Last season was the first year I'm aware of that ESPN began using the "Football Power Index" during the season as a means for ranking teams. Their purpose in creating the preseason FPI for this year is honorable, but I'm not sure their method is the greatest. Still, it's a different metric than "a bunch of sportswriters or coaches voted on it," so that automatically makes it a bit better.
Yes, it is a bit strange to see Auburn at 18th, down below even Tennessee. So what things may have caused Auburn to be ranked so low? Let's examine that in terms of the three categories ESPN uses to determine the FPI.
Past Year's Performance
First, there's Auburn's past year's defensive performance, which could not have helped the Tigers at all. It's not just as simple as last season, though. They also examined years before that (though only 2013 really counts, as it was a different coach and scheme before that). The offense trended down a bit, but still performed well.
This is the metric ESPN placed the second most emphasis on, and it's one where we know the Tigers are hurting. ESPN turned to Phil Steele for this, and we know Auburn is near the bottom of the FBS in returning lettermen according to Phil Steele. Losing eight starters, one of whom was a two year starting quarterback, should be a big blow for any football team.
Auburn's average recruiting rankings for the last four years from a composite of services (ESPN, Scouts, Rivals, and Phil Steele) should still be in the Top 10 or Top 15 at the worst. This should not hurt the Tigers at all.
Why I'm Not Upset
So Auburn is ranked 18th in this Preseason FPI. So there are some SEC teams ranked higher than Auburn which I don't think are better than the Tigers. Why am I not upset about all of this?
This is a metric designed for the preseason alone and it can and will change once the season starts. It's something we've been longing for as the antithesis of pre-season polls for the last few years. The FPI will be measured differently once the season starts, and it is not beholden to simple wins and losses. Just because Ohio State or other teams above continue to win won't guarantee they continue to rank higher than other undefeated teams.
Auburn does have a lot of question marks that need answering. We're confident that there are players who will step up on the offense to replace those 8 lost starters. We're pretty sure Will Muschamp's defense will be significantly improved over last season's defense. We won't know for sure until the games start being played, though.
If this were a pre-season poll in the traditional sense during the height of the BCS, then yes, I would be upset that Auburn is ranked so low based on expectations for 2015. The Tigers could climb out of that ranking as long as they continue to win and with the College Football Playoff providing more than the old BCS 1 vs 2 scenario; however, it is not near as comfortable or fun to have to hope teams ahead of you falter. Unless it's Alabama or Georgia, because those teams faltering are always fun.
Other Non-Voting Based Options
If you think ESPN's metrics are short-sighted, not detailed enough, off base, or you're just not happy and losing a bit of confidence in 2015 because they have Auburn at 18th, there are other choices our there for you. In particular, SB Nation's own Bill Connelly has his S&P+ ratings, which put Auburn at #5, much more in line with the media opinions.
There are some big games over the first few weeks of football, and so many of these ranking systems will get completely blown up in those weeks. Pre-season metrics, hype, expectations, etc go out the window once shoe hits leather for the first time. We're under two weeks from fall camp beginning. Hold tight, y'all, it's so close now.