Hot Reads: The Big Ten West Favorite Is . . . Minnesota?
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: The Big Ten West Favorite Is . . . Minnesota?

April 18, 2019

ESPN isn't quite ready to give you its full Football Power Index (FPI) predictions yet for the 2019 season, but the World Wide Leader rolled out a teaser yesterday with its "Playoff Predictor."

There were few surprises there. Clemson (83%) and Alabama (71%) are given the best chance to make the College Football Playoff. Michigan, maybe a mild surprise there, and Georgia have the next-best odds.

The result is that FPI expects Michigan to have the best offense (and team) in the Big Ten, catching some of its division rivals in what could be a down season. Ultimately, Playoff Predictor thinks Michigan has a 41 percent shot at the playoff. However, it's worth noting that FPI is awfully low on Ohio State — maybe even too low — because it isn't explicitly aware that the Buckeyes have added via transfer an elite quarterback prospect in Justin Fields (transfer QBs are noted in FPI only when they have significant starting experience).

On the other hand, a new head coach-QB tandem does increase variance for Ohio State, and when you're at the top, variance is a bad thing. No team is in better position than Michigan to seize the reins of the Big Ten and take advantage if the new crew in Columbus doesn't work out right away.

That ESPN article, by Seth Walder of ESPN Analytics, listed 20 teams with at least a 1% chance of making the playoff. Nebraska was not among them, but Penn State (8%), Ohio State (6%) and Michigan State (5%) were from the Big Ten, in addition to Michigan.

Maybe more interesting is that the team with the best chance to win the West is Minnesota.
– ESPN analyst Brad Edwards

I quoted the brief explanation for why FPI is down on the Buckeyes above, but if you think that's wild wait until you get a load of how the power ranking system views the Big Ten West Division.

ESPN college football analyst Brad Edwards, who has seen the yet-to-be-release FPI rankings, joined Chris Schmidt on Hail Varsity Radio on Wednesday to break down the West.

"The most interesting thing is that FPI sees Wisconsin as the fourth-best team in the West," Edwards said. "I think that's sure to raise a few eyebrows. Maybe more interesting is that the team with the best chance to win the West is Minnesota. It's really close. Minnesota's 33%, Iowa's 28% and Nebraska's 26%, Wisconsin [is] all the way down at 7% and Northwestern at 4%. FPI really sees it as a three-team race–Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska."

Raise your hand if you had Minnesota as the team most likely to win the West. Yeah, me neither. (And I’m not saying one ranking system is the gospel truth either, of course.) But before deciding FPI is drunk, you have to consider what FPI is actually looking at. At this stage, FPI consists of previous performance (a four-year lookback with most weight on last season), returning starters (extra weight on quarterback), recruiting rankings and coaching tenure.

The Gophers finished 48th in FPI a year ago thanks to its late-season surge, they have the most returning production in the Big Ten (including two quarterbacks), recruiting has ticked upward under P.J. Fleck and there's no predicted regression to the mean for coaching tenure because Fleck isn't a new head coach. Simmer all of those ingredients for a bit and you get individual team rankings that can then be used to make individual game predictions.

We haven't seen those yet, but I'll be very interested in Minnesota's outlook as the schedule is an intriguing one. For a slate without any heavy-hitting nonconference opponents, the Gophers' first three weeks are against winning programs in South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia State. Minnesota will be favored in all of those, but will also have to go out and beat strong teams with strong cultures. Get through that without a slip-up and the Big Ten schedule is relatively forgiving. Minnesota's toughest road game is likely at Iowa in November, but the Gophers get what should be their most difficult games at home and draw Rutgers, Maryland and Penn State from the East.

Nebraska has a nice schedule in 2019, too (at least based on what we think now). Edwards said the Huskers' toughest road game, in terms of percent-chance to win, is at Minnesota on Oct. 12. Maybe that's not a surprise with a road schedule that also features Colorado, Illinois, Purdue and Maryland.

Edwards added that Nebraska has a 95% chance, per FPI, to win at least six games. May not seem like anything to write home about, but then you remember the Huskers have won six regular season games once in the past four seasons.

I'm guessing the full FPI rollout will be happening here soon, but until then Edwards offered plenty more insight on what he's already seen with ESPN's rankings on the show yesterday.

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