College football preseason FPI roundtable

The official preseason Football Power Index rankings have been released and the reactions have come quickly and in abundance.

Most teams are nearing the end of spring practice so what better time than now to dive into which teams are overrated, which are underrated and — based on the initial FPI — which can make a College Football Playoff run from the depths of the rankings.

Remember, it’s just mid-April and real college football games are still months away, so if your team isn’t in the top 10, top 25 or even top 100, there’s still time to turn it around as the season approaches. Georgia came in at No. 7 in last year’s initial FPI rankings, so keep the faith.

Biggest overall takeaway?

Chris Low: As the old cliché goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The top four teams in the FPI have been fixtures in the College Football Playoff, and if I were picking my four participants for the 2023 season, it would be Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson in that order. Alabama has been to seven of the eight playoffs. Clemson had been to six in a row before falling short last season. Ohio State has been to four of the eight playoffs, and defending national champion Georgia has been twice in the past five seasons.

Seth Walder: There’s a huge gap between the four powerhouses at the top of the rankings and everyone else. The difference between teams No. 4 (Clemson) and No. 5 (Notre Dame) is larger than the difference between No. 5 and No. 19 (Baylor). That’s not to say one of the teams in that muddled mix of a second or third tier (depending on how you want to count) can’t make a leap for a title challenge, it’s just completely unclear who that would be. Which is why not a single team outside of the top 4 has more than a 2% chance at a national championship.

Harry Lyles Jr.: There’s probably not going to be many surprises this season. The top 10 looks the way you might expect it to after last season for the most part. The six schools that have made multiple appearances in the College Football Playoff are all in the top eight. Along the same line of thought, it doesn’t appear that the FPI has much confidence in any of the Group of 5 schools. The highest-ranked is Cincinnati at 32 and then UCF at 33. The next closest G5 school is Boise State at 47. I’ll be interested to see which team is able to emerge as the season progresses, but we should expect the status quo to remain this season.

Mark Schlabach: As I’ve said in the past, I’ll have two of what FPI is having. Obviously, I don’t have much of a problem with the top three. I agree that Alabama and Ohio State are the two most talented teams in the FBS, and defending national champion Georgia brings back enough firepower on offense to give its defense time to reload. After that, each of the remaining top-10 teams in the FPI have major issues to address. I’m not sure Clemson can flip a switch and fix its problems on offense overnight and it lost both of its coordinators. Notre Dame has a first-time head coach, and Michigan lost its talented defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald. Texas has to fix its culture and don’t even get me started with what went down on the plains of Auburn over the past three months.

David Hale: Typically preseason metrics — even those based on pretty solid data — don’t do much for me. There’s just so much we don’t know, and in the era of the transfer portal, those questions have grown exponentially. But in some ways, that’s what makes Pitt’s place here — No. 9 — so interesting. The Panthers actually have very few unknowns. They return the most production in the nation, according to FPI, and while the loss of Kenny Pickett stings, the arrival of former USC star Kedon Slovis offers an obvious replacement. Add in a wide open ACC — particularly in the Coastal — and the path for Pitt to do something special isn’t so far-fetched. Consider the Panthers’ two regular-season losses last year came by a combined seven points (and the bowl loss came with its third-string QB at the helm) and a little better luck could’ve been enough to swing a playoff berth. Now FPI suggests luck isn’t really needed. This team is good enough to make a run regardless.

Which team is ranked too high?

Dave Wilson: Texas. Only once in the past 10 seasons did the Horns finish with a higher end-of-season ranking in the AP poll than they had in the preseason: In 2018, when they started at No. 23 and finished No. 9. That was the high-water mark of the past decade. They finished ranked in the final poll just three other times in that span: 19th in 2012, 25th in 2019 and 19th in 2020. Bijan Robinson is a star. Xavier Worthy had an incredible breakout freshman season. They landed Quinn Ewers and another weapon in receiver Isaiah Neyor and should be improved on offense. But they still finished 5-7 a year ago, and until they prove it, I’m going with the words of former Austin resident George W. Bush, who famously said, “Fool me once, shame on … shame on you. You fool me … you can’t get fooled again.”

