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Clemson gets best of Alabama again in FPI preseason rankings

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Clemson looking like a lock to be best team in the country (1:52)

Seth Walder examines why FPI has Clemson at the top, if Michigan can break through and other storylines ahead of the 2019 college football season. (1:52)

Clemson is sticking at No. 1.

A month removed from their decisive national championship victory over Alabama, the Tigers top the first 2019 rankings for the Football Power Index (FPI) -- ahead of the Crimson Tide, again.

The same was true last year, though 12 months ago Clemson being in the top spot was more controversial and was fueled by a roster stacked with defenders now headed to the NFL. This year, the Tigers boast the nation's best offense, led by quarterback sensation Trevor Lawrence.

While Clemson's 44-16 drubbing of the Tide might have college football fans recalibrating their expectations for Nick Saban's team, make no mistake -- it's still Clemson and Alabama and then everyone else. The difference in rating between No. 2-ranked Alabama (plus-27.6) and No. 3-ranked Georgia (plus-22.0) is the same as the Bulldogs' advantage over 10th-ranked Oregon (plus-16.4). Clemson ranks first in offense and second in defense; Alabama is vice versa.

Clemson is predicted to be better than every other team in the country, so it makes sense that we're forecasting the Tigers to have a dominating edge over every other team in the conference. The ACC is thin on upper-tier teams. In fact, after Clemson, it has basically ... nothing. Clemson is more than 17 points per game better than every other team in the ACC. Our conference and playoff projections won't be out for a couple of months, but it's safe to say that the Tigers' outlook for both of those will be awfully strong.

At this point, if you're wondering how FPI works, jump to the bottom for a quick explainer. And if you want to see last year's rankings at this time, you can check them out here -- where you'll find not only Clemson ahead of Alabama, but Notre Dame in the top five, a major surprise to most back then.

But let's shift back to 2019 now -- because there's another story of dominance brewing aside from the Tigers.

Superior SEC

This is something you won't see in any of the preseason polls. The SEC has placed 10 teams in FPI's preseason top 20.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The SEC has three of the top five teams in the country, five of the top 10 and half of the top 20!

The 10th-best SEC team (Missouri) is better than the second-best ACC team (Florida State) and the second-best Big 12 team (Texas).

The best division in football is the SEC West. The second-best division is the SEC East.

For the SEC -- or any conference -- this sort of depth is unprecedented. No conference in the past 15 years of FPI has had more than eight teams in the top 20 of the preseason rankings.

How can this happen? And can it be possibly true?

To the latter, sure.

One problem the polls -- and humans in general -- have is that they fail to divorce themselves from win-loss records. That's a problem when judging conferences, since the majority of every team's games are against other teams in its conference. That leads to guaranteed losses and the appearance that conferences are more similar than they actually are. Because FPI is judging teams' performances with their opponents' strength in mind, it has no problem believing that the SEC is that much better than everyone else.

And if we look at perhaps the most surprising inclusion -- Tennessee -- it's easy to see why the Volunteers have flown up our board. Tennessee is one of just three FBS schools to return 10 starters on offense (and it brings back 17 overall), including quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who posted a solid QBR of 67.4 last season. Even though Tennessee struggled on offense overall last season, teams that bring back that much talent tend to undergo significant improvement from one year to the next. The Vols also rank highly in recruiting over the past four years.

While the overall strength of the SEC is outrageous, we'd be negligent to ignore the fact that in addition to Alabama and Georgia ranking No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, LSU has climbed to No. 4. That might not seem like a particularly far climb from the No. 6 spot where the Tigers finished in the AP poll, but FPI was relatively unimpressed with LSU last season and had the school all the way down at No. 17.

Still, coach Ed Orgeron has work to do if he wants to compete for an SEC title: FPI predicts the Tigers are about 6 points per game worse than the Crimson Tide. That's within striking distance for sure, but LSU isn't in that elite tier just yet.

Texas is not back

One of the teams expected to generate plenty of preseason buzz is Texas. But not from FPI.

The hype that the Longhorns have finally produced is, in our model's estimation, overstated. Tom Herman's team checks in at No. 26 in our rankings, just missing the cut for our accompanying table (you can find them in the full rankings at the end of this post).

Though Texas took strides last season, it had the benefit of starting 13 seniors and graduate students. Even with a cumulative top-five recruiting rank over the past four seasons, the fact that Texas is returning just eight starters is very likely to be a problem.

As a result, FPI believes Texas is not one of the top 25 teams in college football and will more closely resemble Iowa State or Baylor than Oklahoma in 2019.

Oregon among major risers

The Pac-12 is absent from the very top of FPI's rankings -- hardly a surprise to college football fans over the past couple of years -- but the conference's best chance might be a team that didn't even play in its championship game last season: Oregon. Thanks in part to Justin Herbert throwing a stiff-arm at the NFL draft, the Ducks flew up the FPI ranks from No. 31 at the end of 2018 to No. 10 now.

The aforementioned Volunteers had the biggest rank jump (plus-50) of any top-25 team, but close in pursuit were UCLA (plus-47) and Florida State (plus45).

The Bruins, in particular, appear primed for a major improvement in Chip Kelly's second season. Last season's 3-9 record comes with important context -- no FBS team had a more difficult strength of schedule than UCLA. When FPI judged the Bruins' performance in 2018, it kept the tough schedule in mind. Throw in 19 returning starters and it believes Kelly & Co. could shock the college football universe with a big jump this season.

Quarterback carousel

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FPI places a special emphasis on the most important position in football, though it doesn't always understand the nuances of a team's situation or the latest on the NCAA's transfer situation (who does?).

The most notable example of this is Ohio State's Justin Fields. While Fields is a major acquisition who has been approved to play in 2019, FPI does not award the Buckeyes extra credit for securing the transfer QB because he didn't earn significant playing time at Georgia. Instead, the Buckeyes are treated as if they will have to play a completely green QB this season, which, technically, is true -- he's just a high-profile one. Austin Kendall (West Virginia) and Tate Martell (Miami, if declared eligible) are handled similarly by FPI.

This is in contrast to situations like Kelly Bryant at Missouri, for example. The Tigers receive some credit in FPI for bringing in a transfer QB with significant starting experience. Jalen Hurts at Oklahoma, Brandon Wimbush at UCF and Jacob Eason at Washington are all treated this way.

As for Florida State -- though Willie Taggart booted Deondre Francois off the team -- FPI counts James Blackman as a returning starting quarterback because he previously started for the Seminoles.

FPI refresher

FPI is our predictive rating and ranking system for college football. It's set to the scale of points per game above average, and it fuels all of our predictions and projections (out later this offseason) before and during the season.

You can read a full explanation of FPI's inner workings here or watch the accompanying video. But the quick version is that in the preseason, FPI ratings are determined through four factors:

  • Team performance over the past four seasons (most emphasis on last season)

  • Returning starters at quarterback, on offense overall and on defense

  • Whether a team has a returning head coach

  • Recruiting rankings over the past four seasons

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Breaking down the Football Power Index

College football analyst Brad Edwards shows how ESPN uses four seasons of data to rank college football's best teams.