College Football Playoff rankings: How the CFP creates the Top 25 poll
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In the fall of 2014, the first-ever College Football Playoff became a reality, forever changing the sport.
But how does the system work in practice? Let's take a look at how the CFP selects the Top 25 rankings and the final four teams every football season.
College Football Playoff process
"Composed of some of college football’s most decorated ambassadors," the 13-member CFP Selection Committee is charged with making the weekly Top 25 rankings starting in the middle of each season.
The top-four ranked teams are automatically eligible for the CFP semifinal.
In addition, the committee selects teams for each of the annual New Year's Six bowl games.
1. The first list
To start, every College Football Playoff selection committee member creates a master list of the 30 teams they think are the best in the country.
The committee will give consideration to any team that three or more members add to their lists.
At the end of any round of selections, members can add other teams to the group, provided at least three or more members agree.
Each successive round consists of two steps: "listing," and "ranking."
2. Listing step
Each member lists what they feel are the six best college football teams, but not in any ranked order. The six teams that receive the most votes become the pool for the first step in the rankings.
3. Ranking step
This is when each selection committee member formally ranks the top-six teams from the listing step. The top-ranked team in each member's poll receives one point. The second-best team receives two points, the third-best three points, and etc.
The members then add their rankings together, and the three teams with the fewest points become the top three seeds. From there, the members hold the three teams not seeded for the next ranking step.
4. Picking the next six
Each member of the selection committee then lists the six best teams left, in no certain order. Whichever three teams get the most votes are then added to the three teams held over for the next ranking step.
5. Repeat until there's 25
College Football Playoff selectors repeat the third and fourth steps until they seed 25 total teams. There are seven rounds of voting, each consisting of a listing step and a ranking step. Here's how the process looks for the entire Top 25 rankings system.
- Rd 1: No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 teams
- Rd 2: No. 4, No. 5, No. 6
- Rd 3: No. 7, No. 8, No. 9
- Rd 4: No. 10, No. 11, No. 12, No. 13
- Rd 5: No. 14, No. 15, No. 16, No. 17
- Rd 6: No. 18, No. 19, No. 20, No. 21
- Rd 7: No. 22, No. 23, No. 24, No. 25
Members select teams ranked No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 in the first round. The fourth -, fifth-, and sixth-ranked teams are slotted in the second round.
Selectors rank the No. 7, No. 8, and No. 9 team in the third round. From there, the committee switches to ranking four teams each in Rounds 4, 5, 6, and 7.
Between each step, the 13 College Football Playoff selectors will research and evaluate each team before voting.
After each round, selectors can re-consider any grouping of three or more teams if three members vote to do so.
They then repeat the third step to see if they have to make any adjustments.
The selection committee releases the official Top 25 College Football Playoff rankings every Tuesday starting in the second half of the season.
The top four teams as seeded by the selectors' process are eligible for the semifinal games.
Committee members meet and release the Top 25 rankings either six or seven times, depending on how long the season is.
College Football Playoff selectors create Top 25 rankings based on their evaluation of teams’ performance on the field. The committee employs several metrics to select the best teams.
- Strength of schedule
- Head-to-head game results
- Results vs. teams in Top 25 rankings
- Results vs. common opponents
- Conference championships
Selectors are allowed to use a variety of advanced analytics to gauge teams' performance, but those numbers don't play a formal role in determining Top 25 rankings, which is a decision made by selectors' own judgement.
College Football Playoff structure
- Board of Managers
- Management Committee
- Selection Committee
Comprised of 11 university presidents and chancellors, the board of managers creates, inspects, and approves the annual budget and policy for the College Football Playoff. It hires and fires officers of the company in charge of the Playoff, and has overall complete and final authority.
The CFP management committee is responsible for running the company every day. It performs many of the tasks that the board does not, but answers to the board for everything. This group consists of 10 athletic conference commissioners and the Notre Dame athletic director.
As the name implies, the selection committee is responsible for choosing the Top 25 teams each week starting in the second half of the season. And, most crucially, in selecting the Top 4 teams eligible for the College Football Playoff semifinal games.
"The selection committee is comprised of experts in college football, and they use their expertise in the deliberations," according to the Playoff's statement on the group.
College Football Playoff history
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.
Ohio State won the first championship under the current system. Alabama (2015, ’17, ’20) and Clemson (2016 and ’18) are the only programs to win multiple titles in the playoff era.
Here is a list of every CFP national champion.
2014 — Ohio State def. Oregon
2015 — Alabama def. Clemson
2016 — Clemson def. Alabama
2017 — Alabama def. Georgia
2018 — Clemson def. Alabama
2019 — LSU def. Clemson
2020 — Alabama def. Ohio State
2021 — Georgia def. Alabama
Let's look at every final Top 4 College Football Playoff rankings, with the eventual national champion listed in bold.
- Florida State
- Ohio State
- Michigan State
- Ohio State
- Notre Dame
- Ohio State
- Ohio State
- Notre Dame