Editor’s Note: We recently discovered that our previous preseason release of the Football Power Index in April contained data and modeling errors. We have remedied the issues and are re-releasing FPI here ahead of the 2021 season. ESPN Analytics regrets the error.
In five of the past six seasons, the top spot in college football has belonged to Alabama or Clemson. The battle between the two heavyweights is now extending to preseason forecasts, because less than two months before college football kicks off, Football Power Index and Allstate Playoff Predictor have a split decision between Nick Saban’s and Dabo Swinney’s teams.
Alabama is, in FPI’s view, the best team in the country. Even without Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith, Alabama is expected to have a top-3 three offense with Bryce Young at the helm, and a top-two defense … only behind Clemson.
While our model considers the Crimson Tide (very slightly) better overall than the Tigers, Clemson has the best chance to win the national championship at 28%, just edging out Alabama at 27%. Clemson has a significantly easier schedule — the 51st-most difficult in the FBS, well below the Crimson Tide’s 7th-ranked SOS. In the stalwart SEC, Alabama has just a 50% chance to win the conference title while Clemson has an 80% chance to take home the ACC crown. Clemson holds the edge in chance to reach the playoff: 78% to 72%.
Either way you look at it — by rank or championship chance — it’s very close. But even in a season when each graduated a first-round draft pick quarterback, the rest of college football is still looking up at Alabama and Clemson. For the unfamiliar, FPI is our statistical rating and projection system for every FBS team in college football. It powers the Allstate Playoff Predictor, which models the College Football Playoff selection committee based on its past behavior to determine the likelihood of teams reaching the CFP. You can read more about how FPI works here. And if you want the full list of FPI’s rankings and projections you can always find those at espn.com/fpi. As we stand now, in July, here are FPI’s current top 10 teams and their chance to win it all:
Several teams were disproportionately affected by the aforementioned errors in FPI’s initial release, and we wanted to call those out. Perhaps no team generated more attention than Mississippi State from that initial release, when we (in error, we now know), ranked the Bulldogs in the top 10. The Bulldogs are No. 24 in our current release.
Again, this was the result of data and modeling errors, and the change is of no reflection on anything occurring in Starkville. Nonetheless, we feel it’s necessary to call it out given the attention the Bulldogs’ original rank received. Likewise, we’d like to note other notable teams that were also significantly affected by the errors and their resulting move since: Miami (moved up from No. 20 to No. 10), Oklahoma State (down from No. 9 to No. 19), Washington (up from No. 59 to No. 25), Utah (up from No. 57 to No. 30), UCF (up from No. 70 to No. 34), BYU (up from No. 63 to No. 38), Coastal Carolina (down from No. 35 to No. 60), Kansas State (down from No. 44 to No. 67).
We anticipate FPI making one more (minor) update based on finalized roster data prior to the season.
Oklahoma leads stacked Big 12
In terms of average FPI rating, the SEC is on top, but our model believes in 2021 the Big 12 will ascend to become the second-best conference in the nation. And that starts at the top with Oklahoma, which has its best shot yet to win a national championship under Lincoln Riley.
The Tigers and Crimson Tide may still be at the top of the projections, but the Sooners are catching Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State all in seasons where they lose a premier quarterback while Oklahoma has retained its star signal caller in Spencer Rattler. And don’t assume just because it’s the Big 12 that this team is all offense: FPI actually predicts the Sooners will have the 9th-best defense this season after posting the fifth-best defensive efficiency in the FBS last year.
The result is that Oklahoma ranks third in FPI overall and has a 17% chance to win the national championship — also third-best. While the Big 12 is loaded this year, the Sooners remain heavy favorites to win the conference with a 68% shot.
Oklahoma’s biggest challenger within the conference? It’s now Texas. FPI is high on the Longhorns after their 7-3 2020 campaign and it primarily comes down to one reason: recruiting talent. Only Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson have more cumulative recruiting talent on their rosters than Texas, and the result is that the model expects a top-12 unit for the Longhorns on offense and defense.
But right behind Texas is another potential challenger: Iowa State. In stark contrast to Texas, the Cyclones’ strong forecast is fueled by returning experience on offense — not just QB Brock Purdy but receiver Xavier Hutchinson, tight end Charlie Kolar and running back Breece Hall all are back.
The Big 12 not only has multiple top-10 teams in the conference but there’s depth here, too: TCU and Oklahoma State also crack FPI’s top 20 — with defense leading the way for both sides after they each posted top-15 defensive efficiency seasons in 2020.
