We are still four-plus months from the start of the college football season but the prediction season is well underway. Spring games are wrapping up and the transfer portal is open again and while most fan bases feel good about the new year, just how many teams really have a chance to win the national title? Back to that in a moment.
In the NFL, 14 of the 32 teams make the playoffs and the league has shown a model where teams can finish last one season and win a division the next. It's possible a wild-card team gets hot and makes and wins the Super Bowl. In college football, the four-team playoff model has limited the ability of any team to overcome early season struggles and play their way into a playoff and win the championship. All that may change in 2024 when the college football playoff expands to 12 teams.
We love polls and rankings, whether we agree with them or not. We scream about our teams being disrespected and ranked too low and our rivals being too high but there has been a constant in college football polls and lately they have been correct in predicting the few who can win a national title.
Georgia has won back-to-back national titles and the Bulldogs are in position to do something that hasn't been done since......the Minnesota Gophers won three straight in 1934, 1935 and 1936. Can they do it? Well, one football prediction model believes they are one of the few who can win the title this upcoming season.
ESPN's FPI(Football Power Index https://www.espn.com/college-football/fpi ) is "a measure of a team's strength designed to predict its performance going forward for the rest of the season." It's one of many models designed to measure teams against each other. But like a lot of predictors, it needs data to put an order of teams before any games have been played. The FPI does not rank teams or predict a final four, it simply assigns a value based on a team's projected offensive, defensive and special teams component. The pre-season FPI uses data from the previous season with projected returning starters, past performance, recruiting rankings and coaching tenure. Then when the season starts, game data is then added and you get a weekly FPI for the season going forward.The FPI projects a win/loss total, chance to win six games, win a conference and get-to and win the national title.
The first FPI is out and if it ends up being correct there are three teams with an overwhelming chance to win the national title. Ohio State is given a 36.7% chance to win the national title. Alabama is second at 20.4% and the defending national champs, Georgia, is third with 19.1%. That's 76.2% totaled for those three teams. That is not exactly telling us that the title is up for grabs and as many as two dozen teams have a chance.
The beauty of all pre-season polls and computer models are that they are not 100% accurate. But there have been nine national championship games in the four-team playoff model and only seven teams have appeared in the final. Alabama has played in six, followed by Clemson with four and then Georgia(3), Ohio State(2) and then LSU, Oregon and TCU with one appearance each.
The FPI shows Texas having the fourth best chance to win the national title with just a 5.7% chance. LSU is next at 4.1% and Michigan at 3.9% round out the top five. Only 11 teams are given a 1% chance or greater to win the championship.
I don't know if the transfer portal/pay-for-play model will create parity in the sport. I don't believe we have enough of a sample size to know that the talent is being evenly distributed and my guess is it won't show that in the coming years. Many who believe change has happened will use this past college basketball season where we had FAU, San Diego State and Miami in the Final Four to say more teams have a chance to win the national title, but March Madness is a different model. It's six/seven rounds of games where upsets are more common. The four-team college football playoff model has shown chalk dominates. The 12-team tournament is likely to get a few more teams in the hunt but the sport has landed in an era where the same teams are playing for the title.
One of the things I hope is the new expanded playoff gives teams a chance to get hot after a slow start or overcome injuries and play their best football at the end of the season. But that is even a longshot at best since conferences made the decision to do away with divisions and just have their top two teams play in a title game because they wanted the best chance to get a team into the playoff. We are going to get three-loss teams in a 12-team playoff and the day may come that one of those teams wins four playoff games and wins a championship.
I do believe as conferences have expanded to 14 and 16 teams it gets tougher to run the table in a conference. With the move to nine-conference games for most leagues there are more games where a team can lose. We should want competitive league races. While TCU ran the table in the Big 12 last year, the rest of the league beat each other up with nine of the 10 teams losing at least two conference games. The 16-team SEC will have numerous teams that go 7-5 overall and finish 4-5(assuming they go to a nine-game league schedule) and be good teams. There will be a number of 8-4 teams that finish 5-4 in league play that will have no chance of making the playoffs unless the selection committee truly begins rewarding teams whose 8-4 is superior to a soft 10-2 record.
But is the gap that big from Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State to everyone else? Maybe, at least right now. Those three have dominated recruiting in recent years and whether you believe in those star rankings or not, they are more accurate than you think. You can still win games with a few four-star and a bunch of three-star players, but it's easier to win a lot of games with a bunch of five-star recruits.
Oklahoma, LSU, Michigan and a few other programs have had their moments in recent seasons and Clemson is not that far removed from playing for and winning a title but the Bulldogs, Crimson Tide and Buckeyes have been in their own class and the others are playing catch up.
FSU, USC, Texas and maybe a few others seem set for a big season but the FPI believes they are set for a nice season, but not a title season.
As for our state teams, the FPI says FSU sits 14th among all teams with an expected record of 8.7-3.5 with a 0.3% chance of winning the national title. My guess is, most Seminole fans would be disappointed winning less than nine games. The Florida Gators are 18th with a projected record of 6.8-5.2 and a 0.2% chance of winning the conference. FPI says the Gators have a 0% chance of winning the national title.
UCF is 26th in FPI with a projected 7.7-4.4 record in their first season in the Big 12. UCF is sixth among all Big 12 teams in FPI. Miami sits 29th in FPI with a projected record of 7.8-4.5 and a 6.3% chance of winning the ACC and a 0% chance of winning the national title.
The great thing about all this is that it means nothing today. We still will play a college football season and preseason polls and computer models can be, and usually are, wrong. But if given the choice of you getting Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State or the field, which are you taking when it comes to who will win the national title? When we get to a point that you can get 10-12 teams instead of three, then maybe we can say parity has arrived in the game. Until then, the sport seems to lack depth of true contenders...
Final note: The average American drinks 39.6 gallons of soda a year.