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ESPN's FPI Rankings for Rutgers Better Than S&P+ Rating, But Both Predict Bad Season Ahead

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Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

The Scarlet Knights find themselves ranked 70th in ESPN’s preseason Football Power Index (FPI) following a disappointing 2015 campaign. While offseason moves included a new head coach and promising commitments from New Jersey and the rest of the tri-state area, one cannot help themselves brood over such a mediocre ranking.

Should the position add to fan despair or, depressingly, is Scarlet Knight football in worse shape than ESPN is letting on?

I realize many sports enthusiasts are skeptical of the different quantitative analysis methods that ESPN and others use in trying to predict the quality of teams prior to season kickoff. After all, is Florida State really destined for greatness this year?

Briefly, let us examine the framework that has assigned a cruel fate to Rutgers.

The index uses four factors that are assigned different weightings and 10,000 computer simulations to produce "unbiased ratings that account for many of the same factors that voters tend to value when producing their preseason rankings …" writes Sharon Katz, of ESPN. The chief input ESPN uses in its FPI data set is prior year’s performance on offense, defense, and special teams. The second is returning starters and the final two that hold less weight is recruiting ranking and coaching tenure.

Obviously, the preseason FPI is quantifying teams’ offseason activity, more so than predicting the upcoming season based on teams’ past performance. How else to explain FSU overtaking LSU in the rankings without a single game played?

"LSU sits atop preseason FPI, but that does not mean the Tigers will win the most games in the FBS or make the College Football Playoff … LSU might not even be favored to win the SEC," writes Ms. Katz.

What’s the point then? Offseason moves should be judged purely from qualitative reasoning rather than dubious quantitative methods. To paraphrase the great economist Ludwig von Mises, math is a mere servant of human reasoning and logic, not its master.

One last criticism regarding the FPI. The 10,000 computer simulations of game play ESPN alchemists use to produce their rankings is somewhat standard practice in my profession of finance. Wall St financial analysts call it a "Monte Carlo simulation," which has its uses for risk management and valuing complex securities by generating a large number of random samples from specified probability distributions. Most of the Street prefers using "historical simulations," which use repeated sampling from historical data series. Compared with Monte Carlo simulations, historical simulation does not lend itself to "what if" analyses. Yes, the ESPN FPI does employ stats based on previous year production, but player and coach retention along with recruiting rankings lend itself to questionable "what if" conjecture.

Regardless of its drawbacks, ESPN’s FPI has RU positioned 70th among 128 teams. I believe this ranking does not fully capture the disappointment fans will experience this year, which brings me back to my question, does the index actually overestimate RU’s 2016 squad?

Using historical analysis, SB Nation’s Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rating placed Rutgers football at 105th among 128 teams based on 2015 production. In his July 11th column examining new head coach Chris Ash’s defenses track record at Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Def S&P category displayed a drop in statistical performance in his first year relative to the previous year coach's ranking. It’s worth noting in year two and beyond defensive team performance jumped considerably. Mr. Connelly had this to say:

"If there’s any trend here, it’s that year one sees a reset and year two sees improvement. We’re probably going to see something similar at RU. (Ash) inherits the bones of a potentially efficient offense and a strong run defense, but the pass defense might have been the worst in FBS last year, and let’s face it: After all of last season’s negativity, restoring morale, building a healthier culture, etc., might take a little while."

However, there is some upside. The fundamentals of building a winning football team begin with both the offensive and defensive lines. RU excels in both categories. The Scarlet Knights managed a position of 46th place in Adjusted Line Yards, 58th in Rushing S&P+; 31st in Adjusted Sack Rate, 43rd in Passing S&P+. Additionally, the offensive line is seeing the return of six players with starting experience. The defensive line will get healthier this season after a couple of key players were lost to injury for most of 2015, including Bednarik Award and Outland Trophy nominee Darius Hamilton. Look for that unit to make improvements from being ranked 110 in Adjusted Sack Rate and 104 in Pass Downs Sack Rate in 2015.