Aubserver Mailbag 73: 'How in the heck did Auburn get put at No. 10 in the ESPN FPI?'
This week: Defining success at QB, the top transfer to watch, basketball recruiting, super seniors, Easter Candy and grocery store rankings
HC Bryan Harsin (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
I’m not good at writing headlines.
I hated doing it when I was starting out in sportswriting. When I was at The Athletic, I was blessed to have Jason Starrett, the world’s best editor and someone who wrote all my headlines. Now, here at The Observer, I’m back to doing my own headlines again.
Note: If you ever see a clever headline or podcast title, Painter did it. Not me.
So I was very fortunate this week, when asking for mailbag questions, to get one I could pull verbatim for the title. It’s absolutely perfect. I hope my answer does it justice.
How in the heck did Auburn get put at No. 10 in the ESPN FPI?
(cracks knuckles) I always appreciate a good time to clown FPI.
In case you missed it, ESPN released the preseason version of its Football Power Index for the 2022 college football season earlier this week. It went viral, and not in a good way, for the listing of teams in its top 10.
Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson in the top four spots isn’t wild at all. Notre Dame at No. 5 is where things start to go sideways. Then there’s Texas at No. 6, Pitt at No. 9 and, yes, Auburn at No. 10.
(deep breath) Here’s the thing. ESPN has this whole breakdown of what goes into its preseason FPI ratings — recent performance, returning starters, recruiting ratings and coaching longevity. But no one really knows how that criteria is weighed or how it produces some of these results.
Let’s take it at face value. Recent performance is based on last season’s results, then the three years before that. Auburn went 6-7 last year. It went 6-5 the year before that. The 2019 season was good in terms of advanced analytics, but it still wasn’t a double-digit win season. In 2018, Auburn went 8-5. None of that screams top-10 material, even if you account for the Tigers’ insane strength of schedule.
Returning starters can be a bit nebulous, and we know that all of them aren’t equal. The FPI breakdown states that “a starting quarterback is worth about 3.3 points per game to a team returning an average offense (all else equal), and a transfer quarterback is given half the weight of a starter.” Auburn has some star power coming back, but it’s not returning a boatload of production by any means.
Recruiting rankings? Auburn’s last two classes were closer to No. 20 than they were to top 10 in pretty much every major service. So Auburn isn’t making up the ground there.
And then there’s coaching tenure. Bryan Harsin is about to be in his second season on the Plains. That obviously wouldn’t boost the ratings in Auburn’s favor.
Yet all of that, according to FPI, is enough to produce a top 10 projection for the upcoming season. I don’t get it. There are more talented and more experienced teams in Auburn’s own conference behind it in these rankings. That doesn’t mean Auburn can’t beat them — I mean, the Tigers should have won the Iron Bowl last year — but if you’re talking about preseason projections, I don’t get the basis at all.
So I’m just as confused as the rest of you. The big issue I have with ESPN in this regard is that it has Bill Connelly, the advanced analytics godfather in college football, on its staff. His time-tested SP+ system is right there on its website! He even shows you what goes into it and how it’s weighted! (SP+, by the way, has Auburn at No. 25 in the preseason, which feels much closer to where this team is right now.)