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Andy Wittry | | July 24, 2023

How the AP preseason football poll predicts the College Football Playoff

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In the 2022 college football season, Alabama was the AP Poll's preseason No. 1 for its fifth time in the College Football Playoff era, though the Tide ended up missing out on the playoffs by coming in fifth in the final rankings.

"But how much do preseason polls actually matter?" you might ask. We analyzed the data and it turns out fans of the AP preseason No. 1 team should still be pretty excited.

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From the 2014 season through 2022, the No. 1 team in the AP preseason poll made the playoff seven times — 2015 preseason No. 1 Ohio State was the only team from that group to not make the playoff before Alabama last season.

Here's how the preseason AP poll correlates to the final College Football Playoff poll in the CFP era.

The categories below indicate for each preseason ranking in the AP poll, the teams' average ranking in the final CFP poll, the best finish, the worst finish, the number of times a team has been not ranked in the final CFP poll and the number of times a team with that AP preseason ranking made the College Football Playoff.

1 3 1 7 0 7
2 6.3 1 16 0 5
3 8 1 NR 1 4
4 13.6 4 NR 2 1
5 7.3 1 21 0 5
6 17.3 1 NR 3 2
7 13.6 2 NR 2 2
8 12.7 4 NR 1 2
9 21.3 5 NR 4 0
10 18.8 4 NR 4 1
11 21.4 6 NR 5 0
12 19.3 1 NR 5 2
13 24.2 5 NR 5 0
14 14.8 4 NR 1 1
15 23.1 3 NR 5 1
16 26.6 12 NR 6 0
17 25 12 NR 6 0
18 20.6 9 NR 4 0
19 21.1 4 NR 5 1
20 21.6 8 NR 5 0
21 22 6 NR 5 0
22 29.5 25 NR 8 0
23 25.4 10 NR 6 0
24 23.3 11 NR 5 0
25 25.6 11 NR 6 0

*Note: When calculating average finish in the CFP poll for teams that were ranked in the preseason AP poll, we assigned a rank value of 30 for any team that wasn't ranked in the final CFP poll.

Through a sample size of nine years, recent history says it's best to be ranked No. 1, No. 2 or No. 5 in the preseason AP poll. The preseason No. 4 team made the College Football Playoff for the first time in 2019 when Oklahoma earned the fourth playoff spot. The tables turned in 2021 as Oklahoma began the season ranked second before falling to No. 16 by season's end, the worst finish of any preseason No. 2 team to date.

Recent history also says that No. 22 is the worst preseason poll position as in all but one year (2018 Boise State finished at No. 25), the preseason No. 22 has missed the final College Football Playoff poll.

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Teams ranked No. 1 through No. 8 in the preseason AP poll have combined for 28 of the 36 CFP appearances, with Oklahoma in 2015 making the biggest jump as a preseason-ranked team to the top four from No. 19 in the preseason AP poll. In 2021, Michigan became the first team unranked in the preseason poll to make the College Football Playoff; the Wolverines received just 12 preseason votes, placing them 32nd to start the season. TCU then followed that up by going from unranked in the 2022 preseason to No. 3 in the last CFP poll.

The first nine years of the playoff also tell us that, on average, one team from outside the top 10 of the preseason AP poll will make the CFP three out of four years. TCU was the most recent team to achieve the feat, rising from unranked to the 2022 playoffs. Notre Dame was that team in the 2018 season, having been ranked No. 12 in the preseason. Clemson (No. 12 in 2015), Washington (No. 14 in 2016), Georgia (No. 15 in 2017) and Oklahoma (No. 19 in 2015) have also proven it's possible to climb into national title contention from a lower ranking in the preseason poll.

If you're feeling confident, pick a team from just outside the top 10, along with three schools ranked in the top eight of the preseason poll, because recent history says that's usually the recipe for determining who will be playing for a shot at the national championship.

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