It's interesting, this fandom.
The range of emotions Saturday was something akin to the five stages of grief: I was first concerned and frustrated and upset with the performance in the field; after the game ended and I had some time to ruminate on it, I was able to see the bigger picture and be comforted by the fact that the team played a representative game and had a chance to beat the team that, regardless of how you view them, won the Big Ten West this year; and a few hours after the season had ended, I was already on to 2019 and excited -- legitimately excited -- talking about the projected two-deeps and what other commits might join the fray between now and next spring.
I take that back -- it's not interesting, this fandom; it's a sickness.
The truth is, though, with nothing left for which to play besides pride and a bronze hat, it was mostly nice just to have the season over. It was a long one, with more ups and downs than recent years -- losing the final 10 games in 2017 didn't offer much in the way of excitement, and while 2016, Lovie's first season at the helm, held intrigue, I think this year felt more roller coaster-y because of what was at stake.
Or what seemed to be at stake, anyway. I first saw Josh Whitman's open letter Sunday on Facebook as it was shared by the school's Facebook page, and with the word "stability" in the headline I knew the gist was, Lovie's not going anywhere. Did the extension surprise me and everyone else? No doubt. But as it's been said around the interwebs in the last day, without knowing the details about the extension and what it means for his buyout, it's reasonable to expect that little has changed with regards to his job security after next year.
I started to think about what my reaction had been, though, if I'd seen the news tweeted by a beat writer without a link to Whitman's post about stability, if I'd only seen the first few words of a tweet that said, "BREAKING: Illini coach Lovie Smith..." My mind surely would have gone to him being fired, a fact that's telling in itself.
Lovie sticking around for another year, or until 2023, if we're going by yesterday's news -- a horrible aesthetic and one the program surely knew would draw jeers from national media, but one that anyone paying attention recognizes means little beyond being just words -- is fine and probably the right move, despite some of the valleys of this year. Whitman isn't wrong that stability is an important and underappreciated aspect of a lot of successful programs -- look around the Big Ten at the usual suspects, the Iowas, the Wisconsins, the Northwesterns that have been built up and maintained by one coach or a select few coaches over the past decade -- and you don't get Barry Alvarez's success without enduring Barry Alvarez's first three seasons in Camp Randall. That's NOT saying Lovie will be Barry Alvarez, but someone needs to be given an opportunity to rehabilitate the chronically underperforming program, and Whitman has hitched his wagon to Lovie.
It's not poetic, but it is notable that Lovie's program held its own against one of those established powers in the final game of the year. On that note:
-AJ Bush had a great game throwing the ball; it's frustrating that he never was able to put together a game where he had everything working.
-If you believe in momentum carrying into the offseason, Ricky Smalling's day should be a great thing for 2019. If that's the only thing he remembers about 2018, even better. Bring that every week for the next two years, Ricky.
-On the other side, it's sad that those egregious drops will be the lasting memory of Sam Mays' tenure.
-Nothing particularly stood out about the day the defense had, but it's one that many contributors will carry into the offseason and feel good about. For all the bad, the group will return almost entirely intact, with Milo Eifler hopefully replicating Del'Shawn Phillips production, and they'll all be a year older and (presumably) have another year in the same system under their belts.
-On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest loss will be Nick Allegretti, but the offensive line should be one of the team's biggest strengths next year after a very impressive 2018 campaign. The big thing with offensive line play is health and consistency, though, and they had good luck in that department this season. Here's to hoping Larry Boyd can plug in and pick up where Allegretti left off, and the unit stays healthy enough next year to continue the progress they made in 2018.
-The three-headed backfield of Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein and Ra'Von Bonner, with Dre Brown in tow and Kyron Cumby and Nick Fedanzo added in, should feast behind that line. To wit: The team averaged 100 more rushing yards per game than it did in 2017, and finished No. 12 among FBS teams in rushing offense at 243 yards per game this year. It was Rod Smith's first year.
I enjoyed sharing these postscripts with you guys this year, and I appreciate everyone who read them. It was a good place for me to dump all my thoughts and hopes and dreams and frustrations about the team throughout the season.
Thanks and as always, Hail to the Orange.