Put it altogether and the Big 12 has an 81% chance to return to the playoff this season, with a long-but-not-totally-impossible 7% shot at putting multiple teams in.
Ohio State a runaway favorite in the Big Ten
In a somewhat surprising development, FPI believes that Ohio State — not Oklahoma — will have the nation’s best offense this season, even after Justin Fields departed Columbus for Chicago.
How is that possible?
While the Sooners hold the edge at quarterback and overall returning offensive production, the Buckeyes have been the better offense in each of the last two seasons — according to our opponent-adjusted efficiency ranks — and have brought in better offensive recruits over the last four seasons.
As such, the Buckeyes rank No. 1 in offensive FPI, No. 4 in overall FPI and are the runaway favorites in the Big Ten with a 70% chance to win the conference — well ahead of Wisconsin (11%) and Penn State (6%). The Buckeyes are also the last major national championship contender, with a 13% chance to win it all. Which might have some wondering …
What about Georgia?
If there’s a big drop-off after Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State — why are the Bulldogs so far behind?
In FPI rank, Georgia is right there at No. 5 — about a field goal worse than Ohio State on a neutral field. But much more important for national championship contention is the gap between Georgia and Alabama — which we make as more than a touchdown — because the Crimson Tide can be (though not always) a blocker to the playoff. Alabama and Georgia don’t play in the regular season this year, so any potential matchup would occur in either the SEC championship game or the playoff.
Part of the reason for the gap with perception here is that while FPI knows how well JT Daniels played in his four games for the Bulldogs last season – his QBR of 89.1 would have only trailed Mac Jones, Fields and Matt Corral had he maintained that pace for an entire season — it won’t anoint anyone over a sample that small. If that was the real Daniels we saw last season, Georgia’s offensive FPI rank will surely move up from its current spot at No. 13.
As it stands now though, we project Georgia to have a 1-in-4 chance to reach the CFP and just a 4% shot to win the national championship.
Rough forecast for Pac-12
There’s an entire Power 5 conference missing from FPI’s top 10 list — the Pac-12. Our model is particularly skeptical of the Pac-12’s chances of putting a team in the playoff this season. It’s not impossible — Oregon has an 8% chance — but it’s a long shot.
The Pac-12’s problems are twofold. First, the obvious: It lacks an elite team. The Ducks come in at No. 12 in FPI’s rankings, which means they’re almost certainly going to have to beat expectations in order to reach the CFP. And then second: its two best playoff hopefuls — Oregon and USC — both have a rough out of conference matchup in the form of games at Ohio State and at Notre Dame, respectively. The result is that the Ducks have just a 9% chance to end up with 0 or 1 losses (including a potential conference championship game) and USC has just a 3% shot.
Ultimately, there’s a 91% chance that the conference’s playoff-less streak simply continues this season.
Cincinnati is the Group of 5 team to beat
The Bearcats are the only non-Power 5 team to crack FPI’s Top 25 — and it’s easy to see why the model is fond of them. On offense Cincinnati brings back Desmond Ridder, who ranked just one spot behind Rattler in QBR last season, while defensively the Bearcats are coming off a season in which they ranked 9th in opponent-adjusted efficiency.
That translates to a 47% chance for the Bearcats to win the American (UCF lurks at No. 34 in our rankings) but any optimistic fans hoping for a shot at the playoff might want to reset those dreams now: the Bearcats have a 2% shot at the playoff, the Allstate Playoff Predictor thinks. That’s more than every other Group of 5 team — all the rest are under 1% — but is still just a lottery ticket.
Alabama-Texas A&M leads list of most consequential games
No game has a larger impact on the College Football Playoff race than Alabama’s trip to College Station in Week 6. It’s a triple threat: It will be Alabama’s toughest scheduled contest (FPI gives the Crimson Tide a 66% chance to win), Texas A&M is a playoff contender in its own right, and the two teams are in the same division, so it could determine the SEC West title.
An Alabama loss would knock the Crimson Tide down to just a 51% chance to reach the playoff (down from 72%) and bump the Aggies to 39% (up from 22%). If Alabama can earn the road win, however, its playoff chances increase to 83% while A&M’s drop to 14%.
Week 6 is actually a heck of slate in terms of games of consequence: Georgia-Auburn, Notre Dame-Virginia Tech and the Red River Showdown are all that week, and all rank in the top 15 most impactful games of the season on the CFP race.
Don’t sleep on Week 1, however! Clemson-Georgia is the second-most-impactful scheduled game of the year, and Alabama-Miami also cracks the top 15.