by Brian Fremeau
The 2017 college football season is upon us, and that means it is time once again for Alabama and Ohio State to dominate the field. In the last ten seasons, the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes have combined to win 220 games against FBS opponents and lose only 40 times. Each has an average margin of victory over FBS opponents in that stretch of more than 17 points per game.
Alabama and Ohio State have finished in the FEI top five in each of the last three seasons. They have combined to win 74 games against FBS opponents and have lost only eight times in that three-year span. They have five combined College Football Playoff appearances since 2014, and two national championships. They have the best multi-year recruiting profiles in the nation. They are loaded once again for another title chase.
The FEI ratings projections give Alabama a 42.0 percent chance of running the table through the regular season, and a whopping 82.7 percent chance of finishing 11-1 or 12-0. Ohio State is nearly just as likely to dominate its regular season schedule (38.2 percent chance to finish undefeated, 78.6 percent chance of 11-1 or 12-0). Those percentages speak both to the strength of the programs and to the separation each has created within its respective conference. The Crimson Tide and Buckeyes are the best bets to contend for the national championship.
Other contenders will certainly emerge, but it is very difficult at this point to identify which ones will do so and which ones will fall out of the race early on. The next tier of challengers includes recent national champions and championship contenders such as Clemson, Florida State, Oklahoma, and USC. Each has recent performance history and a strong recruiting profile to bolster its projection. Each also has at least one marquee game on its early-season schedule that might set the stage for a playoff run -- or possibly derail it early in the year.
The Seminoles face Alabama in Atlanta this weekend. On September 9, the Sooners face Ohio State and USC faces Stanford. The defending playoff champion Clemson Tigers face Auburn and returning Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson's Louisville in back-to-back weeks in September. We could have four or more combined losses suffered by the top six teams in the preseason FEI projections before the end of the month.
Recent College Football Playoff history suggests that one of the playoff participants will emerge from somewhere a bit further down the projected rankings -- but not too far. Every team that earned a berth in the College Football Playoff thus far ranked among the top 20 in our preseason projections prior to that run. So which teams in the next tier have a good shot at making a big run and pulling up alongside Alabama and Ohio State in the playoff race?
The best chance at going undefeated outside of Tuscaloosa and Columbus belongs to Wisconsin. The Badgers will face only one projected top-20 opponent (Michigan, and not until November 18) and only three projected top-50 opponents on their entire schedule. Wisconsin's 11.2 percent chance to run the table through the regular season is no sure thing, but there's a very good chance they'll carry an undefeated record deep into conference play.
The Washington Huskies are well positioned to make their second-straight playoff run. The Huskies have the nation's 64th-strongest schedule, with a particularly weak non-conference slate (Rutgers, Montana, and Fresno State) to start the year. Washington ranks behind only Alabama and Ohio State in its likelihood to rip off a 6-0 start against FBS opponents (43.8 percent).
Penn State isn't far behind Washington in that measure -- the Nittany Lions have a 36.7 percent chance to start 6-0 this year, fourth-best among Power 5 teams. Penn State nearly spun a two-loss regular season into a CFP playoff berth last year, and their projected explosive offense has a good chance of rolling into mid-October without a blemish. But they'll face Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive weeks after that, and the FEI projections expect a stumble or two at that point in the year.
There are a few teams in the FEI top 20 I don't anticipate to be national contenders, but do expect to have a solid year after struggling in 2016. TCU (5-7 against FBS opponents last season), Oregon (3-8), and Notre Dame (4-8) each have recent program history propping up their projections in 2017. Those program ratings aren't foolproof predictors, but the strong correlation between Program FEI and next-year FEI suggests that at least two of the three are due for a pretty good season this fall.
[ad placeholder 3]
The preseason projected FEI ratings for all 130 FBS teams in 2017 are listed below. As in past years, these ratings will be a factor in each of the next six weeks, until all projected data is eliminated from the formula by midseason.
FEI 2017 Projected Ratings
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted drive efficiency. Preseason projected ratings are a function of five-year program ratings, recent recruiting success, and returning offensive and defensive experience. Strength of schedule (SOS) ratings are a function of the projected FEI ratings of a given team's schedule of opponents and the location (home/away/neutral) of each game, representing the average number of losses an elite team (two standard deviations better than average) would have against the schedule.
|35||North Carolina State||0-0||0.066||1.39||19|
|47||San Diego State||0-0||0.044||0.42||98|
|111||San Jose State||0-0||-0.119||0.60||76|
|124||New Mexico State||0-0||-0.178||0.37||101|