State Of The Program
I've been reading some of the State Of The Program posts on The All American (The Athletic's college football site - if you don't subscribe... you should subscribe). I figured they won't do one for Illinois (who would care?), so maybe I should write one.
I won't really follow their format, but I've written these in the past, and it's usually three parts: here's where we are, here's where we want to be, here's my opinion on our progress between A and B.
Here's Where We Are
Completely and totally not looking like a Power Five college football team. This is just the reality of an overhaul like this. Lovie has been on the job for 25 months and we're down to fourteen Tim Beckman players remaining. It's an extreme overhaul.
Remember that failed TV show "The Swan"? They would take some woman and give here the most extreme of extreme makeovers: personal trainers, dentists, plastic surgeons, etc. They'd hide her from public view, make all of these extreme changes, and then debut her as "The Swan". It was cancelled in about 17 seconds because of the over-the-top "implants, dental and otherwise, are the normal way for a woman to feel beautiful"-ness of it all.
Anyway, that's the closest thing I can think of to compare where we are. We just played 22 freshmen. 28 true freshmen total in the five seasons prior (5 or 6 per year), and then 22 true freshmen last year alone. 13 remaining inherited players. Only 14 players remaining from the Bill Cubit class Lovie inherited ("his" first recruiting class). And with 13 players held out this spring with injury (and 21 freshmen not here yet), the team Lovie put on the field for the spring scrimmage was about... 40% of what it will actually look like come September 1?
Two years from today, when I'm writing about the 2020 team, having just watched the spring game, we will no about 90% of what we need to know about that team. There were 15-18 walkons in the rotation a few weeks ago - in 2020 there will likely be zero? There were four seniors-to-be participating two weeks ago - in the spring of 2020 there will be... 30?
What we're seeing right now is that poor woman on The Swan (the parts they didn't show) with bandages on her face and body, bruising everywhere, jaw wired shut, a human test dummy for some Fox producer looking for ratings. The idea is that you don't see any of that stuff and then months/years later they pull back the curtain and reveal The Swan. Well, we get to see it all, and... it's not good. Bandages everywhere.
This summer, at camp, with the freshmen here, we'll start to get a glimpse. This fall we'll (hopefully) start to see results. I made that declaration after the 2016 Purdue loss that over the next 25 games we would learn nothing. It would be until after the Purdue game in 2018 that we'd start to see results. Starting with the 2018 Wisconsin game, those final six games of the season, we'd (hopefully) begin to see the corner being turned. Not the easiest stretch by any means (Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern), but it's time to see how we stack up with the rest of the Big Ten West. I still hold to that. Second half of 2018, time to see progress. Then, improvement in 2019. And then, in 2020, hopefully, a real push towards relevance (like, 8-9 win relevance).
I'm getting ahead of myself. That's really more..
Here's Where We Want To Be
The plan is relevance. Consistency. No more of this "we spiked in 2001 and then fell right back down to 1-11 and then we spiked again in 2007 and fell right back down to 3-9". I don't think any fans are asking for Ohio State or even Michigan State (at least not yet). For now, we all just want to be Iowa (GROSS).
In pursuit of that, years ago, on The Deuce, I tossed out a question: is it possible that to get where we want to be, it would be better to NOT go to a bowl in Year Three? It sounds insane - the best scenario is to hire Nick Saban, he recruits superstars, we're maybe bad the first year but we're soon winning immediately and noever look back - but given our peaks and then immediate valleys, is it better to go... slower? It's the question I've asked a dozen times here: were we building one team instead of building a program?
Again, the Mackovic plan is the best one. He went to a bowl his first year and then went to a bowl his second year and then did it again his third year and oh right he went to a bowl his fourth year. It could be as simple as "hire a great coach and he just wins right away".
But since Mackovic, we've been in this rut. Win by year three, but then that's about it. Tepper won in Year Three but then tumbled down and was fired. Turner won in Year Three, took a step back in Year Four, won the Big Ten in Year Five, but then tumbled down and was fired. Zook won in Year Three but then tumbled down and was fired. Beckman won in Year Three but then... was fired after the player abuse scandal (and, let's be honest, despite my wishful thinking at the time, wasn't building anything, the program tumbled down again, and here we are.).
All of those surges were very similar. 1994 looked like 1999 looked like 2007 looked like 2014. An upperclassman-laden team, often with jucos from the first full class, made a leap. Some leaps were big (2007), some leaps were small (2014), but there were leaps. Problem is, they didn't go anywhere after that. Only Turner (and somewhat Zook) did anything beyond that third year. A team was built, but not a program.
This overhaul is being done to build a program. There's no guarantee it will work but when fifteen players leave after your second season (FIFTEEN!) because you played 22 true freshmen from your first class, that's as close to a complete overhaul as one gets. It might crash and burn, but that's the attempt here. Instead of building for a Nice Little Team in year three, gut it and start over. We had the youngest team in college football in 2017? In 2018 we'll have... one of the youngest teams in college football.
And then by 2020, if everyone sticks around, not exaggerating, one of the most experienced college football teams in history.
Here's My Opinion On Our Progress Between A & B
When Beckman was hired and when Lovie was hired I made the same statement: five full years, no questions asked. The coach gets five full years to do whatever he wants to build a winning football program at Illinois. I've begged for consistency for 20+ years now - just hire one coach, install one offense and one defense, and recruit to those schemes for five years - and I still cling to it.
It's why I'm a bit disappointed in the scheme change in Year Three on offense. Although I should note that we tweaked the scheme and didn't overhaul it - it's still an offense where the quarterback running the ball is the central feature, and hopefully we have an OC who can better execute that offense - so my recruiting concerns aren't the same as they were when we recruited Aaron Bailey and then immediately switched to the Bill Cubit offense.
But the defense remains the same, and the emphasis on Special Teams remains the same, and the offensive scheme remains (mostly) the same, so I remain mostly the same: after the 2020 Northwestern game we can make a judgment call on how the whole thing went.
Are we on the path to success by then? I absolutely think we are. Eight seniors last year, nine seniors this fall, 11-13 seniors in 2019, 30+ seniors in 2020. I'm not saying we won't (or don't need to) have success by 2020, but if that was my original goal (five years no questions asked), then I feel good about getting to that point. Quarterback play scares me to death, linebacker recruiting keeps me up at night, but I think our 2020 defensive line (and maybe even offensive line) is probably "win the Big Ten West"-level. Add in dynamic playmakers like Marquez Beason and Isaiah Williams and I really think it will be there.
My main concern, if I'm honest: what happens after that? If we do have 30+ seniors in 2020, is 2021 some big tumble off the cliff? Did we just build another single team? Is it 2001... followed by 2002 and then 2003 again?
That's a concern for another time. For now. I'd say things appear to be on track. We really need to see leaps from a quarterback and two linebackers this fall (oh please oh please), but everything else looks to be on track. Better in 2018, solid team in 2019, really good in 2020. That's the goal. As I said after the Northwestern game last November, the next nine months of Illini Football should all be better than the previous month.
Which is really just another way of saying "nowhere to go but up".