ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) has never been a metric that has favored the Utes, and it really does not in 2017. FPI has Utah ranked No. 57 before the season and 11th in the Pac-12 Conference (ahead of only Cal). The Utes, with the No. 12 hardest schedule in the nation, are projected to only win 4.7 games, which checks in at No. 102 in the nation, and second worst in the Pac-12, ahead of only Cal, who FPI projects to have the toughest schedule and only win 3.7 games. UW leads the Pac-12 in FPI and projected wins at 10.2. ESPN does not release the formula used to calculate FPI, so it is impossible to know exactly why the metric never seems to favor the Utes, but they do say what goes into the formula (just not how things are weighted and such). Before we dive into why Utah is undervalued by FPI, let’s look at what goes into the formula. A full explanation of FPI can be found here, but we will just quote selections relevant for discussion:
Each team’s FPI rating is composed of a predicted offensive, defensive and special teams component. These ratings represent the number of points each unit is expected to contribute to the team's net scoring margin on a neutral field against an average FBS opponent.
In the preseason, these components are made up entirely of data from previous seasons, such as returning starters, past performance, recruiting rankings and coaching tenure (more on the preseason component below). That information allows FPI to make predictions (and make determinations on the strength of a team’s opponents) beginning in Week 1, and then it declines in weight as the season progresses. It is important to note that prior seasons’ information never completely disappears, because it has been proved to help with prediction accuracy even at the end of a season.
What this means in relation to Utah is a few things. Teams that recruit at a high level but continually underachieve will be favored in FPI compared to a team like Utah that does not get many blue chip recruits but outperforms their recruiting ranking through excellent coaching and player development. It also takes into account past performance, and Utah, despite being ranked in every College Football Playoff ranking, has been consistently undervalued by FPI for years. The losses of so many starters and contributors to the NFL also certainly does not help rankings. Lastly, Utah does not play football the way FPI values teams. It is an efficiency metric, while Utah relies more on havoc plays like sacks and turnovers. They also play the field position battle as well as any team in the nation.
One thing to remember about FPI is it is a prediction of the percentage chance a team will win. This means that it is not meant to predict the winner accurately 100% of the time. For example, a game that is a toss up 50-50 game, FPI should only predict this correctly half the time to be considered accurate. If one team won that matchup 90% of the time, FPI’s prediction is off considerably (it should have heavily favored the team that won consistently) and not that FPI is great at picking the winner in 50-50 games. For a 60-40 game, FPI should be right 60% of the time, and so on.
Having said all this, do I think FPI is even close on Utah? NO! The Pac-12 media poll was released yesterday, and the Utes were picked second in the South and fourth overall in the conference. To have teams like Arizona, who was picked dead last in the South in the media poll, ahead of Utah seems utterly ridiculous. There is no rational I can come up with that puts Utah any lower than fourth preseason in the South and eighth overall in the conference. Utah is a team that computer algorithms hate, but they are a team that human pollsters respect (at least during the season lately).