Breaking down the updated 2020 FPI college football rankings

Just three months after losing the college football national championship, the Clemson Tigers are back on top.

On top of our 2020 projections, anyway.

Dabo Swinney will have a hard time spinning his Tigers as underdogs after this, because the numbers from our Football Power Index (FPI) and the Allstate Playoff Predictor are clear: Clemson is the best team in college football and the clear favorite to win the national championship and regain its crown.

Clemson has a 36% chance to win it all this season, well beyond Ohio State’s 21% chance — the next highest. The Tigers also have by far the best chance to end up an undefeated national champion, at 26% (Ohio State is at 6%).

What’s fueling the Tigers’ strong projections? The same formula that made them our preseason favorites last year. Bring back one of the best quarterbacks in college football in Trevor Lawrence. Pair him with what we expect to be the best defense in college football — just like it was last season. And play a fairly easy schedule — 61st hardest from a top team’s perspective, though that is more difficult than last year. All that together results in an 81% chance for them to reach the playoff, just a shade lower than the 83% we projected a year ago.

Clemson’s toughest scheduled game this year, per FPI, is a road trip to South Bend, where the Tigers have “only” an 87% chance to come away victorious against Notre Dame. Clemson has a better than 90% chance to win every ACC contest it is set to play, the result of both the Tigers’ strength and a favorable conference schedule: They get Louisville at home and don’t play against the ACC’s second-best team, Virginia Tech.

That’s not to say that the Tigers have this thing wrapped up now. Far from it. There’s roughly a 2-in-3 chance that a team not named Clemson takes the national championship in 2020, assuming we have football — and the format of the season is unchanged — this year.

Before we dive into the rest of our projections, two quick notes. First, if you’re unfamiliar with FPI and how it works, feel free to check out this explainer on the model and our projections. Second, for the first time in years, we’ve given FPI a little face-lift. Jump on down to the section on Louisville’s offense to learn about the improvements we’ve made.

Most likely playoff teams: 3 repeats and a surprise

That Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama are the three most likely teams to reach the playoff and win the national championship will be a shock to exactly no one. The order could give folks pause for a second — Ohio State seems awfully dangerous, seeing Alabama third is a bit jarring — but really, that’s chalk.

We’ve already mentioned the value the model sees in powerhouse programs like Clemson bringing back high-end quarterbacks. The same is true of Ohio State, which has Justin Fields (third in QBR in 2019) back in 2020. And it’s kind of true for Alabama too. We got more than a cursory look at the Crimson Tide with Mac Jones at the helm last season (spoiler alert: The change to FPI we made means the model knows when Jones was playing!) and all in all the performance was strong. While not Tua Tagovailoa, Jones put up a 91.1 QBR after opponent adjustment, which means there’s reason to be optimistic about the Tide offense in 2020. Alabama’s offensive FPI ranks behind only Ohio State.

So that’s the first three. And there’s a huge dropoff between Alabama’s 59% chance to reach the playoff and the fourth-most likely team’s chances. But who is that fourth-most likely team?

It’s … Wisconsin.

FPI is surprisingly high on the Badgers, giving them a 34% chance to reach the playoff and a 6% shot to win the national championship, leading a tightly knit pack of dark horse contenders.

So what’s the secret to Wisconsin’s projection?

Well, the Badgers are bringing back a successful quarterback in Jack Coan, who finished eighth in Total QBR last season. They rank in the top 31 in both offensive and defensive experience and have continuity at head coach. That explains why FPI says Wisconsin is good, but it’s still surprising to see it with a better playoff chance than a team from, say, the Big 12, given that Ohio State is ahead of the Badgers and in the same conference.

But Wisconsin has fortune on its side in 2020. Because in a year when we think the Badgers are going to be pretty darned good, they also avoid Ohio State in the regular season. Right now in Big Ten football, that’s key. And while the Badgers would most likely face Ohio State in a potential Big Ten championship game (the Buckeyes have a 69% chance to win the Big Ten East), a loss there wouldn’t necessarily be disqualifying.

Because Wisconsin has a strong schedule, if the Badgers were to go 12-0 to start the year — including wins at Michigan and vs. Notre Dame and Minnesota — but lose in the Big Ten championship game, the Allstate Playoff Predictor would still give them a 74% chance to reach the playoff. They’d take that! That exact scenario — Wisconsin winning its scheduled contests but losing in Indianapolis — happens in more than 10% of our simulations. Part of the reason: None of the three opponents I mentioned earlier (Michigan, Notre Dame, Minnesota) cracked FPI’s top 15.

Defending champs among dark horses

Wisconsin’s projection to reach the playoff and win the national championship barely outpaces a cluster of secondary contenders with an outside shot to win it all. This is the group LSU found itself in this time last year, when we gave the Tigers a 6% chance to win the national championship.

That’s also where Ed Orgeron’s team finds itself this year, with the sixth-most likely chance to reach the playoff and win the national championship, after it lost not just Joe Burrow but NFL first-round draft picks Justin Jefferson and K’Lavon Chaisson and second-rounder Grant Delpit. Joe Brady bolted for the NFL too, though FPI is unaware of the coordinator change.

