It’s mid-April, which means it’s time for the first college football FPI rankings.
With the FPI rankings officially out, our writers tackled what the offseason is meant for: debate and speculation.
Which teams are over- and underranked by the FPI? Outside the top 25, which teams have the best chance at proving the preseason rankings wrong? And, what did the FPI get absolutely right despite the season being months away?
We’ve got you covered on all of these topics as we forecast the 2023 season.
A quick reminder on how the FPI works from ESPN’s Seth Walder: The Football Power Index is our season-long ratings and projections system. In the preseason it relies on past performance on offense and defense, returning and transfer production and past recruiting data for players on the roster to form a rating. We then use those ratings to simulate the season 20,000 times, resulting in our projections.
Which top-25 team do you think the FPI is most undervaluing?
Alex Scarborough: Last I checked, USC has the reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback in Caleb Williams. And I know things change in the transfer portal quickly, but coach Lincoln Riley continues to load up on proven talent by bringing in Dorian Singer from Arizona, MarShawn Lloyd from South Carolina and Anthony Lucas from Texas A&M. While the Pac-12 is going to be a challenge this season, I think the Trojans have a team on paper that should be in the top three nationally.
Chris Low: Jim Harbaugh has perhaps his most talented team with an experienced quarterback and offensive line, dynamic running backs and an influx of key transfers, especially on defense. So why is Michigan not somewhere in the top four (and comfortably projected to be in the College Football Playoff) after winning the past two Big Ten championships and appearing in the playoff each of the past two seasons? That’s not to say landing at No. 6 is a complete slap in the face, but this is a team that has all the pieces in place to win it all in 2023. A case could be made that the Wolverines should be No. 1, or at least No. 2, going into the season. Even though it took a few years, Harbaugh has the program right where everybody thought he would have it when he returned to his alma mater in 2015.
David Hale: Washington won seven straight to finish the 2022 season at 11-2, and the Huskies return one of the most prolific QBs in the country in Michael Penix Jr. (along with two 1,000-yard receivers). So why are they ranked 21st in the FPI, behind teams like Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Florida? (Don’t answer that. We know the answer is S-E-C). Sure, the Pac-12 looks to be particularly deep this year, but the schedule sets up nicely for the Huskies to be 5-0 entering their showdown with Oregon (at home, coming off an open date). Dillon Johnson (Mississippi State) and Daniyel Ngata (Arizona State) arrive via the portal to bolster the ground game, and the defense could actually take a step forward from last season. The FPI has USC and Oregon ranked ahead of the Huskies in the Pac-12, but I’m a buyer on Kalen DeBoer’s team.
Harry Lyles Jr.: My colleagues have pointed out teams that are more undervalued than the team I’m going to point out: the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs. After winning the national title in 2021 — their first since 1980 — they lost 15 guys to the NFL draft. Then they went out and won the SEC and another national championship in 2022. They’re going to lose key players again, such as DT Jalen Carter, LB Nolan Smith, TE Darnell Washington and others. They’re also going to add key players like transfer wideouts Rara Thomas (Mississippi State) and Dominic Lovett (Missouri), who should be strong targets for Carson Beck (who seems, at the very least, to be the guy who gets the first crack at the starting quarterback spot), along with Mackey Award winner Brock Bowers. They had five freshmen and sophomores start on defense in 2022, and given how we saw them replace a historically great defense from 2021, the expectation will be that they bring in more future NFL talent in the upcoming season. We’ve reached a point with the Bulldogs that, until somebody knocks them off, they should be atop any list going into 2023 as college football’s dominant force.
Which top-25 team do you think FPI is most overvaluing?
Adam Rittenberg: I traditionally go with Texas here, but I actually like the Longhorns to win the Big 12 and maybe even sniff the CFP (words I’m sure to regret). LSU seems a little high at No. 4. The Tigers’ defensive personnel jumps out, but will they have enough offense and overall consistency to navigate the SEC schedule? I don’t get the Ole Miss thing, either. Quinshon Judkins is excellent, but how many elite teams have the Rebels actually beaten recently? Even the 2021 season was light on signature wins. Putting Ole Miss ahead of a Utah team that has consecutive Pac-12 titles and returns its quarterback is a head-scratcher.
Hale: Every year, the FPI loves Texas the way Texans love a 96-ounce ribeye, and every year, Texas comes up with more gristle than beef. Despite the Longhorns’ 8-5 record, the FPI still had them ranked seventh at year’s end — ahead of TCU and Washington, among others. So should we be surprised that Texas checks in at No. 5 in the preseason? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean we should expect Texas to make a real push for the playoff this year, either. The Longhorns lost a superstar in Bijan Robinson, and while there remains ample upside with QB Quinn Ewers, it’s also worth remembering that, after he returned from injury last season, he completed just 56.5% of his throws and had a Total QBR of 61.0, good for 64th nationally. Maybe this is the year Texas finally puts it all together before departing for the SEC, but the Longhorns need to prove it on the field before we buy into this year’s FPI ranking.
Paolo Uggetti: The Big 12 is no longer Oklahoma‘s conference to rule, and after a 6-7 season in which the Sooners finished seventh in the conference, the leap to just outside the top 10 in the FPI feels generous, to say the least. There’s certainly a reasonable line of thought that the Sooners will bounce back in Brent Venables’ second year with more familiarity and some added talent via the recruiting trail and the transfer portal. Yet even if that’s the case, it will not be easy for an improved Oklahoma to take the express lane back to the top of the conference, let alone the sport’s upper echelon.
