year Team Initial Final
Year Team Initial Final
2014 Mississippi State 1 7
2015 LSU 2 20
2014 Auburn 3 19
2015 Ohio State 3 7
2016 Michigan 3 6
2017 Notre Dame 3 14
2014 Ole Miss 4 9
2016 Texas A&M 4 NR

Starting low is not the end of the world, but it helps to be closer

The two teams to make the biggest jump into the playoff are 2014 Ohio State and 2015 Oklahoma, who were ranked No. 16 and No. 15, respectively. Both teams suffered early losses but won out, won their conference and recorded multiple victories against ranked teams along the way.

Unsurprisingly, six of the eight teams to break their way into the final four were ranked between No. 5 and No. 7, with three of the teams ranked fifth eventually making the playoff. Being one step below and simply taking care of business is likely enough to earn one of the coveted bids.

Teams who jumped into the top four

Year Team Initial Final
Year Team Initial Final
2014 Oregon 5 2
2016 Washington 5 4
2017 Oklahoma 5 2
2014 Alabama 6 1
2016 Ohio State 6 3
2015 Michigan State 7 3
2015 Oklahoma 15 4
2014 Ohio State 16 4

This should be encouraging for Michigan. Even though being ranked in the top four is certainly an advantage, there is plenty of evidence to show those ranked in the next tier have every reason to feel optimistic. In fact, teams ranked between No. 5 and No. 7 in the initial CFP Poll have made more playoff appearances than teams initially ranked between No. 2 and No. 4. In fact, the fifth-ranked team each of the past two seasons has ended up in the playoff.

So keep the faith; the opportunity is right there.

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