How often will preseason unranked teams make the College Football Playoff?

Tom Pennington

In case you somehow missed it, on Sunday, the AP Top 25 as released, with Ohio State clocking in at #5. Now, with the College Football Playoff taking over for the BCS, the AP Poll doesn't technically matter, since it doesn't impact the playoff selection, and they're not going to call anybody but the playoff winner the champion. However, that doesn't mean that it's totally worthless.

The AP Poll, as it turns out, is still pretty good and figuring out who is going to be a good team, and who isn't. If you're not ranked in that preseason poll, especially if you're not in the top two or three teams in the "Also Receiving Votes", your chances of being in playoff contention are awfully slim.

We dug up all of the AP Polls of the BCS Era, 1998-2013, and checked to see who was in the Top 4 the week before bowls (not the final rankings), and compared it to where that team was ranked in the preseason. Under each year, we have the end of season ranking, with the preseason ranking in parentheses. Here is how it all shook out, and how close the AP got it each year.

1998

1) Tennessee  #10

2) Florida State #2

3) Ohio State  #1

4) Kansas State #6

1999

1) Florida State  #1

2) Virginia Tech #13

3) Nebraska   #6

4) Wisconsin #10

2000

1) Oklahoma   #19

2) Miami (FL)  #5

3) Florida State #2

4) Washington #13

2001

1) Miami (FL) #2

2) Oregon      #7

3) Colorado Unranked, got 105 votes

4) Nebraska #4

The preseason #1 team this season, Florida, was 5th.

2002

Week 16 top 4

1) Miami (FL)  #1

2) Ohio State  #13

3) Iowa Unranked, 11 votes in USA Today preseason poll, none in AP

4) Georgia #8

2003

1) Oklahoma  #1

2) USC           #8

3) LSU            #14

4) Michigan     #4

Just in case you wanted another reminder of how 2003 was an ETERNITY ago, Alabama wasn't ranked in the preseason Top 25, but Purdue, Virginia, Colorado State and NC State were.

2004

1) USC     #1

2) Oklahoma #2

3) Auburn #17

4) California #13

Auburn would, of course, go undefeated but miss out on a chance at the National Title, and is often pointed to as the case study for how a low preseason ranking can hurt a team. But in this hypothetical playoff world, they'd still get a shot!

2005

1) USC  #1

2) Texas   #2

3) Penn State  Unranked, got 11 votes

4) Ohio State #6

2006

1) Ohio State  #1

2) Florida        #7

3) Michigan    #14

4) LSU           #8

Let's close our eyes and pretend this is how the season ended.

2007

1) Ohio State  #11

2) LSU                #2

3) Virginia Tech   #9

4) Oklahoma       #8

Also of note? Hawaii is 12-0 at this point in the season, and they're only ranked 10th. Kansas is 11-1 (everybody outside of Ohio State has lost twice) and they're only ranked 8th. This is probably a year when people would throw a fit about the playoffs. This is also the second year that the preseason #1 team isn't in the top four (USC). At this point in the season, the Trojans would be ranked 7th.

2008

1) Oklahoma  #4

2) Florida        #5

3) Texas         #11

4) Alabama      #24

Undefeated Utah? They're 6th. Undefeated Boise State? They're 9th. Neither were ranked in the preseason, for what it's worth.

2009

1) Alabama   #5

2) Texas      #2

3) Cincinnati Unranked, got 44 votes

4) TCU         #17

2010

1) Auburn      #22

2) Oregon     #11

3) TCU          #6

4) Stanford    Unranked, got 81 votes

2011

1) LSU     #4

2) Alabama #2

3) Oklahoma State  #9

4) Stanford    #7

2012

1) Notre Dame  Unranked, 83 votes

2) Alabama #2

3) Florida #23

4) Oregon #5

2013

1) Florida State #11

2) Auburn Unranked, no votes

3) Alabama #1

4) Michigan State  Unranked, 95 votes

So if you're keeping score at home, since 1998, only eight teams have cracked the AP Top 4 while starting the season unranked in the preseason. Only two (2002 Iowa and 2013 Auburn) cracked the Top 4 without even getting any votes in the preseason AP Poll. Teams rising out from beyond the Top 25 is slightly more common now, with five of the teams happening since 2009, but it's still pretty rare.

Several of these teams are coming from just outside that Top 25 as well. Michigan State was the last team out of the preseason Top 25 last year, and Notre Dame, Stanford and Colorado were also right on the cusp of inclusion as well. If you're filling out that preseason bracket now, based on history, going chalk is probably a smart idea.

The teams just outside the Top 25 this year? UCF, Florida, Texas, Duke and Iowa. If a true underdog is going to creep into the playoff mix, it'll probably come from that group.

But I wouldn't bet on it.

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