Adam Rittenberg: Besides Texas? FPI doesn’t have a metric for booster-driven university inquiries designed to get a coach fired in February, but I can’t see Auburn sitting at No. 10 with a straight face. The Tigers have talent, but they usually do. Perhaps they will play inspired football for embattled coach Bryan Harsin, who survived the inquiry when few believed he would. But if things go poorly for the Tigers, especially early on, they could begin to spiral, given the negativity that looms around Harsin and the program. To see Auburn ahead of Texas A&M, Utah, Miami, Baylor and others just doesn’t add up to me.

Alex Scarborough: No way is Texas the seventh best team in the country. Quinn Ewers could be a revelation at quarterback and it still won’t be enough to flip a roster that finished 5-7 last season. But, hey, it’s too easy to pick on the Longhorns these days. Instead, let’s turn our attention to Auburn. If you had your head buried in the sand since the season ended, you’ll be forgiven for not noticing the flood of transfers, how a number of assistant coaches left and the attempted coup of head coach Bryan Harsin. It was … interesting. Oh, and let’s not forget that Mr. Auburn, three-year starting quarterback Bo Nix, is gone. Given all the turnover and turmoil, a good season is probably winning eight games, which isn’t worthy of the top 25 let alone the top 10.

Walder: Auburn. There’s some shock value to Texas’ rank, but I can see how FPI ended up where it did: The Longhorns rank highly in returning production and recruiting talent. Auburn is less of a standout in those categories, but FPI still forecasts a jump from No. 31 in total efficiency last season to No. 10 in FPI this year. Don’t get me wrong: In FPI, I trust, but some teams are tougher sells than others, and I’d put Auburn in that group.

Which team is ranked too low?

Schlabach: NC State. I’m not sure the Wolfpack shouldn’t be the favorites in the ACC, and FPI has them ranked No. 26, behind conference foes Clemson, Pittsburgh, Miami and North Carolina. NC State might have won 10 games in a season for only the second time in 116 years if their Holiday Bowl matchup with UCLA hadn’t been canceled because of COVID-19 issues. Quarterback Devin Leary might be a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, after throwing for 3,433 yards with 35 touchdowns in 2021. Four starting offensive linemen are returning, although NC State will have to find capable tailbacks and a new No. 1 receiver. As many as 14 of the top 15 tacklers are expected back. The biggest question is if NC State can handle big expectations, and FPI apparently doesn’t think so.

Low: Where’s the love for Kyle Whittingham and Utah. The Utes all the way down at No. 15? They won the Pac-12 last season, have several key pieces returning and may be the Pac-12’s best bet to make the playoff in years. We’ll find out early. They travel to Florida to open the season on Sept. 3.

Rittenberg: I’m guessing NC State will be a trendy pick, and I could make a good case for Mississippi State with Will Rogers and others returning in coach Mike Leach’s offense. Utah is a team that likely will never project that well in FPI, because of recruiting rankings, but the Utes are a top-10 team in my eyes. They return quarterback Cam Rising, running back Tavion Thomas and other core pieces from the Pac-12 championship team. Utah is the clear favorite in the Pac-12, and could be a CFP contender if it gets past Florida in the opener. The Utes have some holes to fill, especially linebacker Devin Lloyd and receiver/returner Britain Covey, but they return a team no one will want to contend with in the fall.

Hale: The thing people often mistake about FPI is that it isn’t intended to be a ranking akin to the AP top 25. It’s a predictive metric that gauges the likelihood of future success. By design, it ranks the most talented teams higher than the Group of 5 upstarts. So the question here isn’t so much about which team will have a record that warrants a higher ranking, but which team is more talented than FPI is giving credit for. And on that front, USC seems like the clear answer. Yes, we know there are big questions still for the Trojans, and Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams don’t automatically turn USC into title contenders. But the upside of this team certainly seems a good bit better than its current ranking at No. 37, and I’d happily take a wager that USC will be a far better team than a number of programs ahead of it.

