SEC Country offers an SEC-intensive breakdown of ESPN’s 2016 Football Power Index, the Four-Letter Network’s computer-based assessment of team strength for this fall.
Through the implementation of 10,000 computer simulations, the FPI tabulations currently reflect the “best predictor of a team’s performance going forward.”
For what it’s worth, Alabama (2015’s eventual national champions) owned the FPI’s No. 1 slot this time last year.
1. LSU seems like a great placeholder option for the FPI top ranking
Of ESPN’s four primary categories for its survey — 1) Projected Win-Loss Record, 2) Win Out Percentage, 3) Conference Title Percentage, 4) Remaining Strength Of Schedule — LSU sits no lower than 10th across the board.
The Tigers might have a formidable schedule on paper, but I have a softer viewpoint here:
a) There aren’t any tangible fears of back-to-back losses until November, when the Tigers host Alabama and then travel to Arkansas the following Saturday. For what it’s worth, the Razorbacks have won both head-to-head encounters, since 2014, by 17 points.
b) The neutral-site or road-game slate of Wisconsin (iconic Lambeau Field), at Auburn, at Florida, at Arkansas and at Texas A&M has name-brand challenges. From my perspective, though, only the Aggies are above-average picks to make a ‘New Year’s Six’ bowl (Rose, Sugar, Peach, Cotton, Orange, Fiesta).
c) For the Tigers, thank goodness this year’s Game Of The Century against Alabama takes place in Baton Rouge. Venue alone boosts the Tigers’ victory chances to something in the 60/40 range.
Overall, the Tigers are set up for a monstrous 2016 campaign, riding the presumptive 2,000-yard junior tailback Leonard Fournette and relying on experienced, explosive, NFL-caliber talent on defense (only two early defections for the draft).
Bottom line: If the Tigers lose just once during the regular season to anyone outside of Alabama — say the Oct. 8 trip to Florida (permanent crossover … for now) — they’ll still be in line for an SEC West title, a chance at the conference championship and a top-four seed in the College Football Playoff.
2. It’s difficult to rationalize the ‘Strength of Schedule’ quotient, relative to Alabama and Florida State
The Crimson Tide play seven of the top 22 programs currently listed in the “REM SOS” rankings — Southern California (Sept. 3 in Texas), Ole Miss, LSU, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State. (‘Bama also faces four of the FPI’s top 10 programs.)
Note: The Trojans (#1 SOS) encounter the same number of top-22 SOS opponents for 2016 — seven.
By comparison, Florida State (#2 SOS) only tackles two of the top 22 SOS teams this fall (Ole Miss, Syracuse), indicative of how the Seminoles need to be emotionally sky-high maybe five or six times per season (sorry, ACC).
For example, Florida State opens up with Ole Miss (de facto home game), travels to Louisville, Miami and then hosts North Carolina, Clemson and Florida. The other six outings: The Seminoles should enjoy an average victory margin of 18-plus points.
Put it all together, and FSU may possess a higher preseason ranking than LSU or Alabama, even though the Tigers and Crimson Tide would seemingly be neutral-field favorites against the ‘Noles.
3. It’s surprising Tennessee has the SEC’s second-highest ‘Conference Title’ percentage
The ESPN computers have LSU as a 39-percent bet to claim the SEC championship, considerably higher than the title percentages for SEC West rivals Alabama (10.8), Ole Miss (5.7) and Texas A&M (1.4).
(The West division has produced the SEC’s last seven conference champions.)
That leaves Tennessee (28.5 percent) as the most imposing challenger to the conference crown, well ahead of Eastern powers UGA (10.5 percent) and Florida (2.1).
So, what makes the Volunteers a safer pick than the Crimson Tide (four national titles since 2009) for the SEC championship?
Previous history doesn’t exactly swing in Tennessee’s favor:
**UT hasn’t beaten Alabama during the Nick Saban era. In fact, for that nine-game span, the Tide celebrated an average victory margin of 21.4 points.
**The Volunteers likely have the SEC’s toughest four-game stretch this fall, taking on Florida (home), UGA (road), Texas A&M (road) and Alabama (home) over four consecutive Saturdays.
**The SEC East’s biggest ‘swing’ game likely occurs on Oct. 1, when Tennessee travels to UGA. If the Volunteers don’t win in Athens, it’s hard to create many plausible scenarios of an eventual division title.
4. ‘Strength of schedule’ is the only FPI component keeping Ole Miss ahead of UGA
I have the highest respect for Ole Miss scheduling Florida State in the season opener — and in the same month as conference clashes with Alabama (Sept. 17) and UGA (Sept. 24).
However, it’s also an untenable matchup for the Rebels, playing the vaunted Seminoles in nearby Orlando (Ole Miss hasn’t won inside the state of Florida since 2008).
Right now, ESPN lists Ole Miss’s “Win Out” percentage at 0.1; and I would attach just slightly better odds of the Rebels surviving September with a 2-2 or better record (no-brainer triumph over Wofford).
Moving eastward …
UGA has a new coach (Kirby Smart), rebuilt front seven on defense, post-injury star tailback (Nick Chubb) and potential true-freshman starter at quarterback (Jacob Eason); but I would still take the ‘push/over’ for ESPN’s win-loss prediction of 8.9 victories.
The reasoning: The Dawgs’ 2016 schedule does not include Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M, presumably the SEC West’s Big Three this fall. Plus, rivals like Tennessee (Oct. 1), Auburn (Nov. 12) and Georgia Tech (Nov. 26) all travel to Athens.
Throw in winnable neutral-site outings with North Carolina (Sept. 3 at the Georgia Dome) and Florida (Oct. 29 in Jacksonville, Fla.), and UGA has the chops to book that December trip back to Atlanta.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.