For Better Or Worse
I used to do this yearly, but I'm not sure I've done it in the last few years (because it wouldn't have mattered): An early look at the football schedule for next season, predicting if each opponent will be better or worse than this season. This schedule is, uh, kind of important. It's time to win.
Let's just start with this season's S&P+ rankings this season for each team on next year's schedule:
Akron - #119
at UConn - #130
Eastern Michigan - #63
Nebraska - #55
at Minnesota - #58
OCTOBER 12, 2019
Michigan - #5
/OCTOBER 12, 2019
Wisconsin - #24
at Purdue - #37
Rutgers - #116
at Michigan State - #35
at Iowa - #26
Northwestern - #80
Let's start with the obvious. Yes, Eastern Michigan was better than Northwestern this year. In nearly every balanced-for-competition statistical way. Looking over the NERDstats, Northwestern had nine (NINE) games with an adjusted scoring margin in the single digits. Meaning, a game with statistics like those games is likely going to be a single score game right down to the end. Play the season again - just move this fumble from this spot in this game to that spot in that game, take those two dropped passes away from this important drive and put them in that meaningless drive, take the opponent's unsportsmanlike penalty and move it from that final game-deciding drive to the second quarter of a meaningless game - and they're certainly 6-6 on the year and quite possibly 5-7. But they're Northwestern, so they went to the Big Ten Championship game.
An example of this: You know how one baseball team will have a run differential of +7 on the season and they'll be 88-74 while another team will be +86 and somehow finish 82-80 because they'd lose a weekend series with three scores of 2-1 loss, 13-2 win, 5-4 loss? How if you just shifted all their runs around they could easily have a 90 win season? That's Northwestern. I hate their good fortune so incredibly much. (Yes, you make your own luck, I get it. Moving on.)
Let's now go through the schedule with a simple better or worse based on rosters. This is a simple run through every team's depth chart to see if they're bringing a lot of players back or if they were senior-heavy this season and will be rebuilding a little bit next year.
Akron - New coach, it will be his first game, they were 119th this year - they'll be really bad.
UConn - Does it matter? They were 130th out of 130 FBS teams this season.
E. Michigan - Worse. They graduate 12 starters and return 10.
Nebraska - Better. Perhaps the most "better" team in the country.
Minnesota - Better. They were nearly as young as Illinois this season.
Michigan - Worse. They'll still be great, but they'll lose a fair bit with seniors graduating and juniors declaring.
Wisconsin - Better. No chance they go 7-5 again.
Purdue - Worse. Losing eight senior starters on offense, and that's really hard to overcome.
Rutgers - Better, but after 1-11, how much better is better?
Michigan State - Better, but that's a weird one. They had a ton of returning starters this year from a 9-3 team and went 7-5.
Iowa - About the same? They lose six starters on defense, but it feels like Iowa will just forever be either 8-4 or 7-5.
Northwestern - Probably worse? Lose their QB and 10 other senior starters, but any time you say this they 23-21 their way to nine wins.
I'd say that's a very manageable schedule, no? One great opponent (Michigan) but then, really, everyone else has question marks. It's the Big Ten, and the good teams will rise to the top while the bad teams sink, meaning Iowa or Nebraska (or someone) will rise into the top-15 of the polls, so it's not like we're going to only play one ranked team. But the average number listed above? 62. And there's only five or six teams slated to be "better".
Which means I don't think we're going to see anything like the 2016 schedule (eight bowl teams, many of them teams that won 10+ games). Which means the expectations for 2019 are even higher. I'll take a stab at the final record of the teams listed above:
Eastern Michigan 4-8
Michigan State 8-4
We have to win seven of those games, right? I know I'm jumping way ahead of my normal "wait to see training camp, wait to see transfers, wait to see everything before even thinking about predicting the season" thing, but right now, that has to be seven wins right? Maybe eight?
Maybe I'm blinded by my "18 of 31" thing (with five games remaining this season I said that I wanted to see Lovie win 18 of his next 31 games - he went 1-4 to close so that's now "win 17 of the next 26"). Maybe this whole thing is headed towards Darrell Hazell territory (Purdue brought him back for a fourth season and then fired him when he started that fourth season 3-3) and I'm just too dumb to see it. But when I look at this team returning 18 starters and I see that schedule, I'll just say it this way: I think it would take some really, really poor coaching to not go to a bowl.
I guess I didn't list Illinois above on my better/worse list. My answer: no reason to not be significantly better.