SOC - Murray State
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This is gonna be a long one. As you know, I'm very "I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant's faithful 100%", so if I promised to finish The 90 Illini before the season, I'm going to finish. Tonight. So this post will complete the 90 Illini AND predict the season AND predict tomorrow's game.
Some of you don't even know what "SOC" means. SOC stands for Stream Of Consciousness. My first year of blogging in 2009 I found it therapeutic to write out all of my fears for the game the next day by emptying my consciousness the night before (and my fears for the season the night before the first game). It became a thing, so now I do it the night before every game. I don't edit these, so please excuse the typos. When writing other posts, I'll often go back up and re-word a certain paragraph. With this post, it's words to keyboard and then hit "publish" without re-reading anything.
First, the weakest completion of a series EVER. If you don't care, skip down below the numbers. For the record, this doesn't even count as finishing. This is the "filling in 'c' for the final eight questions before pencils up" of sports blogging.
Here's the final eight on the list.
8. Chunky Clements
Smoot double teams means Chunk goes wild. Smoot double teams means Chunk goes wild. I said the same thing when discussing Bain yesterday. When you're solid all across the line, if the offense shifts to stop your main guy (Smoot), the other three can take advantage. The player who will perhaps take the most advantage: Chunky Clements. I think he's primed for a really big senior year.
7. Joe Spencer
I hope he sits tomorrow. He's been dealing with an injury, and it's Murray State, meaning we probably don't need him, and it wouldn't be that bad to get the sixth guy (whoever that is - maybe Connor Brennan?) some experience. Move Allegretti to center and then put that sixth man in Allegretti's spot. Anyway, this is about the season, not tomorrow, and Joe Spencer is very important. Make the line calls, coach up the players either side of him, be the leader at the position we most need to take a big step forward. He's the senior, he's now a captain, now is the time to lead us to a bowl.
6. Taylor Barton
This might be too low. He's so wildly important this fall. He's the only returning starter in the secondary AND he's going to be the single-high safety in a defense that relies on a single high safety who never makes a mistake. The defense lost a lot in the back seven but it can be good if Nickerson is the leader at linebacker, Dunlap is the leader at corner, and Barton is the leader at safety. I was scared to death he was going to pull a Houston Bates and transfer somewhere closer to his girlfriend for his fifth season, so I'm thrilled to death that he returns to lead the secondary.
5. Malik Turner
Let's just call this final eight "if they step up, we go to a bowl". So much depends on the seasons these eight players have. Maybe it wasn't a bad idea at all to finish this list before the SOC. These players are the key. For example, if Malik Turner has a big year, Wes Lunt has a big year. And if Wes Lunt has a big year, the Illini have a big year. With Dude K on the bench again, Wes needs a go-to receiver, and that needs to be Malik Turner. He started slow last year and then gained confidence after the Nebraska catch. This year at camp, I even saw the soft-spoken Turner trash-talking some corners he burned. That's exactly what I want to see. A confident Turner can catch 65 passes.
4. Ke'Shawn Vaughn
I should just write the same thing for each player: "if he has a big year, we have a big year, and if he doesn't, we're in trouble because he's all we've got". That's why this season prediction has been so difficult. Vaughn is the run game, and if he quits the team and decides he wants to walk the earth like Jules, we're done for. He can be the next great #5 tailback in Champaign. He can be to this team what LeShoure was in 2010 and Mendenhall was in 2007. The did it their third year, and we need him to do it his second year. No pressure.