Low: Several excellent candidates here. Texas at No. 5? The Longhorns will be better, but we have to see it to believe it. Even with Garrett Riley coming in as offensive coordinator, is Clemson really a top-10 team? Oklahoma at No. 11 also raises some eyebrows. But the so-called nod goes to Florida. The Gators at No. 18 seems high, especially with the questions at quarterback. The defense was one of the worst in school history a year ago, and while Florida hit the transfer portal hard this offseason on that side of the ball, there needs to be major improvement on defense for the Gators to be a top-20 team in 2023. It’s only Year 2 under Billy Napier, and the 2024 signing class is looking better by the day. So it’s premature to say the Gators aren’t going to return to national relevance under Napier. But doing so next year might be a stretch.
Which team outside the top 25 has the best chance to make a NY6 run?
Scarborough: I thought I missed something when I first read through the FPI. I kept scrolling and scrolling and scrolling and there it was: Tulane at No. 55. Yes, this is the same Green Wave that won 12 games last season and beat USC in the Cotton Bowl. And yes, it’s the same Green Wave that returns both their starting quarterback (Michael Pratt) and their top offensive lineman (Sincere Haynesworth). It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Willie Fritz fields the top Group of 5 program once again and winds up in another New Year’s Six Bowl.
Lyles: I try to look at schedules and Group of 5 programs when it comes to these. I feel like the teams in the Sun Belt will knock each other out of this equation and it’s between two teams in the American: Tulane and SMU. Despite some of their key losses in guys like Tyjae Spears, Nick Anderson and Dorian Williams, I like Tulane’s chances over SMU, given the returning players that Alex mentioned, as well as the fact that the Mustangs have road games at Oklahoma and TCU. The Green Wave’s schedule isn’t necessarily easy, but they do get their toughest games at home. With Cincinnati, Houston and UCF leaving for the Big 12, I like Tulane’s chances here more than I otherwise would have.
Uggetti: I’m not ready to count out Kansas State, which not only made it to the conference title game last year but was the only team to beat TCU (besides Georgia) last season on its way to the Sugar Bowl. The FPI has the Wildcats 27th, ranked behind six Big 12 teams, including newcomer UCF. After losing quarterback Adrian Martinez and running back Deuce Vaughn, who rushed for more than 3,500 yards over his career, as well as several defensive starters, the models are understandably down on the Wildcats. But quarterback Will Howard is back and highly touted prospect Avery Johnson is also now in Manhattan. Chris Klieman’s team has also added some defensive pieces via the transfer portal, including cornerback Marques Sigle from North Dakota State and defensive lineman Jevon Banks from Mississippi State, who should help shore up the defense and give them another shot at outperforming expectations in 2023.
Hale: The popular narrative around the ACC is that Clemson (No. 8 in the FPI) and Florida State (No. 14) inevitably will meet up in the title game with the winner in the playoff mix. That sounds good, but the ACC doesn’t exactly have a great track record of living up to predictions. There may be no more divisions, but Coastal Chaos may now just expand to include the whole league. If that happens, look out for Pitt, which checks in at No. 35 in the preseason FPI — astonishingly, just behind Syracuse. Yes, the Panthers lost a bunch from last year’s 9-4 squad, which won its last five, but the arrival of Phil Jurkovec via the transfer portal should settle the QB position, and Pat Narduzzi is thrilled about the upside of his defensive line, which will feature four new starters this season. Over the past two seasons, the only Power 5 teams to win more games than Pitt are Georgia, Michigan, Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. That’s elite company, even if the FPI doesn’t view the Panthers as an elite team.
Which team has a ranking that might seem odd now, but will prove the FPI correct by the end of the season?
Low: Seeing UCLA all the way down at No. 41 is surprising after Chip Kelly and the Bruins broke through with a nine-win season a year ago and back-to-back 6-3 records in the Pac-12 in 2021 and 2022. But there’s a ton to replace on offense with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and versatile running back Zach Charbonnet both off to the NFL. The Bruins are also looking for a go-to receiver and have a new defensive coordinator, D’Anton Lynn, coming in to run a defense that tied for 90th nationally in scoring defense last season. Freshman quarterback Dante Moore, the highest-rated prospect of Kelly’s tenure at UCLA, has generated plenty of excitement. But given what should be an extremely deep Pac-12 next season, the Bruins could take a step backward.
Rittenberg: Again, I can’t believe I’m doing this, but Texas? Yes, the Longhorns have disappointed their fans for most of the past 15 years. Steve Sarkisian has proved to be a much better offensive coordinator than head coach. But I understand why the FPI is even higher on the Horns this season. Texas simply has the best roster in the Big 12, especially if the defense continues to ascend and Ewers settles in more as a second-year starting quarterback. The Alabama road game will be tough, but Texas looks like the Big 12’s best team and should handle itself well in league play. I’m sure none of you will remember this when Texas starts 3-4, but I like the Longhorns to at least be in the CFP conversation for a while. Is No. 5 too high? Yes. But it’s a top-10 roster for sure.
Hale: Oklahoma checks in at No. 11, which might seem a lofty place for a team that went 6-7 last season. But the FPI tends to have a firm grip on talent, and the Sooners should be a far more talented team this season than they were in Brent Venables’ first year in Norman. Venables landed three five-star recruits and had 13 ESPN 300 players in this year’s class. He also brought in some top-tier players via the transfer portal, including edge rusher Rondell Bothroyd (Wake Forest), linebacker Dasan McCullough (Indiana) and defensive lineman Davon Sears (Texas State) to fix a defense that struggled mightily last year. It’s possible the Sooners are still a year away from competing for a playoff bid, but 2023 should be a marked improvement from Venables’ rough first year.