We've spent the past five months discussing and predicting the 2016 state of Pac-12 football here on the blog, and we'll spend another three-plus months doing the same before the season kicks off. Now, the computers have had their first chance to do the same.
ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) is a measure of team strength that is meant to be the computer's best predictor of a team's performance going forward. A statistical analysis combined with a look at strength of schedule is combined into a formula that creates 10,000 simulations. The result: A prediction of how many games each college football team will win next season.
It's obviously currently impossible to account for future breakout players -- and there inevitably will be plenty of them in 2016 -- but looking at where Pac-12 teams stack up in the middle of the offseason desert is, at the very least, a fun place to start a discussion.
This season's first FPI projects an end to Stanford and Oregon's dominance at the top of the Pac-12: USC is projected to win the conference and is ranked eighth in the country. The model calculates 8.9 wins for the Trojans -- fewer than the 9.3 projected for Washington -- but USC's chances of winning the conference (28.8 percent) are higher than that of the Huskies (23.8 percent), so Clay Helton's team is the computer's favorite to reach the Rose Bowl.
We can safely assume that USC's season-opening tilt with defending national champion Alabama negatively impacts their projected overall win total, and this explains why the Trojans trail Washington in that regard but project better than them when the focus is confined to conference play.
The computers also project UCLA to win 8.9 games, but the Bruins' chances of winning the conference (26.2 percent) are slightly behind USC.
The computers give defending Pac-12 champion Stanford only a 7.9 percent chance of repeating atop the league. The Cardinal, like Oregon, are projected to win 7.4 games in the FPI.
The computer also calculated each team's chances of running the table. This is where parity within the Pac-12 and a nine-game conference schedule register the biggest impact: Whereas Oklahoma (15.2 percent) and Florida State (10 percent) both have relatively excellent chances to finish undefeated, FPI says the Pac-12's best chance is Washington (1.2 percent). USC and UCLA both have a 0.8 percent chance to finish without a loss.
The Pac-12 is projected to field eight bowl-eligible teams. The FPI thinks that the league as a whole plays college football's toughest schedule: A whopping nine Pac-12 teams are ranked in the top 25 when it comes to strength of schedule, while all but Washington (No. 52) have schedules ranked in the nation's top 50. The Huskies are projected to be good, but their relatively easier overall slate is a big reason why FPI projects their undefeated chances to be higher than any other Pac-12 team.
As always, keep in mind that the computer's rankings are just a conversation starting point right now.