LSU trails Georgia and is just ahead of Penn State in the projections. The Bulldogs’ chances of reaching the playoff (26%) are reduced because they have to travel to Tuscaloosa and play Alabama this year. Despite the Bulldogs having a similar preseason FPI rating as the past two years, Georgia’s chances to reach the playoff are much lower than in those seasons (46% in 2018, 40% in 2019), thanks in part to that game. Alabama has a 72.5% chance to win the Week 3 contest.

For those tracking at home, that means that of the seven teams most likely to reach the playoff and win the national championship game, three are from the SEC and three are from the Big Ten. The Pac-12 and Big 12 check in with the eighth- and ninth-most likely teams to reach the playoff and win the national championship in Oregon and Oklahoma, respectively.

Those two conferences being so far down in the order raises some questions about …

The conference playoff race

The SEC and Big Ten have a 93% and 91% chance to put at least one team in the playoff, respectively. The ACC’s chance isn’t too far behind at 82% — almost entirely because of Clemson.

So how bad is the situation for the two remaining Power 5 conferences? Pretty bad.

In fact, both the SEC (34%) and Big Ten (29%) are more likely to put multiple teams into the playoff than the Pac-12 and Big 12 are to put a single team in, with those two conferences checking in at 28% and 27%, respectively.

Our model believes that each of the two conferences has two teams with at least a realistic shot at the playoff. For the Pac-12, that’s Oregon and USC. For the Big 12 it’s Oklahoma and, well …

Is Texas back?

Maybe! A year ago — when there was legitimate Longhorns hype — we wrote about how our numbers saw Oklahoma as the only realistic playoff threat out of the Big 12. This year, that’s no longer the case. Texas has a legitimate shot to win the Big 12 at 39% — just a hair behind Oklahoma at 41%.

And playoff hopes are not totally out of the question. There’s about a 10% chance the Longhorns work their way into college football’s final four — well beyond the 0.5% shot we gave the team last season. Back then, Texas was staring at a large infusion of new starters. But now the Longhorns bring back Sam Ehlinger (15th in QBR last year) and FPI is forecasting big improvement from the Texas defense, which ranks in the top 20 in terms of experience.

The Sooners (15%) remain the Big 12’s best playoff hope, but they are not the conference’s only playoff hope.

Did we spot UCF?

Yep. Despite having been scorned before, the Allstate Playoff Predictor says Knights fans can dare to dream again. FPI is bullish on UCF, designating the Knights as the 14th-best team in college football — by far the highest they’ve ever been in preseason FPI, dating back to 2005. The best they’d been previously is 37th. In addition, UCF’s schedule is just a little tougher than it has been in past seasons — and that’s a good thing for the team.

In order to have a shot at the playoff, the Knights need to win out and boast a slightly better résumé than they’ve had previously (probably need some luck elsewhere too). If UCF can go 13-0 — and we give the Knights a 16% chance to do that — this team has a chance.

The Louisville offense and changes to preseason FPI

As we mentioned at the top, we made some improvements to the way FPI works in the preseason. While the changes are minor for most teams, for a few they are significant. Louisville is one of those teams and a good example to illustrate what these changes look like.

Last season, the Cardinals started the season with Jawon Pass at quarterback. He played a couple of games before suffering a season-ending injury. Micale Cunningham took over and played most of the rest of the season, but Evan Conley worked in some time as well. But with Cunningham, Louisville was at its best, and he’s the presumed starter heading into 2020. Our old FPI would not know the difference between the 2019 offense under each of the three quarterbacks, but the new version does. And so it’s more optimistic about the Louisville offense because it’s thinking it likely will be the one with Cunningham at the helm, rather than a mix of the three.

And by the way, FPI is awfully high on Louisville’s offense, pegging it as fourth best in the country. That’s a bright spot for an ACC that is expected to be dominated by Clemson.

Speaking of ACC teams affected by these changes, Miami is another. Our old model treated all transfer quarterbacks the same. But D’Eriq King is not a generic transfer. The updated version knows that. The only problem is that FPI isn’t thrilled about the rest of the Hurricanes, so it still thinks Miami is only the 51st-best FBS team.

In addition to those quarterback-specific improvements, we made changes to the way we quantify experience. In the old version or our model, we simply counted the number of returning starters on offense and defense and denoted whether the starting QB returned or whether a transfer came in. Now we have added more position-specific measures to quantify the amount of experience returning at each position (for example, target share for wide receivers).

Playoff combinations

We’ll end the synopsis of these projections where we began: with Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama. The trio at the top are all featured in the seven most likely playoff combinations — including the 5% chance that the playoff is precisely those three teams and Wisconsin, the most likely of all of them.

Have a peek below at the 10 most likely combinations, but don’t let us lead you to believe that it is inevitable that those three teams will be there in the end. Ultimately, there is only a 27% chance that all three reach the playoff.

Mitchell Wesson contributed to this story.

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