COLUMBIA, Mo. - How does your No. 34 Missouri Tigers football team sound?
Maybe not too enthralling, but that’s where ESPN slots Eli Drinkwitz’s team four months ahead of the start of the season using its Football Power Index poll, as released Tuesday.
Here’s how ESPN defines its Football Power Index: “The Football Power Index (FPI) is a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season. FPI represents how many points above or below average a team is. Projected results are based on 20,000 simulations of the rest of the season using FPI, results to date, and the remaining schedule. Ratings and projections update daily. FPI data from seasons prior to 2019 may not be complete.”
According to the Gospel of St. Bristol and those 20,000 simulations, here are some more season projections for Mizzou:
Win-Loss record: 7.1 wins – 5.0 losses (the simulations don’t always spit out a whole number for wins and losses)
Undefeated simulations: 0.0%
Six-win simulations (bowl eligible): 86.1%
Division-winning simulations: 5.7%
Conference-winning simulations: 0.8%
Making the playoff simulations: 0.0%
The Tigers finished 5-5 last year in Drinkwitz’s debut season and third place in the SEC East against an SEC-only schedule altered dramatically by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tigers had been scheduled to play nonconference games against Central Arkansas, Brigham Young, Louisiana and Eastern Michigan. Those games were removed from the schedule and replaced with two SEC games against Louisiana State, the 2019 national champion, and Alabama, the team that won the 2020 national championship.
ESPN’s 2021 simulations position Mizzou to finish third in the SEC East for the second straight year but with a change at the top of the division.
• Here’s how ESPN’s simulations stack up the SEC as ranked by FPI and regular-season wins:
SEC by Football Power Index
(The FPI number measures how many points above or below a team is compared to what’s considered an average FBS team.)
No. 1 Alabama, 28.0
No. 6 Texas A&M, 19.7
No. 7 Georgia, 17.9
No. 8 Mississippi State, 16.2
No. 14 Florida, 13.3
No. 16 Auburn, 12.9
No. 18 LSU, 12.7
No. 22 Ole Miss, 11.5
No. 29 Arkansas, 9.9
No. 34 Missouri, 7.9
No. 39 Kentucky, 7.3
No. 48 Tennessee, 5.3
No. 68 South Carolina, 1.0
No. 93 Vanderbilt, minus-4.0
SEC by Regular-Season Wins
Texas A&M, 9.6
Mississippi State, 8.2
Ole Miss, 6.9
South Carolina, 4.5
Why the discrepancy? Three words: Strength of schedule. Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss, all from the rugged SEC West, have higher FPI rankings than Missouri and Kentucky, but the Tigers and Wildcats are projected to win more games. That’s the price for playing in the same division as the league’s two weakest teams, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Here's how the SEC teams rank nationally in terms of strength of schedule per ESPN's projections:
9. Ole Miss
14. Mississippi State
16. South Carolina
23. Texas A&M
• ESPN’s projections handicap the SEC East as a two-team race. Here are the simulation percentages to win both the East and West divisions:
South Carolina, 0.4%
Texas A&M, 22.2%
Mississippi State, 8.3%
Ole Miss, 1.9%
The projections tell us anything but an Alabama-Georgia showdown for the SEC championship will be an upset and that only four teams are considered viable threats to make it to Atlanta: Bama, UGA, Florida and …. Mississippi State?
• Why are the projections so high for Mike Leach’s Bulldogs, a team that went 4-7 last year? After what seemed like a monumental Week 1 victory at LSU, MSU lost seven of its next eight games and only reached a bowl game because the NCAA eliminated all postseason requirements due to the pandemic. The Bulldogs finished the year with wins over Missouri and Tulsa but return the bulk of a defense that ranked in the top half of the SEC in several major categories. Plus, even though it took half a season, Leach seemed to settle on a quarterback near year’s end as the Bulldogs showed some glimpses of vintage Air Raid potency. As for MSU’s 2021 SEC schedule, Leach’s team gets LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss at home and lands a favorable two-game swing through the SEC East: home against Kentucky and at Vanderbilt. Add it up and MSU could indeed be one of the most improved teams in the SEC … but to rank the Bulldogs ahead of Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Florida, Oregon, Indiana and USC? That seems like a stretch.
• Back to Mizzou. Here is the Tigers’ 2021 schedule, including each team’s FPI rankings and projected wins:
Central Michigan, No. 72, 6.5 wins
at Kentucky, No. 39, 7.1 wins
Southeast Missouri State, not available
at Boston College, No. 54, 6.7 wins
vs. Tennessee, No. 48, 6.6 wins
vs. North Texas, No. 115, 5.0 wins
vs. Texas A&M, No. 6, 9.6 wins
at Vanderbilt, No. 93, 4.2 wins
at Georgia, No. 7, 9.5 wins
vs. South Carolina, No. 68, 4.5 wins
vs. Florida, No. 14, 8.2 wins
at Arkansas, No. 29, 6.1 wins
Based on the projections, Mizzou will face seven bowl-eligible teams in 2021 among its 11 FBS opponents.
• What about Mizzou’s neighbors to the east and west? The projections are grim for Bret Bielema in his first year at Illinois. The Fighting Illini rank No. 87 overall and minus-3.2 in the FPI. Illinois is projected to win 3.8 games with a 0.1% chance to win the Big Ten West. The only Power 5 teams with lower FPI rankings: No. 90 Washington State, No. 93 Vanderbilt, No. 102 Arizona and No. 109 Kansas. The Jayhawks, who currently don’t have a full-time head coach, are projected to win 2.1 games with a 0.0% chance of winning the Big 12.
• ESPN’s list of most likely playoff teams has a familiar look. Alabama has the best chances of making the CFP final four at 76.3%, followed by Oklahoma (73.2), Clemson (64.6), Ohio State (45.0), Iowa State (40.6), Texas A&M (25.8), Georgia (17.2), Notre Dame (10.5), Mississippi State (8.1) and Penn State (7.3).
• Which Group of 5 team has the best chance to crash the party and make the playoff? The odds are slim as only three teams have a sliver of a chance per the projections: Cincinnati (1.2%), Coastal Carolina (0.3) and Appalachian State (0.1).
• What teams have the best chances of winning their conference championship? No surprise here. It starts with Clemson of the ACC, followed by Oklahoma (Big 12), Alabama-Birmingham (Conference USA), Ohio State (Big Ten), Alabama (SEC), Cincinnati (American), Oregon (Pac-12), Coastal Carolina (Sun Belt), Buffalo (Mid-American) and Iowa State (Big 12).