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College Football Playoff path for top 10 FPI teams

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Clemson looking like a lock to be best team in the country (1:52)

Seth Walder examines why FPI has Clemson at the top, if Michigan can break through and other storylines ahead of the 2019 college football season. (1:52)

Whether you love the idea of Clemson and Alabama continuing their relationship in the College Football Playoff or simply love to hate it, they're together again at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in ESPN's first Football Power Index ranking of 2019.

Remember, FPI is a predictive rating system. It measures how strong a team is expected to be, based on data from previous seasons, such as returning starters, past performance, recruiting rankings and coaching tenure, which explains the predictable top.

Though FPI is not a playoff predictor, there is still some correlation, as 18 of the past 20 CFP semifinalists were ranked in the top 10 of FPI at the time of their selection. The lone exceptions were No. 14 Michigan State in 2015 and No. 12 Florida State in 2014.

Historical data has driven this first FPI ranking for next season, but here's a look forward at what the 13-member selection committee will be watching on each FPI top-10 team's path to the playoff.

1. Clemson

Toughest game on schedule: Sept. 7 vs. Texas A&M

The committee will like: Road trips to Syracuse, NC State and South Carolina.
The group pays attention to when and where games are played, and Syracuse has given Clemson fits recently. The Orange upset the Tigers 27-24 in 2017, and almost did it again last season before falling 27-23. South Carolina is No. 20 in the preseason FPI, and the committee has acknowledged the challenges that accompany playing a rival. Winning two of three games on the road in November, including at NC State on Nov. 9, would leave a lasting impression.

The committee won't like: Home games against Charlotte and Wofford.
Victories against these teams won't do anything for Clemson's résumé, and if it stumbles anywhere else along the way -- especially to a conference opponent it should beat -- scheduling lower-tier competition could weigh down the Tigers.

One big question: Will an otherwise weak ACC hurt the Tigers this season?
It didn't last season, but the Tigers also didn't lose. This season, Clemson will face three league opponents with new head coaches: Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Louisville. Florida State is coming off an embarrassing 5-7 season. The ACC is fourth among Power 5 conferences with only two teams in the FPI preseason top 25, and both come from the Atlantic Division. According to FPI, the ACC Coastal is the worst Power 5 division, with No. 32 Miami its highest-ranked team. It would obviously depend in part on whom Clemson were to lose to, and if it wins the ACC but the rest of the league struggles this season, it could affect Clemson's playoff hopes.

2. Alabama

Toughest game on schedule: Nov. 9 vs. LSU

The committee will like: The depth of the SEC.
It should be another strong season for the conference, and that could again be reflected in the committee's final ranking. In addition to holding three of the top four spots in the first FPI, SEC teams occupy half the top 10 and make up 10 of the top 25. No other conference has multiple teams in the top 10. Alabama plays six opponents in the preseason FPI top 25.

The committee won't like: The nonconference schedule.
That's not a knock against Duke. As long as the Blue Devils put together a respectable season, the committee will regard an Alabama victory over Duke as respectable. It's the rest of the noncon schedule -- New Mexico State, Southern Mississippi and Western Carolina -- that could be an issue. Those programs, including the FCS Catamounts (3-8 last season), combined for a 12-22 record in 2018. As good as Alabama has been, if it gives the committee any reason to doubt it's one of the four best teams again, the nonconference lineup won't help its case.

One big question: Can Alabama earn a semifinal spot again without winning the SEC West?
Considering how difficult the division is projected to be, there's certainly no guarantee Alabama will finish undefeated again, but that weekly rigor could also act as a counterpoint to a weak nonconference schedule -- just as it did in 2017, when Alabama didn't win the West but still finished in the top four. It would depend in part on whom the Tide lost to, how they lost and how the other Power 5 conference champions measure up.

3. Georgia

Toughest game on schedule: Nov. 16 at Auburn

The committee will like: The crossover opponents.
The road trip to Auburn is followed by a Nov. 23 home game against Texas A&M. Back-to-back November victories against SEC West opponents could significantly boost Georgia's résumé heading into the final week of the regular season -- if the Dawgs win. Last season's 36-16 loss to LSU was a dagger in the final picture. Georgia came close last season, but we still haven't seen a two-loss team finish in the top four.

