SOC - Maryland
I'm in a weird mood. Never SOC while in a weird mood. No telling where this goes. I sat down this week and looked at the next 2.5 seasons and I have a lot of thoughts about that. Specifically, how many games we should win in a rebuild like this. So let's start there.
For starters, I wrote about 12 articles in the offseason on how having the youngest college team of the decade last year would lead to the most experienced college team of the decade in 2020. Which, you know, relies on players sticking around, of which four of them left this fall (Williams, Dorsey, Unije, and Thomas). So if that continues, we'll be nowhere near this "most experienced college team of the decade" I've been talking about.
And, let's be honest, a defense that has been, thus far, the worst Illini defense of my lifetime, has a long way to go by 2020. Lovie has churned through about 15 safeties in his 2.5 years in Champaign and I'm still not sure he's settled on anyone. So last summer's "here's how this should go with everyone returning for 2018, then 2019, then 2020" has faded a fair bit.
But I still believe that rebuilds such as this are best viewed blind. It will look bad until the moment it doesn't. You play the kids, they aren't anywhere close to ready, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, they are. It doesn't mean it's rebuilt - Ron Turner built up to 2001 and then that was it - but most rebuilds have a moment where it starts to get better.
I've compared this rebuild to Colorado several times (they went very young as well), and at the end of year three for them, things looked bleak. Mike MacIntyre was 2-25 in the Pac 12 in his first 27 conference games and the fans were screaming at Rick George to make a change (George did not hire MacIntyre). They stuck with Mac and then went 10-2 out of nowhere the next season. It didn't look like it was anything until it suddenly did.
That's why I use the word "blind" so often. Right or wrong, I put all these little mental post-it notes around my brain. "It won't look like anything but don't pay attention to that - watch for the signs of roster building". That's dumb, of course, because it eliminates any critical view of what we're seeing on the field. But as a fan who so desperately wants to see it built, I've always felt the need to do these things while wearing a blindfold. It won't look like anything until it's something.
All of that to say this: when I tell you my current expectation, it's going to sound insane. You're going to say "I don't see that AT ALL". But the point here is that a youth-movement rebuild should reach its turnaround point unexpectedly.
Ready? I think Illinois footbal can win 18 of its next 31 games. If the rebuild is on track, I truly believe that's possible. Do I SEE that? No, of course not. It's the worst Illini defense of my lifetime. But when you get a team that's going to hit 400+ starts across the roster (in 2020), you should expect win after win after win.
What does that look like? Well I'm saying 31 games because I'm counting two bowl games (no, seriously, I'm doing that). So that's 5 more games this season, 13 in 2019, and 13 in 2020.
Wins could be any variety. 4-8 this year (1-4 these last five), then 7-5 plus a bowl win, the 9-3 with a bowl loss. Or maybe 5-7 this season, 8-4 with a bowl loss, then 8-4 again. Or maybe it's just 3-9 this year, then a Colorado-like 9-3 turnaround next year (with a bowl loss), then 8-4 with a bowl win.
My point: if we're going to endure this much losing with these young teams, we should suddenly get a bunch of wins once they mature. If we don't, fire the coach. The whole reason to play this many freshmen and sophomores is that 2019 and 2020 payoff. So, until it doesn't happen, I'm going to expect a payoff.
And it's probably just the weird mood talking, but I can't escape the thought tonight that it might start tomorrow? This is the kind of matchup we've been looking for, right? A team that really struggles on offense. Their defense is good, yes, but maybe we can move the ball on the ground? We've certainly shown signs of a possible breakout game on offense. Maybe it happens tomorrow?
I mean, maybe the story for the rest of the season remains the same: this is The Worst Illini Defense Of Our Lifetimes and every game is pretty much over before it gets out of the second quarter. I could see that. If I look at the statistics, the defensive failures are obvious. Perhaps that's the story these last seven weeks AND these next five weeks.
But maybe Maryland's 100th-ranked offense (S&P+) is exactly what we need? And maybe Maryland's defense, which has relied on 13 interceptions thus far, really isn't that great? I've been talking about our turnover luck keeping us close in the South Florida and Penn State games. Well, guess which Big Ten team is somehow even luckier than us in that category? Maryland.
That's where I land on this one. Head AND heart say "Maryland moves the ball at will againt our putrid defense, Tre Watson has a Houston Bates Game against his former team, and Maryland wins this one going away". I mean, they're 17 point favorites. Who predicts a win as 17 point dogs ON THE ROAD?
I guess I do. Head and heart say one thing, but gut says another. Can't shake it, so I've gotta run with it.
Illinois 28, Maryland 27