Why it's hard to see eye-to-eye with ESPN's FPI projection of B1G favorite
Maybe ESPN needs to unplug its Football Power Index computer and try plugging it back in.
That’s the first conclusion I can draw from a model that projects Ohio State as an overwhelming favorite to win both the Big Ten and the national championship.
To be clear, the Buckeyes will be quite capable of each task if Ryan Day successfully puts a few new pieces together. But the degree to which ESPN’s FPI considers Ohio State the team to beat simply doesn’t add up.
The 2023 Index, which was unveiled Tuesday, gives the Bucks a 36.7% chance of winning the national title. Alabama (20.4%) and Georgia (19.1%) are next in line.
The FPI is shockingly confident in Ohio State’s ability to end Michigan’s 2-year run as Big Ten champs, giving the Buckeyes a 71.2% chance of winning the B1G. It’s far more confident that Ohio State will win its conference than teams like USC (50.2%) and Clemson (44.3%).
The Wolverines, on the other hand, are only given a 14.3% chance of winning their 3rd straight conference title. This means the FPI thinks Michigan has roughly the same odds of winning the Big Ten as North Carolina has to win the ACC.
That’s a stunning gap in expectations between Ohio State and Michigan — and one that feels backwards.
Potential trumps experience for FPI
While there are plenty of reasons to be high on the Buckeyes — no team will have a more explosive combination of receivers and running backs — it’s difficult to understand why the FPI isn’t more enthused about Michigan.
The Wolverines, who have reached the College Football Playoff 2 straight years, rank 5th in the nation in returning production per ESPN’s own Bill Connelly. Michigan returns 81% of its overall production and 84% of its offensive production.
That returning production includes an All-America running back and Heisman frontrunner in Blake Corum. (At least to the extent that a running back can be considered a Heisman frontrunner in this day and age.)
The Wolverines also bring back starting quarterback JJ McCarthy. McCarthy and Texas’ Quinn Ewers are the only incumbent starting quarterbacks among the top 5 teams favored to reach the CFP.
McCarthy still has some growing to do as a passer, and his targets aren’t as dangerous as Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and the rest of Ohio State’s receiving corps. But the computers are placing a great deal of faith in Ohio State’s new starting quarterback, whether it’s Kyle McCord or Devin Brown.
Given Day’s track record developing quarterbacks, that faith is well placed. If McCord turns out to be an upgrade over CJ Stroud, Ohio State is capable of meeting these expectations.
But quarterback is not the only place where Ohio State needs new faces to step up. And that’s what makes the FPI projections so surprising. The Buckeyes are just 7th in the B1G and 48th nationally in returning production.
When you recruit as well as Ohio State does, it’s possible to bridge the experience gap. But to expect it to happen is presumptuous. Even if computers aren’t actually capable of presuming.
The success of Ohio State’s season will ultimately hinge on how well the Buckeyes replace starting offensive tackles Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones. Both bookends are likely first-round draft picks, so that’s not an easy task.
And if there was any lesson to be taken from Ohio State’s spring game, replacing them is very much a work in progress. McCord frequently found himself under pressure and was “sacked” 3 times.
Though Michigan is also replacing its center and tackles, the Wolverines are doing so with veteran additions from the transfer portal. You’d think that tactic would be among the factors that would make Michigan slightly favored to win the B1G, but that’s not the case here.
Is FPI ignoring the difficulty of Ohio State’s path?
The degree of difficulty in a team’s schedule can be a massive factor in determining its Playoff hopes. And on the surface, it feels like Ohio State must navigate a more difficult path than Michigan.
For starters, their head-to-head matchup to finish the regular season is in Ann Arbor. Location didn’t mean much in this rivalry when Ohio State dominated the 2010s, but it’s a factor again in the 2020s.
Ohio State also visits Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin on Oct. 28.
Although the Buckeyes have made a habit out of whipping the Badgers in the past decade, Wisconsin will have a completely different feel with Luke Fickell at the helm. And don’t think this game isn’t going to mean the world to Fickell given his Ohio State ties.
While it means nothing in the Big Ten race, Ohio State also has a potential challenge at Notre Dame in Week 4. Michigan’s non-conference schedule of East Carolina, Bowling Green and UNLV is far friendlier when it comes to running the table and making the CFP.
Outside of Ohio State, Michigan’s toughest challenge is when it visits Penn State on Nov. 11. And as last year demonstrated, the Nittany Lions have quite a gap to make up with the Wolverines in the trenches. It’ll be surprising if that happens before 2024.
Can Ohio State win it all in 2023? Certainly.
McCord (or Brown) could be great. Jim Knowles’ defense could make another big leap. After all, Ohio State’s spring game struggles in pass protection could say more about the pass rush than the offensive line.
But to consider the Buckeyes the favorites? I can’t see it. Not yet, anyhow. Michigan has an edge in experience and schedule — not to mention on the field the past 2 seasons.
Until the Buckeyes prove it on the field rather than a circuit board, Michigan is still the Big Ten’s team to beat.