The committee won't like: A September slip-up.
If Georgia is worthy of a playoff spot, it should start the season 3-0 with wins against Vanderbilt, Murray State and Arkansas State. Repeat: Murray State and Arkansas State, which is why beating Notre Dame on Sept. 21 has the potential to separate Georgia from other contenders. If Georgia loses to the Irish, though, its best nonconference win would be against rival Georgia Tech, and that would put enormous pressure on Georgia to win out.

One big question: How much will a win over Notre Dame be worth?
It depends, of course, on how the Irish fare. According to ESPN's FPI, it's the most difficult game on the Irish schedule, as they are No. 7 and projected to be No. 9 in offensive efficiency and No. 11 in defensive efficiency. Notre Dame helped Michigan almost all last season -- and the Wolverines didn't even win the game. Remember Miami's claim to fame in 2017? The Hurricanes hammered Notre Dame 41-8, and it carried them in the eyes of the committee -- until the Canes ended the season with two face-plants of their own. Win or lose, playing Notre Dame seems to help -- as long as the Irish help themselves.

4. LSU

Toughest game on schedule: Nov. 9 at Alabama

The committee will like: The Sept. 7 road trip to Texas.
Fans should love this one, too, as it could be a game that resonates with the selection committee for both teams. Expectations are much higher for Texas this season, with quarterback Sam Ehlinger returning, and if the Longhorns can live up to the hype, LSU could have one of the best nonconference wins of the season.

The committee won't like: The rest of the nonconference schedule.
Georgia Southern, Northwestern State and Utah State. Noticing a trend in the SEC?

One big question: Can LSU survive a backloaded schedule?
It looks like a Big 12 lineup. Where is the November FCS gimme game? Rice? (Arkansas doesn't count. Kind of.) LSU has a bye Nov. 2, and it's going to need the break after hosting Auburn on Oct. 26. LSU will end the season with four consecutive weeks against SEC West opponents, including back-to-back road trips to Alabama and Ole Miss. LSU should hope its regular season ends in regulation against Texas A&M, because there might not be enough energy left for one overtime, let alone seven.

5. Michigan

Toughest game on schedule: Nov. 30 vs. Ohio State

The committee will like: A challenging October.
Four consecutive weeks without a bye begin Oct. 5 against Iowa, a consistent winner that has derailed playoff hopes before, followed by back-to-back road games against Illinois and Penn State. The month ends at home against Notre Dame, which beat Michigan in 2018 in a game that held playoff implications all season.

The committee won't like: No signature victories.
Michigan's best win last season was against No. 12 Penn State, and overall it had an impressive résumé, but it went 0-for-2 against Notre Dame and Ohio State. If the Wolverines are going to take the next step and contend for a top-four spot, they've got to beat at least one of those opponents.

One big question: Is Michigan ready for this yet?
It has been 14 seasons since the Wolverines won the Big Ten. This is coach Jim Harbaugh's fifth season. He will certainly have the edge in coaching experience over Ohio State rookie Ryan Day, who replaces retired Urban Meyer. Forget that the Big Ten champ has been excluded from the top four in each of the past three seasons. If Michigan can beat Notre Dame and win the Big Ten, it's hard to imagine that streak continuing on Selection Day.

6. Oklahoma

Toughest game on schedule: Oct. 12 vs. Texas

The committee will like: Six games away from home.
The Sooners are at UCLA, Kansas, K-State, Baylor and Oklahoma State to end the season, plus the Red River Rivalry at the Cotton Bowl.

The committee won't like: A September stumble.
This is trickier than it looks at first glance. Houston will make its debut with Dana Holgorsen, who is familiar with facing the Sooners as the former WVU coach. OU dismantled UCLA last season, but Bruins coach Chip Kelly should have more answers in his second season. Oklahoma should be 4-0 entering the heart of conference play in October, but if it's not? There will already be some doubts about the Sooners' postseason potential.

One big question: Can OU's offense continue to wow the committee?
Oklahoma's dreadful defense didn't keep the Sooners out of the top four last season -- because they had the No. 1 offense in the country. That offense must replace seven starters, including Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray.

