Best bet to enter bowl season unbeaten is Buckeyes (not Tide)

Originally Published: August 9, 2017
By Seth Walder | ESPN Analytics

Nick Saban and Urban MeyerDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAlabama remains a solid pick to reach the College Football Playoff, but Ohio State has the easier path.

Alabama might sit atop the Coaches Poll and ESPN's Power Rankings, but if you think the Crimson Tide are the clear favorites -- or even the favorites, period -- this college football season, think again.

ESPN's College Football Power Index has firmly planted its flag on Ohio State -- not Alabama -- as the best team in the country heading into the season. The model thinks the Buckeyes are about a field goal better than Alabama on a neutral field, but one projection in particular drives the point home.

FPI doesn't project who will make the College Football Playoff because humans make up the committee and will determine who makes football's final four. But the easiest way to lock up a spot in the playoff is to be a Power 5 school and win all your games (simple, right?). Going undefeated is something FPI projects. And that's really where Ohio State shines.

Ohio State has a 35 percent chance to be undefeated entering bowl season, the best in the country. While Nick Saban's team is second-best in that measure, Alabama has just a 10 percent shot at accomplishing the same feat. Oklahoma (5.4 percent) and Washington (5 percent) round out the top four in this area. In other words, there's Ohio State, and there's everyone else.

Granted, the best teams in college football often don't have to go undefeated. Clemson didn't last year. Washington and Ohio State weren't undefeated entering the national semifinals, either.

But if we instead ask what the odds are for each team to enter bowl season with zero or one loss, the answer doesn't change -- at least not at the very top. The Buckeyes have a 77 percent chance of completing the regular season (and potential conference championship game) with one or fewer loss, again far greater than anyone else's. Alabama (38.5 percent), Oklahoma (30.1 percent) and Wisconsin (27 percent) follow.

Given the four factors that go into college football FPI -- performance over the past four years, recruiting rankings, returning quarterback and other starters, and whether a team has a new head coach -- it's hard to conceive of any team holding such an edge over the Crimson Tide. Indeed, Alabama has edged out Ohio State in performance in each of the past four seasons and has an oh-so-slightly better recruiting average than the Buckeyes. Obviously, both Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are returning coaches, so that is a nonfactor in this comparison.

Why then is Ohio State so much more likely to enter bowl season undefeated? There are two key factors.

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First, the Buckeyes are bringing back more starters (15) from last season's playoff team than Alabama (11), and that's a significant difference. In fact, though Ohio State finished fourth in FPI last season, the 15 starters returning are more than what any of the three teams that were ahead of the Buckeyes in 2016 bring back.

It actually speaks volumes about Alabama that FPI considers the Tide to have the best defense in the country with just five starters returning, but the offense (ninth in preseason FPI) doesn't get that same respect, and that's where Ohio State (second in both preseason and offensive FPI) is able to make up ground. Both teams are returning their starting quarterbacks, J.T. Barrett for OSU and Jalen Hurts for Bama.

In addition to the four-player difference in returning starters, another factor looms large: Ohio State's opponents. The Buckeyes have the 52nd-hardest schedule in the FBS, compared to Alabama's 11th-toughest slate. That's no surprise given that Alabama plays in the SEC, which has the highest average team FPI of all conferences, while the Big Ten has the fifth-highest average team FPI.

Ohio State's biggest challenge will come in Week 2 at home against Oklahoma. FPI thinks the Buckeyes have a 77.2 percent chance to win that contest. By comparison, Alabama's regular-season schedule is bookended by tough matchups against Florida State and Auburn in which the Tide have a 59 percent and 55.5 percent shot to win, respectively.

It's possible that the easier schedule could come back to bite Ohio State, should the Buckeyes falter along the road at some point, but for now, it makes OSU the most likely team to still have a donut in the loss column after conference championships are settled.

For more from ESPN Analytics, visit the ESPN Analytics Index

Seth Walder

ESPN Analytics

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