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FPI previews the Pac-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 Pac-12.

FPI’s favorite

FPI projects that Oregon, despite losing Heisman-winner Marcus Mariota, has the best chance (36 percent) to win the Pac-12. UCLA, which returns a Pac-12-high 18 starters, has the second-best chance to win the conference and the best chance (40 percent) to win the Pac-12 South.

FPI favors Oregon because of its track record of success; the Ducks have ranked in the top 10 in the nation in overall efficiency in each of the past eight seasons.

The Ducks also have the benefit of playing in the Pac-12 North, the weaker division based on average FPI ranking. The first step to winning a conference title is winning your division, and FPI gives Oregon by far the best chance of any Pac-12 team to win its division (62 percent likely).

In the Pac-12 South, UCLA and USC are the favorites, but FPI favors the Bruins because of their schedule. USC faces each of the top four teams in the Pac-12 North in its crossover games, but UCLA has the benefit of avoiding Oregon and Washington in conference play.

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: Oregon at Michigan State (Sept. 12) -- 91.6 Matchup Quality

This game is expected to be the best non-conference matchup of the season, according to ESPN’s Matchup Quality Metric. It features two of the top programs in the country, and despite Oregon’s 19-point victory last year, FPI expects this to be one of the closest games of the 2015 season. Michigan State has a 51 percent chance to win, per FPI, largely because the game is in East Lansing and the Spartans have the edge at quarterback with Connor Cook returning for his senior season.

• Top conference matchup: USC at Oregon (Nov. 21) -- 91.6 Matchup Quality

Oregon and USC are popular picks to win their respective divisions, so this could be a preview of the Pac-12 championship game. FPI favors the Ducks in this matchup (61 percent chance to win) because the game is in Eugene, where Oregon is 39-3 since 2009, and the Ducks are projected to have one of the top offenses in the nation.

• Closest projected game of the year: Colorado at Oregon State (Oct. 24) -- Oregon State 50.3 percent chance to win

Colorado and Oregon State are the only teams from the Pac-12 that rank worse than 60th in preseason FPI, and both have less than a 0.1 percent chance to win the conference. It’s safe to say there will not be much on the line when these teams meet, but it is still expected to be one of the closest games of the season and a good test for programs looking to improve next season.

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 Pac-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 next season.

Offense: Oregon (plus-13.2, fourth in FBS) –- Oregon has boasted a top-10 offense for eight straight seasons, including the No. 1 offense in 2014. Even after accounting for the loss of Mariota, the Ducks are expected to remain the top offense in the Pac-12 because of their run game, which includes three career 1,000-yard rushers.

Defense: Arizona State (plus-9.9, 11th in FBS) -– The Sun Devils are not typically known for their defense, but since Todd Graham took over as head coach in 2012, they have ranked 13th in defensive efficiency. The key for Arizona State is turnovers. The Sun Devils have forced 90 turnovers in the past three years (sixth in FBS) and have scored more defensive touchdowns than any other team during that time. With nine returning starters, Arizona State’s defense should remain one of the best in the nation.

Special teams: Utah (plus-1.7, third in FBS) –- The Utes return Ray Guy Award winner (best punter) Tom Hackett and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 kicker Andy Phillips. Hackett had an FBS-high 19 punts downed inside the 10-yard-line, and Phillips ranked second in the nation with 14 field goals of 40 yards or longer. Utah will have to replace Kaelin Clay, but few teams have scored more return touchdowns on special teams than the Utes in the past four years.

Also in this series:

Previewing the ACC

Previewing the Big 12

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