3. Wes Lunt
Yes, I'm putting the quarterback third. This list is the most important Illini, and I believe two defenders hold the key to the season more than Lunt hold's the key to the season. Well, Lunt holds the key to the offense. OK, he shares it with Vaughn and Turner. I'm confusing you. I'll just say thing: you know all there is to know about Wes Lunt. You have seen him make all the throws and you have seen him crumble under a pass rush (you've even watched him get injured twice). So you know what he needs to do: huge senior year (just like Nate's senior year). The way that Nate took to the Cubit offense in 2013 needs to be the way Lunt takes to the McGee offense this season. Do that and he can be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
2. Dawuane Smoot
Craig is punching me in the shoulder right now. At training camp I told Craig that I didn't have Smoot number one and he wanted to strangle me. In his view, Smoot is numbers 1 through 6 on the important players list. Well, I do agree that Smoot is very important. When such high expectations are placed on a player, it's on him to find a way to somehow exceed them. Smoot has the talent to disrupt every offensive backfield, even Michigan and Michigan State. He'll face double teams, but I think he's ready for double teams. I think he can be one of the first 64 players chosen in the draft next spring. Time for a monster senior year. But he's only #2 on this list, because I think another player holds the biggest key.
1. Hardy Nickerson
You maybe have to go back to Jeff George for a more important transfer. This defense lost the two guys in the middle last year - Mason Monheim and TJ Neal. So the defense was headed into the season with a crazy amount of youth in the linebacking corps. In walks maybe the best linebacker in the Pac 12, eligible to play right away. As I said when he transferred, if there were a NERDstat in college football that covered a player's value over his potential replacement, Nickerson's is one of the highest in the country. The defensive line is nothing if the linebackers can't make the tackles. This linebacker will make the tackles. Perhaps all of the tackles.
DONE! If you skipped ahead, stop here. Let's get to the season prediction.
I've gone back and forth on this, even in the last 24 hours. Still, at this moment, I don't know where I'll land. Even the football games last night and tonight have influenced me. And they mean one of two things. Indiana struggled with FIU, Minnesota barely won at home while favored by double digits, and Michigan State struggled to put away FURMAN. That either means A) I need to remember that we might look like a clownshow tomorrow, or B) the Big Ten is even weaker than I was originally thinking, and that means we might take advantage.
Perhaps I should just make a full list of the things I'm considering as I go back-and-forth on this decision:
Injuries. They happen. Really, if any one of the eight players I just listed gets injured, I should drop my prediction total by at least one win. The roster is that thin. The starters are great, perhaps awesome, but the replacements are a big dropoff. So how do you predict a season like that? Assume no injuries and go big? Assume at least two major injuries and predict the team at that level? No idea how to handle that.
New schemes. Remember how in 2012 I was all "there's so much senior talent on this defense" and after the Western Michigan game I was all "yep, I guess this defense is going to be awesome again" and then halfway through the Arizona State game with Illini defenders still looking to the sideline for the call while ASU was snapping the ball we realized that none of those experienced defenders had any idea what they were doing? That could easily happen this year. There's a ton of seniors, but they might only understand 60% of the defense at this point. It almost always takes time.
The predictions across the country. Vegas set our over/under at 4.5. Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports has us 2-10. Bruce Feldman has us 4-8. NBC Sports went 5-7, Sports On Earth went 5-7, and Sports Illustrated 3-9. That all averages out to the predictors having us at 3.9 wins. Why would I even consider thinking we might bowl?
Snaps returning. We have a lot of them. Probably the most since 2001, to be honest. Yes, we lost six starters on defense, but James Crawford was mostly a co-starter, TJ Neal transferred out but Hardee Nickerson transferred in, we had a five man rotation on the defensive line so we lost Jihad but still keep the other four, Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap have played more snaps than any backup cornerbacks in the Big Ten... yes, there was turnover, but the turnover turned to players who have played three years of college football. That almost always points to a better season.
Bill Cubit went 5-7 with this team. We lost some, we gained some, everyone is a year older, and now the predictors think Lovie Smith will do worse with what looks like a more complete roster? Why?
And then there's the Big Ten West. Can I just list our Big Ten West games from last year when the offense was really bad?
