It might be only April, but the Big 12 is already on shaky ground.
Despite coming off a season in which Oklahoma's offense dazzled all the way to the College Football Playoff, the Big 12's chances of sending a representative back to the game's biggest stage appear relatively slim, according to our Football Power Index projections. The Big 12 has a worse chance (26 percent) of having a team earn a top-four strength of record -- a good proxy for playoff chances -- than any of the other four Power 5 conferences or Notre Dame.
Reminder: Strength of record measures how strong a team's record is, given its schedule. It's based on the chance of an average Top 25 team having the team's record or better, given the opponents the team has played (and where they played) to date. A higher strength of record indicates a more impressive accomplishment -- it means that the team's win-loss record was more difficult to achieve.
In the four years of the CFP era, 15 of the 16 playoff teams entered the postseason with a top-four strength of record. (Ohio State in 2014 was the exception.)
FPI's full projections can be found at ESPN.com/FPI.
Most of the Big 12's chances of getting back to the playoff are wrapped up in the Sooners, who have a 23 percent chance to win the conference with no more than one loss and an 18 percent shot at a top-four strength of record. If that feels light, remember that Oklahoma ranks ninth in our preseason FPI rankings. Even if you believe Lincoln Riley has cooked up a whole new batch of creative plays for the 2018 season, the loss of Baker Mayfield (and nine other starters) means that regression is likely coming in Norman.
But Oklahoma isn't really the Big 12's problem. The Big 12's problem is everyone else. There is a large drop-off after the Sooners, which means that if Oklahoma doesn't win the Big 12, there's a good chance that the team that does take the conference title won't have had a dominant enough season to earn a playoff berth. Texas is the next most likely candidate, but the Longhorns have the sixth-hardest schedule in the FBS and therefore have less than a 1 percent chance to win out and only a 3 percent shot to win the Big 12 with no more than one loss.
Overall, the Big 12's 26 percent chance at a top-four SOR team is actually worse than six individual teams' chances.
The Big 12's chances at a playoff berth are just one part of our preseason FPI projections, which we are unveiling for the first time today. Earlier this offseason, we released our preseason FPI ratings, which help us simulate the season 10,000 times to build our projections. If you want to read more about the methodology behind all these numbers, learn more about FPI here and pick up a primer on strength of record here. Otherwise, let's dive into the rest of our initial preseason projections.
Tigers on top
It's a Clemson sweep. In just about every projections category one can think of, the Tigers are the preseason leader.
Most projected wins? Check (11.4).
Best chance to win out through conference championships? Check (19 percent).
Best chance to win their conference? Check (69 percent).
Highest top-four strength-of-record chance? Check (54 percent).
In fact, Clemson's toughest game on the schedule right now is at Texas A&M on Sept. 8, a game the Tigers have a 76 percent chance to win.
This isn't a huge surprise after we revealed in February that the Tigers were No. 1 in our initial preseason FPI rankings (and still are, to be clear). But Clemson holds a substantial edge over the next-best team in many of these categories.
Alabama, for example, has a 40 percent chance at a top-four strength of record, 14 percentage points below the Tigers. Boise State has the second-best shot at winning its conference, with a 55 percent shot to win the Mountain West, and that's again 14 points below the Tigers.
All that talent the Tigers brought back, especially along the defensive front, combined with a lack of a major challenger in the ACC (Miami is the most likely candidate and is in the opposite division) means Dabo Swinney has his team in better position for another playoff run than any other team in the nation.
Big Ten (should be) back
The strength imbalance of the Big Ten's two divisions might have cost the conference a playoff team in 2017. But as you can see in the table up top, FPI thinks it is unlikely to be a problem again. The reason? The Big Ten is overflowing with contenders.
Ohio State is the favorite to win the conference and has the best chance to earn a top-four SOR (32 percent), but Penn State (21 percent), Michigan (18 percent), Michigan State (16 percent) and Wisconsin (12 percent) all have legitimate shots.
Wisconsin, unsurprisingly, has the second-best chance to win the conference (24 percent) because it is in the weaker West division and therefore is fifth in top-four SOR chances.
Michigan, meanwhile, faces the opposite situation. With the eighth-most difficult schedule in the FBS, the Wolverines have just a 3 percent chance to win the conference with no more than one loss. But that difficult schedule gives them a little extra wiggle room, so consider the Wolverines a possible playoff team even if they don't win the conference.
It is worth pointing out that strength of record is probably a little more forgiving of tough losses than the CFP Selection Committee, so the Big Ten's chances of cannibalizing itself might be a tad higher than the numbers we're showing here.
Who else is a candidate to make a run to the CFP? Here's a list of the top 25 teams in terms of top-four SOR chances.
Note that Notre Dame has a very real chance to break into the playoff for the first time, thanks to its No. 5 ranking in FPI. Why is the model so high on the Fighting Irish? Because of their defense. After ranking 10th in opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency last season, Notre Dame is returning 10 starters on that side of the ball. As a result, FPI predicts South Bend to host the nation's third-best defense in 2018.
Alabama might be the reigning champs, but Georgia is the favorite to win the SEC. The Bulldogs have a 42 percent chance to repeat as the conference champions, edging Alabama (37 percent) and Auburn (11 percent).
FPI actually believes the Crimson Tide are the second-best team in the nation, just ahead of third-best Georgia, but because Alabama is in the SEC West and therefore has a more difficult conference schedule, the conference title odds swing toward Georgia.
The two SEC powerhouses aren't scheduled to square off in the regular season, but there is a 47 percent chance that they meet in the SEC championship game. If Jake Fromm wants revenge over Tua Tagovailoa (or whoever is playing QB for the Tide), he'll have to wait until at least then.
Big-game Buckeyes (and Auburn Tigers)
Plenty will hinge on Ohio State and Auburn this season.
Using our average adjusted game leverage metric, we can already pick out the most important games for the playoff race heading into the season. All six of the top games feature the Buckeyes or the Tigers, headlined by Ohio State versus Penn State in Week 5 in the No. 1 spot.
Although this season might not have as high-profile of an opening week showdown as Florida State versus Alabama last season, we can see from the list below that there are two key games in that first week's slate: Auburn versus Washington and Notre Dame versus Michigan.
Tough start for Chip Kelly?
UCLA's newest head coach walked into the toughest schedule in the FBS, according to FPI. On top of missing the worst team in the Pac-12 (Oregon State), the Bruins have to go to Norman to take on Oklahoma. Partially as a result of that difficult schedule, FPI gives UCLA only a 37 percent chance for six or more wins (and, therefore, bowl eligibility) in Kelly's first season. Coincidentally, Kelly's previous college team -- Oregon -- has the easiest strength of schedule among Power 5 schools.
Matt Morris contributed to this story.