7. Notre Dame

Toughest game on schedule: Sept. 21 at Georgia

The committee will like: The overall strength of schedule.
One of the benefits of being an independent is a schedule tailor-made to impress the committee, and this is it. Five road games, including at Georgia, Michigan and Stanford, plus the neutral-site game against Navy -- if Notre Dame can survive it, the Irish would likely be in again.

The committee won't like: A bad loss.
As unforgiving as Notre Dame's schedule is, the Irish don't have a conference title game to help compensate for an upset. It's one thing to lose at Georgia -- that can be forgiven in the eyes of the committee -- but lose to a team that finishes below .500, or get embarrassed at home unexpectedly, and it opens the door for a greater debate.

One big question: Is the gap between Notre Dame and the national title as big as 30-3?
Those within the program will tell you no, but the critics were quick to pounce after Clemson upended the Irish in last season's semifinal. Notre Dame went undefeated in 2018 against a respectable schedule yet is still facing a burden of proof when it comes to joining the sport's elite. This season's schedule will either help it silence the naysayers -- or fuel the fire.

8. Florida

Toughest game on schedule: Nov. 2 vs. Georgia

The committee will like: Crossover opponents.
Florida has back-to-back opportunities against SEC West opponents Auburn and at LSU. Florida beat LSU last season but had home-field advantage. This season the Gators will head into Death Valley one week after hosting Auburn. It's a lineup that can either help Florida tremendously in the eyes of the committee -- or eliminate the Gators entirely.

The committee won't like: Losing the state championship.
Florida opens the season in Orlando against Miami, the first time those teams have played since 2013, and closes at home against Florida State. The committee understands the added emotions of rivalry games, but FSU has struggled under Willie Taggart and Miami has a first-year coach in Manny Diaz. The Gators, seemingly ahead of their rivals under Dan Mullen, can't afford to lose. Nonconference wins against UT Martin and Towson aren't going to help. Florida leaves its home state only four times all season.

One big question: Does Florida finally have a quarterback capable of winning the East?
Florida has to replace four starting offensive linemen from last season, plus its second-leading rusher, which will put pressure on quarterback Feleipe Franks to show leadership and improvement. He made noticeable strides last season under Mullen, including his passing efficiency and completion percentage, and that will have to continue if Florida is going to be a contender.

9. Auburn

Toughest game on schedule: Nov. 30 vs. Alabama

The committee will like: The overall strength of schedule.
Auburn plays seven teams currently ranked in the FPI top 25, including five in the top 10. With the season opener against Oregon in Dallas and two crossover games against SEC front-runners Georgia and Florida, it will be easy for the committee to overlook the November snoozer against Samford and early home games against Tulane and Kent State. Considering October is booked with three consecutive SEC road games, Auburn will likely have some margin for error in the meeting room.

The committee won't like: A November to forget.
As grueling as the schedule is, Auburn ends the season with four November home games, and it can't afford to lose to both Georgia and Alabama -- not if it wants to unseat one of them for a top-four spot. If Auburn doesn't beat Oregon in the opener, winning one of two against the SEC heavyweights becomes even more important. We've seen the committee consider two-loss teams before, including Auburn and Georgia, but it has yet to actually choose one.

One big question: Who's the quarterback?
Jarrett Stidham declared for the NFL draft, leaving the competition wide open. Incoming freshman Bo Nix, the No. 4 pocket passer in the ESPN 300, will battle Malik Willis, Joey Gatewood and Cord Sandberg for the starting job.

10. Oregon

Toughest game on schedule: Aug. 31 vs. Auburn

The committee will like: Road wins.
Oregon has ample opportunities to boost its résumé, starting with the neutral-site opener in Dallas and including trips to Stanford, Washington, USC and Arizona State.

The committee won't like: Another average season in the Pac-12.
The league's reputation took a hit in 2018, as its conference championship game featured Washington and Utah, two teams with three losses each. If Oregon is going to gain any votes in the selection room, not only does it have to win tough games but it has to hope the rest of the conference improves, too.

One big question: Are the Ducks really the Pac-12's best playoff hope?
Much of the hype surrounding Oregon this offseason can be attributed to quarterback Justin Herbert's decision to return. He's one of 10 offensive starters coming back, but don't forget about Washington, Utah and Stanford, which are all ranked in the FPI top 25. Washington State should also be a factor in the race again, especially with the addition of transfer quarterback Gage Gubrud from Eastern Washington.