College football FPI release: Top teams, new playoff trends

The key storylines leading up to the 2024 college football season (1:37)

Check out some of the most important storylines and numbers as the 2024 college football season nears. (1:37)

The 2024 college football season will be all about big changes.

Familiar programs are going to be in very different places. The Big Ten, for example, is welcoming Washington, Oregon, USC and UCLA, ending the Pac-12 as we knew it; it's one of several realignments taking place this season. In addition, the sport will have to continue evolving the way players are compensated. And perhaps the most significant new wrinkle of them all comes on the game's highest-profile stage: The College Football Playoff expands its field from four to 12 teams this season, giving more schools a chance to win their way to the national title.

To help make sense of everything, ESPN is releasing our 2024 Football Power Index (FPI) ratings and projections, which include forecasts for every team's record, its chances of winning a conference title, and of course, its probability to make the playoff and win the championship.

From the table below, many of the usual suspects are among the favorite programs to take home the national title, but there is also plenty of uncertainty:

Before we dive into more of the forecast, let's briefly talk about how all of this works. First things first: The FPI is a power rating that tracks each team's strength relative to an average FBS squad. Teams are rated on offense, defense and special teams, with the values representing points per game. (So that means Georgia is rated as nearly 27 points per game better than the average team, which is pretty good!)

Those numbers are then used to simulate the season schedule 20,000 times, including the conference championships and the CFP bracket, simulating the selection process using an algorithm that mimics the way the committee typically picks teams. Finally, once we have those results, we can say how often each team wins its conference, makes the playoff and achieves other milestones.

Let's break down some of the main storylines emerging out of the FPI's numbers ahead of the 2024 season.

Two-conference domination

Georgia leads ESPN's initial playoff predictions, making the expanded field in nearly 80% of our simulations and winning the national title a little over 20% of the time. In addition, the SEC (with a 53% chance of producing the champion) and Big Ten (32%) dominate the national title probability rankings by conference.

Among teams with at least a coin-flip's chance of making the playoff, the Bulldogs are joined by Oregon (76%), Texas (68%), Ohio State (67%), Notre Dame (60%), Penn State (59%) and Alabama (57%). After that group, there's a sizable drop-off to the next tier, led by Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee at 37% apiece.

How has the expanded playoff changed the shape of these odds? Overall, 18 teams currently have at least a 20% shot at making the playoff in our preseason model, as opposed to just eight going into last season.

Closer look at the all-important bye

While making the playoff might be a certainty for more top programs this season, merely qualifying isn't enough anymore. It remains significant to finish among the four highest-ranked conference champs on the committee's list, and thus earn the all-important bye into the second round of the bracket. Those teams will still need to win three games to capture the title (rather than two under the previous CFP format), but it's still better than having to win four.

Here are the teams with the best odds of securing that first-round bye:

Interestingly, Oregon ranks highest in the country here -- ahead of Georgia. That's a result of several factors: the Ducks' comparatively high chance of going undefeated (16%) against their new Big Ten schedule, and the fact that they have the best odds of winning their conference among power-conference schools (37%). Both are good ingredients to end up in the top four.

On a related note: Sorry, Notre Dame, but your team is not allowed to get a bye; only conference champions are eligible. But with 60% odds, the Irish are far and away the most probable playoff team outside the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC. We will also get to see at least one non-power-conference team make the playoff this year, as a fifth conference champ is guaranteed a spot in the field.

Here are the odds for each Group of 5 conference to send at least one team to the playoff:

Florida and Washington moving in opposite directions?

Despite the importance of the new format, however, the 2024 season will still be determined by the elite players and programs. In terms of pure talent, Georgia is projected to easily rank No. 1 in the FPI -- sitting roughly 2.3 points per game better than No. 2 Oregon -- on the strength of the nation's No. 2 projected offense and No. 3 defense. Five teams are projected to be at least three touchdowns better than the average FBS team: Georgia (plus-26.8), Oregon (24.5), Texas (22.9), Ohio State (22.2) and Alabama (21.9).

Some schools have risen up the ranks since the end of last season. Florida is up from 41st to 20th on the strength of 15 returning starters and a strong showing in the transfer portal. Auburn and Kansas have also leapt into the top 20 after finishing further down the list last season. Tennessee's ranking more closely resembles that of its 2022 breakout campaign than 2023, when they came back to Earth, while Texas is projected for its highest FPI finish (No. 3) since it made the BCS championship game in 2009. Meanwhile, USC is projected to hold steady at 18th despite losing quarterback Caleb Williams, this year's No. 1 overall draft pick by the Chicago Bears.

In addition, the FPI projections are down on both of 2023's championship game contestants. Washington has slipped to 31st, and defending champ Michigan is down to 12th, after each school lost its head coach -- Kalen DeBoer left for Alabama and Jim Harbaugh went to the Los Angeles Chargers, respectively -- as well as its starting QB and most of its starters. How much both programs can reload will be a big storyline to watch this season. And one other notable dip belongs to Kansas State, which falls from 11th to 22nd.

Here's this year's projected FPI top 20:

Can't forget about Deion's Buffaloes

Where do Deion Sanders' Colorado Buffaloes land in our ratings? They're 36th, with a 16th-place ranking on offense with Shedeur Sanders returning at quarterback (along with a bunch of new transfers, as we've come to expect from this program).

Along with a season forecast of 6.3 wins, that might not be to Sanders' liking -- but by rising from 77th in the FPI in 2023, the Buffaloes are projected to be the second-most-improved team in the FBS, trailing only Stanford (who's up from 106th to 59th).

Colorado should benefit from a slightly easier schedule in 2024 -- the Buffaloes rank 45th in projected FPI schedule strength, versus 39th a year ago -- and its scoring differential indicated a team slightly better than its record last season, both signs that point to continued improvement in Boulder.

But if the Buffaloes are going to really make the most of their potential, they'll have to win on Sept. 28 at UCF, on Oct. 18 at Arizona and, most importantly, at Kansas on Nov. 23. According to the FPI, those are the three games that swing Colorado's odds of making the playoff most. Lose any of them, and Colorado has very little chance to make the bracket as an at-large or (more likely) a conference winner out of the Big 12.

Mark 'em down: Biggest games of 2024

Along those same lines, let's look at the best and most important games of the season, according to the FPI. There are a few ways to quantify this, starting with simply looking at the combined ratings of both schools in a particular contest. By that measure, these are the 20 biggest games on the 2024 schedule:

But there's also another way of looking at the top games, based on how much they affect the postseason picture. Our simulations have a cool feature called "leverage," which measures the average change in probability (whether that be national title odds, playoff odds, conference title odds, etc.) for both teams depending on whether they win or lose a given game.

Here are the 2024 games that have the highest leverage in terms of who makes the CFP:

Both rankings are mostly filled with games from the SEC and Big Ten, with a few Notre Dame games, some nonconference tilts and a Week 6 Clemson-FSU matchup in the ACC.

One consequence of the expanded bracket is that fewer games feature huge leverage ratings for both teams' chances of making the playoff, since more of the top teams have better playoff odds than ever before. But at the same time, realignment has given fans more in-conference battles on these lists, which matter a great deal toward a team's odds of winning the conference, and thereby potentially securing one of the top four seeds.

That means any fears that playoff expansion would dilute the importance of the regular season might be overblown. There is still plenty to play for across the country each week, and our FPI rankings and projections will help you stay on top of it all.