Stream Of Consciousness - Kent State
Don't worry. I'm not going to go off on some long tangent like last year. This year has been much smoother personally and professionally (and website-ically). Last year is dead and the new year feels good. IS THAT A SEGUE OR WHAT?
How do I start these things? Season prediction first and then game prediction? I think that's it.
This season has felt different ever since the Lovie beard appeared at that basketball game right there. The turmoil of last season was gone and a new season (and a new-look coach) had arrived. Recruiting started with a 5-star and a 4-star, there were new coaches and a new offense, so much was new.
I should touch on the "turmoil" a bit. Yes, there was some tension last year. Yes, there were Lovie Players vs. Beckman players. Any time a coach plays 22 true freshmen, it's going to be an us against them mentality. "I had a shot here but the coach brought in some hotshot freshman and I lost my chance". I get it. I'd feel that way in that situation.
And so 16 players left. The Tim Beckman recruits who would have been seniors on this defense? Tre Watson, Chris James, Sean Adesanya, Tito Odenigbo, and Julian Jones? ALL of them left. Lovie is entering his third season implementing his defense and there are two Beckman players left on the entire defense (Cam Watkins and Jamal Milan).
So yes, "all things new" applies here. This is the first year where Lovie feels like he has "his" guys. Which is the right of every coach. Fit is everything, and many of those players who left did not fit, and now Lovie feels like he has players who fit what he wants to do. 25 in the 2017 class, 25 in the 2018 class, four "blueshirts" who are here this fall and already count towards the 2019 class. There are currently 83 scholarship players spread across five years (seniors, juniors, sophomores, redshirt freshmen, and freshmen), and 54 of the 83 are Lovie players (first or second year). Let's make that it's own paragraph to emphasize things:
Last year: 25 Lovie players, 52 Beckman/Cubit players
This year: 54 Lovie players, 29 Beckman/Cubit players
You can sense that. Just hang around camp and you can see that. 25/52 flipped to 54/29 overnight. It's now very much Lovie's team. Yay, right?
Well, they're all sophomores and freshmen. One juco senior, I guess, and one fifth-year senior quarterback, so I guess it's more appropriate to say "2 seniors and then 52 sophomores and freshmen". But if Lovie having his players is good news, Lovie having that many underclassmen is bad news. Underclassmen have pretty much never won football games by themselves. They always need experienced help from the juniors and seniors.
So that's why predicting this season is hard. On one hand, there were times at camp where the offense with Bush looked SO GOOD that I could see six wins. That one scrimmage on the second Friday of camp - as I tweeted at the time, if that was the Kent State game, we'd have been up 35-0 at the beginning of the second quarter. Everything was clicking INCLUDING the line.
But on the other hand, it's probably still the youngest team in Power Five football. Other teams will be close - it's nothing like last year - and if those teams play their freshmen more, then we're not the "youngest team" on the field. But still, more than anything else. the thing that sticks with me is "almost all freshmen and sophomores".
Which is what has grounded me each time I've had thoughts of predicting a surprising season. Moment's I've had this week:
- "You know, this freaking schedule, with all of these Big Ten teams announcing that they're starting a true freshman, this schedule has wins on it. Rutgers has players suspended, Maryland's coaching situation is a mess, Minnesota and Nebraska are starting true freshmen... there are wins here."
- "I wrote that post a few years ago about how the Big Ten West recruiting had taken a dip across the board. Nebraska, Iowa - nobody was recruiting lights-out. Well, these are the seasons where that comes home to roost. Maybe the Big Ten West is more gettable than I thought?"
- "Man, what if AJ Bush is that dude? We've been waiting a while for a quarterback to take hold of an offense and run with it. Solid quarterback play really could add two wins to this total. Does that mean the 4-8 I'm leaning towards just moved to 6-6?"
After each one of those.... "almost all sophomores and freshmen". It was the cold water I needed (but didn't want) in every instance. I've stated for years that having juniors and seniors who have studied the same system for 3-4-5 years = the key to winning college football games. I can't then get all excited about our freshman-sophomore team and think "ah, it won't matter for US". I think it will matter for us.
Which honestly pushes me closer to 3-9. A 2-1 non-conference and then, hopefully, a Big Ten win. I still feel good about 2019 and great about 2020, but maybe 2018 is 3-9.
I think I know where I'm settling. The three bullet points above push me off my 3-9 and lead me to a boring, middle-of-the-road, pretty-much-what-Vegas-thinks prediction:
2018 Illinois Football - 4-8
As for this game, I have some hesitations. But nothing like last year. Last year I really did think Ball State would win (thank you for that punt return with 4:00 left to pull it out, Dude K). This year I don't think Kent State has any chance to win. They were the MAC version of us last year, with an offense somehow worse than ours, and it got their coach fired. With a new coach and a new system, they're probably going to be really bad.
But I still have some concerns. As I noted last week, Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs didn't participate in the scrimmage two weeks ago. They were dressed, so I don't think they were injured, but the coaches were getting other players ready to play. Does that signal that these persistent rumors about several suspensions might include Williams and Hobbs? As I said at the time, if you're missing Williams, Hobbs, and Jamal Milan (knee injury), are you missing your top safety, top corner, and top defensive lineman? I think so.
Now, those are just rumors, and who knows until we see who's dressed tomorrow, but it's enough to give me pause. We showed up to the stadium last year for the opener and found out that Zeke Martin and Adam Solomon were starting on the offensive line due to two suspensions. And James Crawford was suspended for several weeks. And several other players who were given a heavy look at camp were not in the lineup.
So if Lovie surprised us with "clean up all of the offseason business with first game suspensions", what might we be looking at tomorrow? What about Louis Dorsey and Isaiah Gay - did their spring suspensions include missing a game in the fall? Larry Boyd started 10 games last year and then was with the third string all camp, so he's likely suspended. How many are there?
Which means I could see this one going two ways. I don't see a loss, but I do see either a blowout (AJ Bush FIVE TOUCHDOWNS) or a much-closer-than-it-should-be slugfest where we're still figuring out the new offense and the defense is still growing. The spread is 16.5, and all day I had this sneaking suspicion that we weren't going to cover, but you know what? Tonight I feel pretty good. I have to believe that offense does move the ball tomorrow. It's probably closer than we all want it to be, but in the end, I think we put up points and cover that spread. Put me down for:
Illinois 41, Kent State 23