Walder: Louisville. The Cardinals rank 7th in returning non-QB offensive production to complement Malik Cunningham, who also ranked 7th in QBR last season — the second time he’s ranked in the top 10 in the metric. That’s quite a combination! FPI does see the Cardinals improving: Louisville ranked 43rd in total efficiency and they’re 36th in FPI — but I think there’s potential for a larger jump.

Wilson: Wisconsin. The Badgers got off to a rough start last season, but finished strong, winning eight of their last nine games, although that one loss — to Minnesota — cost them the Big Ten West title. But in the process, they found their next star running back in Braelon Allen, who had eight 100-yard games in his nine games as the featured back. Graham Mertz passed for more than 200 yards just three times, but gets a new offensive coordinator in Bobby Engram, who spent eight years with the Baltimore Ravens previously. If Engram can coax a little more consistency from Mertz, the Badgers and their stingy defense could be a factor.

Which team outside the top 10 could make a title run?

Hale: Two things are true here. The first is that teams that don’t recruit a sufficient amount of blue-chip recruits aren’t winning a national championship. That narrows the possibilities significantly. The second is that picking the same blue bloods again and again is no fun. So, where’s the overlap on that Venn diagram? Miami, Oregon and Wisconsin could all make a case, but it seems clear the real sleeping giant is Texas A&M. The Aggies just inked their best recruiting class in history. Jimbo Fisher beat Alabama last year. The offensive line could be among the country’s best and the defense is strong. The pieces are all there — all except, maybe, a quarterback. Is there a star somewhere amongst Haynes King, Max Johnson and Conner Weigman? If there is, the Aggies aren’t so much an underdog as a legitimate threat to win it all.

Lyles Jr.: Maybe No. 14 Texas A&M? The Aggies have plenty of talent with 59 signees from the ESPN 300 in their past four classes, including 29 of those in the top 100– only Alabama and Georgia have more. Their season was somewhat derailed last year after Haynes King broke his leg in the second game of the season, and he’ll now be in a healthy quarterback competition with LSU transfer Max Johnson and No. 1 pocket passer in the ESPN 300, Conner Weigman. The defense is going to have to be retooled and their schedule isn’t favorable, but given their talent potential compared to others, I’ll take the Aggies.

Low: Texas A&M has recruited like gangbusters under Jimbo Fisher and was on the cusp of making the playoff in 2020. Playing in the SEC West is a grind, but at some point, the Aggies are going to break through and make the playoff. Maybe this is that year after starting at No. 14 in the FPI.

Scarborough: There’s a logjam at the top of college football, and honestly I don’t see a team outside of the top 10 that’s ready to break through. But if I’m going to roll the dice and put my money anywhere, I’m splitting it among two Big 12 teams: Baylor and Oklahoma State. Why? Well, they both played in the conference championship game last season and they both return their starting quarterbacks. Also: Have you seen their respective nonconference schedules? There isn’t a top-40 team in the bunch. Oklahoma State is playing Central Michigan, Arizona State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, while Baylor is set to face Albany, Texas State and BYU.

Wilson: Utah. The Utes are loaded, and went punch-for-punch with Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, a game the Utes could easily have won despite losing their starting quarterback in the 48-45 slugfest. Kyle Whittingham is returning 73% of his total offensive production, including the first-team Pac-12 quarterback (Cameron Rising) and running back (Tavion Thomas). There are holes to fill on defense, no doubt, but there are pieces in place for a breakthrough for Kyle Whittingham. With Oregon and USC breaking in new coaches, the time is right for Utah.

Walder: USC. Any team outside the top 10 is an extreme long shot to win it all, and so we’re just looking for pure upside. Hard not to see it with the Trojans: a new, proven head coach paired with his QB Caleb Williams — who ranked 4th in QBR last season. USC has a long way to climb to get into the title conversation, but at least the Trojans play in a very winnable conference with a relatively easy schedule (SOS rank: 66th), which should make a playoff berth a bit easier. College football preseason FPI roundtable

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