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How ESPN’s FPI Forecasts Oregon’s Playoff Chances and the Pac-12 Title Race

The Pac-12’s mission heading into 2021 is to produce a top-tier team.

Public opinion of the Pac-12 has been declining since Marcus Mariota walked off the field for the last time in a Ducks uniform after a disappointing loss to Ohio State in the 2015 national title game. The conference hasn’t produced a legitimate national title contender since, with 2017 Washington being the only other playoff appearance.

Earlier this month, ESPN rolled out their newest update to the College Football Power Index (FPI for short) in anticipation of the 2021 season. The FPI is a metric designed for the purpose of power rating college football teams and then using those ratings to determine the probability of a team to win a given matchup.

Like any large statistical model, it sacrifices some of the nuances of individual matchups, whether that be a particularly contentious rivalry providing extra motivation, or a specific positional advantage that one side may be able to exploit. Still, en masse the FPI has been able to successfully estimate probabilities of victory. And when you average out their figures over a full season, some interesting trends emerge. 

Let’s dive in.

At first glance, the FPI suggests a continuation of a troubling trend on the West Coast, that the Pac-12 will be the lone Power 5 conference left out in the now annual game of musical chairs we call the four-team College Football Playoff. Altogether, the conference was given just an 9.1% chance to make the CFP and a failure to do so would mean a fifth straight year without a Pac-12 representative.

What’s more, the conference’s playoff chances are really only that high because of one program. Oregon, the conference's back-to-back champions, is given a 7.6% to reach the playoff while the next closest program, USC, lags far behind at just 0.8%. Simply put, the weight of the Pac-12’s playoff drought lies squarely on the shoulders of the Ducks and even they are a long shot.

Oregon landed at 12 on the FPI’s national ratings with a projected record of 9.5-3.1 (including a potential Pac-12 title game appearance). Of course, much of the Ducks’ season will hinge on the result of their major week 2 test at Ohio State, the fourth-best team in the nation according to FPI. 

The metric gives Oregon just a 15.4% chance to pull off an upset in Columbus, but if they do so it could change the entire landscape of Oregon’s season.

The Ducks are favored to win every other game on their schedule. Their next two most threatening matchups come on the road late in the season against Washington (56.9% chance to win) and Utah (58.3%) chance to win.

Additionally games at Stanford (69.4% chance to win) and at UCLA (70.2% chance to win) are also worth noting. The Ducks are viewed as heavy favorites in the rest of their schedule as they are given an 87% chance or better by the FPI to win each of the other seven matchups this season.

In terms of broader national relevance and the Pac-12 title race, the FPI is pretty clear in how it separates the top tier of the conference. Five Pac-12 teams are ranked in the top 30 nationally by the FPI and are also the only five teams with a better than 6% chance to reach the Pac-12 title game.

That list is Oregon (ranked 12 with a 61.9% chance to make the Pac-12 title game), USC (ranked 21 with a 46% chance), Washington (ranked 25 with a 30.4% chance), Arizona State (ranked 29 with a 25.4% chance), and Utah (ranked 30 with a 22.5% chance).

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In the end the Pac-12 is going to need those five teams to outpace expectations if the conference wants to restore its reputation. The real problem isn’t the depth of the conference, it’s their inability to produce top tier teams.

Currently the conference just doesn’t match up well against the rest of the Power 5. According to the FPI, the other four conferences in the power five each have a top four team and they all have at least two teams within the top 13. The highest rated team from the Pac-12 is Oregon at 12 and the conference doesn’t have another representative in the FPI’s top 20. 

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