FPI previews the Big 12 season

As the 2015 college football season approaches, ESPN Stats & Information will preview each Power 5 conference from the perspective of preseason FPI. As a refresher, preseason FPI is a rating based on a number of factors that have been found to be predictive for the coming season (previous years’ efficiencies, returning starters, recruiting rankings and coaching tenure). An explanation of preseason FPI can be found here and here, and full season projections are available at espn.com/fpi.

Today we will analyze the upcoming season in the Big 12.

FPI’s favorite

The Big 12 is expected to be the closest conference race in the country, with Baylor’s and TCU's chances to win the conference separated by half a percentage point.

In fact, those two teams differ by 0.13 points in preseason FPI, meaning that if they were to meet on a neutral field, the game would basically be a toss-up.

The reason Baylor has the slightest edge over TCU in the projections, despite having to travel to Fort Worth (and being an underdog in that game), is that its overall conference schedule is easier than TCU’s, given game location. The Bears play four road conference games, including an Oct. 10 game at Kansas, whereas TCU plays five Big 12 road games.

FPI projects that Oklahoma has the third-best chance to win the Big 12, but beyond the Sooners, it does not give any other team more than a 3 percent chance to win the conference. That said, TCU entered last year 36th in preseason FPI and was given a 3.6 percent chance to win, so anything is possible for the second-tier group of Big 12 teams that are tightly bunched in FPI (four teams ranked 28th to 38th).

Top games of the year

Matchup quality ranks games (on a 0-to-100 scale) based on how good each team is and how close the game is expected to be. The games ranked highest in matchup quality will be competitive games between highly ranked teams in FPI.

• Top nonconference game: Oklahoma at Tennessee (Sept. 12) -- 90.2 matchup quality

This game is expected to be the second-best nonconference matchup of the season, behind Michigan State’s rematch with Oregon. Both teams enter the game with a lot to prove; Oklahoma must show it is back after a disappointing 8-5 season, including a 40-6 loss to Clemson in its bowl game, while Tennessee is looking to prove that it should again be mentioned among the nation’s elite programs. FPI projects that the Vols have a 59 percent chance to win this game at home.

• Top conference matchup: Baylor at TCU (Nov. 27) -- 93.7 matchup quality

Last season, when trailing by 21 points in the fourth quarter against TCU, Baylor had a 1.9 percent chance to win, according to ESPN’s win probability model, before rattling off 24 straight points to defeat the Horned Frogs 61-58. Can this year’s game top that one? ESPN’s matchup quality metric thinks it might; it rates this as the top game of the season, and FPI gives TCU the advantage (57 percent chance to win) because this year’s game is in Fort Worth.

• Closest projected game of the season: West Virginia at Kansas State (Dec. 5) -- Kansas State 51.9 percent chance to win

Kansas State narrowly defeated West Virginia 26-20 in Morgantown last season, but the Wildcats have to replace nine starters, including quarterback Jake Waters, leading FPI to believe this year’s matchup will be even closer. Because the game is in Manhattan, a place where K-State is 24-5 the past four years, FPI favors the Wildcats.

Top units of 2015

Preseason FPI utilizes the four factors listed above to predict the offensive, defensive and special teams efficiency of each FBS team for the 2015 season. When those three phases of the game are combined, the result is each team’s overall FPI rating. Below you will find the top projected units in the Big 12. The numbers associated with each unit are the points per game that unit is expected to contribute to its team’s net scoring margin this season.

Offense: Baylor (plus-15.9, first in FBS) -- Baylor has ranked in the top two in offensive efficiency in each of the past four seasons, which is a major reason FPI projects it will have the top offense in the nation in 2015. The Bears have to replace quarterback Bryce Petty, but replacing quarterbacks has not been a problem for coach Art Briles. Since the start of the 2011 season, Baylor has had three starting quarterbacks, and as a team, the Bears have ranked in the top 10 in Total QBR in four straight seasons.

Defense: Texas (plus-10.7, sixth in FBS) -- Texas had its share of issues in 2014, but defense was not one of them. The Longhorns ranked fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency in Charlie Strong’s first season as their coach. Texas returns three starters from a secondary that allowed 5.7 yards per attempt and just 13 passing touchdowns last season, both Big 12 lows.

Special teams: TCU (plus-1.1, 12th in FBS) -- TCU started its drives 9.6 yards closer to the goal line than its opponents last season, the largest average starting field-position margin in the nation. Although part of the field-position differential can be attributed to other units, TCU had a solid special teams group that returns almost everyone from last season.

Also in this series:

Previewing the ACC

Previewing the Big Ten

Previewing the Pac-12

Previewing the SEC

Note: Projections will be updated throughout the summer as we learn more about starters and improve FPI to better handle games against FCS opponents.