Beat Nebraska in the final minute with the Turner catch and then the G-Mo touchdown
Lost at Iowa by nine in a game where we got the ball back, down six, with three minutes to go, driving for the winning touchdown when Ke'Shawn Vaughn fumbled
Lost to Wisconsin 24-13 in a game we absolutely should have won. Our fourth quarter drives ended in a fumble, an interception, and a turnover on downs. When we were down 17-13 entering the 4th quarter, I was absolutely convinced we were going to win.
Beat Purdue by 34 points.
Lost to Minnesota by nine. Another game we could/should have won. We have the ball, down one, with 4:30 to go and we're driving for the winning field goal. And then a long sack just kills the drive and Minnesota scores the game-clinching touchdown when we punt it back to them with two minutes left.
Lost to Northwestern in yet another coulda/shoulda. Enter the fourth quarter down seven after Monheim's pick six. Then a bad interception. Then a missed 27-yard field goal. Three drives where we shoot ourselves in the foot and we lose by 10.
My point: that was a bad Illini offense, and we STILL were in every single Big Ten West game. Despite the bad coaching decisions and bad fourth quarter foot shootings we still had a chance in each game. There wasn't a single Big Ten West team that just out-talented us. Our roster stood toe-to-toe with every other roster in the division.
And that hasn't changed. There will be a six win team that wins nine this year and a seven win team that wins ten simply because of the Big Ten West having the least talent of any division in Power Five conference football. Why not Illinois?
One last thing before the prediction. Let's go through my season predictions this decade (because, you know, I don't like to talk about 2009). In 2010 I predicted 4-8 and we went 6-6. In 2011, 6-6 and we went 6-6. 2012 was a miss - I said 6-6 for the third straight year and we went 2-10. Hit right on the number in 2013 (4-8), was a little too pessimistic in 2014 (said 5-7 and we went 6-6), and then hit the number again in 2015 (5-7).
Which means I haven't predicted more than six wins since 2009. Which means I'm settling on my number here. I think this team is better than any of those others where I predicted six wins, so I think this team surprises people. I honestly want to say something crazy like eight wins, but I'll assume one bad injury and go with seven. Yep, I think this is a bowl team.
Illinois Season Prediction: 7-5
But that doesn't mean I feel great about tomorrow. We'll win, but I feel like it's a learning curve game. I felt great about Kent State last year (predicted 41-13) and we trounced them 52-3. I can't see 52-3 tomorrow. I hope to see it, but I think we'll have some growing pains.
For starters, we haven't tackled yet. Well we might have tackled a little after training camp was over and we could sent the scout team out for the starters to tackle, but at camp there was no tackling. So I feel like we're going to whiff a bit on a few tackles tomorrow. Catch-up-to-the-speed-of-the-game kind of stuff.
I'm also not sure how we'll handle the Murray State passing game. This will be a quick throw kind of offense where they're not trying to put together huge plays - just dink and dunk on down the field because they know they won't be able to build enough of a pocket for a 20 yard throw. I worry about our corners getting frustrated with dink and dunk and getting three or four flags tossed their way.
I think we'll see a lot of sloppiness like that. False starts, holding penalties, pass interference - again, we'll probably need to catch up to the speed of the game. Those new starters in the secondary - especially Julian Hylton at safety - I could see them getting burned here and there because their amped up. I don't think we're in any danger of losing, but I do think we might look really sloppy for a good part of the game.
Basically, I'm really glad we're playing Murray State for our first game. If we were playing Western Michigan, I'd be scared to death right now. I'd absolutely be predicting a loss. Thankfully, we're playing a bad FCS team and all of our mistakes won't matter. When you look at the opponent, this should be something like the Charleston Southern game where it was 44-0 (and that was a bad Illini offense putting up 44). This is a better offense, and a much better defense, and a similar opponent, but I don't think it will be that kind of blowout. A struggle here and there, penalties, turnovers, sloppiness, growing pains in a new system, but still a win.
Illinois 39, Murray State 20