When Lovie was hired I called my shot and put "October 12, 2019" in my Twitter bio. I had just completed an interview with Josh Whitman talking about the Michigan game in 2000, and the Lovie hire got me thinking about the next moment in Memorial Stadium that could come close to that atmosphere. I looked at the schedule, our only game against Michigan would be October of 2019, that would be the fourth year of the Lovie regime, and so I called it: October 12, 2019 is when Illini Football finally takes its rightful place as... a perfectly decent college football program.
I imagine that somewhere in North Carolina, back in 2014, right after Dave Clawson was hired, some Wake Forest blogger made the same prediction: "September 30th, 2017, when Florida State comes to town, will be the moment when Wake Forest Football takes its rightful place as... a perfectly decent college football program". That game just happened on Saturday and it went about the same as you'd expect it to. Tied with 3:00 to go, Wake Forest fans allowing themselves to think the impossible might actually happen, and then Florida State hits a long bomb for the winning touchdown and surrender cobras filled the stands.
But I don't think Wake Forest fans should hang their heads in shame. They're "back", in a sense. Us fans of moribund programs don't really ever allow ourselves to dream of championships (conference or otherwise). We just want to be relevant. It doesn't feel like we've been relevant for 25 years.
So when I see the atmosphere of Iowa/Penn State, I tweet "October 12, 2019". When I see the Enter Sandman entrance for Virginia Tech against Clemson, I tweet "October 12, 2019". I don't think it's too much to ask that we get just one big moment in Memorial Stadium this decade. This feels like prison, and I want just one moment on the roof drinking beer with Andy and Red.
Every time I reference this, however, it creeps more and more towards this benchmark that Lovie needs to hit. Or, perhaps more accurately, my prediction of when Lovie will have things turned around. I suppose that's inevitable, which means I should just run with it. So... let's talk about the 2019 team. Starting with the 2019 starting lineup. I feel like we already know more than half the starters in that game (and that game is more than two years away). A quick depth chart of players I'm certain will play in that game:
RB: Mike Epstein/Reggie Corbin
TE: Louis Dorsey
WR1: Ricky Smalling
WR2: Carmoni Green
QT: Larry Boyd
QG: Alex Palczweski
C: Doug Kramer
SG: Gabe Megginson
WDE: Isaiah Gay
DT: Jamal Milan/Jamal Woods
DT: Tymir Oliver/Kenyon Jackson
SDE: Bobby Roundtree/Owen Carney
WLB: Jake Hansen
MLB: Dele Harding
CB: Tony Adams
FS: Bennett Williams/Stanley Green
SS: Pat Nelson/Dawson DeGroot
CB: Nate Hobbs
That seems rather insane (we currently have one starting spot open on the 2019 defense?), but really, it's just a list of players who have already started a game plus Carmoni Green, Dawson DeGroot, and Owen Carney. I didn't include any recruits (Calvin Avery is certainly in that defensive tackle rotation), I didn't include freshmen who are already playing and are likely to be in the rotation by then (Kendall Smith, Marc Mondesir, etc), and I didn't include any freshmen who are almost certain to be participating by then (Kendrick Green, Olalere Oladipo, Jake Cerny, etc).
It's difficult to describe how insane that is. A Purdue fan doing this would be able to confidently project... nine players for the 2019 depth chart? An Iowa fan could maybe select five? I mean, sure, they could all fill out depth charts with current freshmen and sophomores, but they'd just be projecting based on recruiting rankings and future depth chart holes. They haven't seen the players play yet, so it would be like me including Lere Oladipo and Kendrick Green - a total guess. Like, I want to put Dominic Thieman as the third receiver above, but I don't KNOW that yet. The rest of the players I KNOW, so that's why they went on the list. A Penn State fan, today, KNOWS five guys (they start five sophomores and zero freshmen).
Now, that doesn't in any way mean that Illinois will be better than Penn State in 2019. Of course not. Those Penn State fans don't KNOW those names but they have 25 Calvin Averys waiting in the wings. This is not an exercise that a team who has already rebuilt itself must do. Once the machine is built, plug in anyone.
It's simply the blueprint of a rebuild (as discussed in my Cut &amp; Paste post). The big leap, across the board (of the nine rebuilds discussed) has been that fourth season. So, to me, the sooner you know that roster for the fourth season, the better idea you'll have that it's possible.
And that's important here. This is not a guarantee. It's not "any coach who plugs in young guys early will win in year four". I'm just looking at other rebuilds, taking notes on how it has been accomplished, and then relating back to our situation.
And when I do that, I see lots of young, talented players. It's the reason I'm so calm while we're losing and so hopeful for the future. Take the Nebraska Big Ten opener in 2013 vs. the Nebraska Big Ten opener in 2017. Similar situations, both young teams (2017 is significantly younger but whatever), 2013 lost 39-19 and 2017 lost 28-6. Of those two teams, just looking at the rosters and the players who played that day, which roster of young players makes you more excited?
I'd say this team by a country mile. There were a few young guys playing in 2013 who gave us hope (V'Angelo Bentley, Dawuane Smoot, Darius Mosely, Austin Schmidt), but looking over my depth chart from back then shows that only two freshmen were starting (true freshman Darius Mosely, redshirt freshman Taylor Barton). This team has started 11 true freshmen so far, and some of those names (Ricky Smalling, Carmoni Green, Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay, Bennett Williams, Tony Adams, Nate Hobbs) far outpace my expectations of the young guys on the 2013 team.
Now, that rebuild was probably moving along quicker (lots of jucos, played lots of older guys vs. Lovie starting 10 true freshmen his second year), and it only peaked at 6-6 in 2014 and then 5-7 in 2015, so I guess it's a bit silly to compare just to that. But the main question I've gotten recently is "how can you be so calm when everything looks so bad", and that's why. I believe this rebuild is on track for that October 12, 2019 Michigan game, and the players at the top of that depth chart look really good for true freshmen.
The next step? Continue to recruit classes like this, get these guys in the weight room, fine tune the schemes, repetition, repetition, repetition.
Oh, and we need to find a quarterback. Just a little tiny, you know, nothing thing that doesn't matter.