ESPN’s Football Power Index has liked the Vols in recent years. In 2016, the FPI had the Vols ranked inside the top five in their preseason rankings, and it even had Tennessee inside the top 20 heading into the season last year.
But this year, it’s a different story.
The FPI this season has Tennessee ranked 52nd in the country in their initial ratings. The Vols come in just behind Arizona State and just ahead of UCF in the rankings.
The 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,” according to ESPN’s site. “FPI represents how many points above or below average a team is. Projected results are based on 10,000 simulations of the rest of the season using FPI, results to date, and the remaining schedule.”
But the preseason poll is a little different since no games have yet been played.
The preseason rankings use “the last four seasons of performance on offense, defense and special teams, with the most recent season counting most; information on offensive and defensive returning starters, with special consideration given to a team returning its starting quarterback or gaining a transfer quarterback with experience; a four-year average recruiting ranking of four systems (ESPN, Scouts, Rivals and Phil Steele); and head coaching tenure. These four components interact and are assigned different weights depending on the team to produce preseason FPI.”
Essentially, the FPI is a measure purely of a team’s talent, past performance, and potential for the upcoming season.
Tennessee comes in at No. 11 in the SEC in the initial rankings, placing ahead of only Arkansas (54th), Kentucky (56th), and Vanderbilt (76th). The Vols, of course, play Kentucky and Vanderbilt this season, and another Tennessee opponent, UTEP, comes in dead last in the rankings at No. 130.
Alabama comes in at No. 2 just behind Clemson, and Georgia sits at No. 3 in the rankings. Florida, Tennessee’s other main rival, comes in at No. 22 in the initial rankings.
Last year, the FPI didn’t favor the Vols to win the SEC East, but it still expected Tennessee to compete with both Georgia and Florida for the division crown. What happened instead was the Vols turned out their worst season in program history. The Vols went 4-8 overall and winless in conference play. Florida wasn’t much better, but Georgia outperformed expectations and won the SEC and played in the national title game.
The FPI has been wrong about Tennessee the last couple years, but a lot of that has been attributed to coaching. Time will tell if the FPI is more accurate about the Vols this season.