What It Means And What It Doesn't
You know the extra brake pedal they install on Driver's Ed vehicles? I've installed one of those in my brain. It's pre-programmed to get me to calm down whenever I get all YOU GUYS WE'RE TWO WINS FROM A BOWL. It's like a breathalyzer for orange and blue Kool Aid.
So all day today I've needed to check myself. I have to go back to "here's what the rebuild should look like" and track myself. So let's start with...
What It Doesn't Mean
4-4 with two winnable home games remaining doesn't mean we're "back". If we somehow win the next two and move to 6-4, the same caution must be applied. Big picture big picture, this thing isn't rebuilt until it doesn't go back down after it goes up. I'll try to explain.
Ron Turner built it to a 9. Then it went right back down to a 3. Ron Zook built it to an 8. When he left, it was a 4. Beckman fell to a 2, built it to around a 6, and then, after Not Ideal and the Cubit Extension (BAND NAME), Lovie inherited something very close to a 1. This program has been built in the past. It's never been sustained.
So if this is something like 6-6 this year an 8-4 next year, that's amazing, but please know that 2021 is probably something like 5-7. It's what Purdue is going through right now. Everyone graduates, you'll be one of the least experienced teams in the conference, rebuild what you just rebuilt. If it's 6-6 this year and then 8-4 next year, 5-7 is acceptable in 2021.
But then everything (and I mean everything) hinges on 2022. 2002 was acceptable after 2001; 2003 was not. 2008 was acceptable after 2007; 2009 was not. Falling off a bit in 2021 would be acceptable if 2020 is something special with all this experience. But then 2022 cannot be yet another fall right back down. If we're looking big picture, there's no "it's rebuilt!" until we rebound from the inevitable step-back year. Turner, Zook, and Beckman all crested once. Once Lovie has crested twice, we can declare it rebuilt. Just survive the year after the step-back year. Redeem 2003 and 2009.
Of course, if we lose to Rutgers this weekend, we probably don't even need to have that discussion. It would call this current "are we starting to surge?" into question. But if we do win - and especially if we win two more this year and then win eight next year - all eyes on 2022. 2021 will have six returning starters and maybe 4-5 wins (at least viewing it from here). But then... you get the point. 2022.
So that's "what it doesn't mean". I'm excited, just like you, but it will be a year after the Ireland game before we could say "it's been rebuilt and looks sustainable". This is just... part of a climb.
What It Means
The lack of a letdown after the Wisconsin win does mean something, though. It means a whole lot. There is so much opportunity in front of this team right now. Here's the next 10 games:
at Michigan State (4-4)
at #19 Iowa (6-2)
Iowa is the only ranked team on the schedule in the next 10. And they play #18 Wisconsin and #13 Minnesota prior to our matchup, so there's a decent chance they won't be ranked by the time that game rolls around. So our next ranked opponent might be... Minnesota on October 24th next year? If they're even ranked at that point?
Opportunity. What this means is opportunity. The 2020 team will be top-5 nationally on nearly every experience chart. I've been making the case for years that if you have the youngest college football team of the decade in 2017, you're naturally going to have one of the most experienced college football teams of the decade in 2020. Now, we've lost a fair number of those players (Louis Dorsey, Bennett Williams, etc), but still, we were #31 on Phil Steele's experience chart this season and will likely be #1 or #2 next season. Offensive line starts we should be top-5, overall snaps played we should be #1 - it's going to be an experienced team, is what I'm saying.
The list of players who are added to the mix should also be noted. Luke Ford. Marquez Beason. Mike Epstein. The most-likely-redshirting-this-year Shammond Cooper and Isaiah Williams. Derrick Smith. Trevon Sidney. Toss in some true freshmen like Jadon Thompson and Reggie Love.
There's simply an opportunity here. Win two of these final four and you get to a bowl. Get to a bowl and you'll get a boost in this recruiting class (and likely a big boost for the 2021 class). Take that "might not see a ranked opponent until November" schedule next year and win a lot of games. Use that momentum to survived a fall-back year in 2021 and climb right back up in 2022. It's all there for the taking.
That's what these past two Saturdays have meant. Knock off top-of-the-West Wisconsin, then knock off leaped-in-front-of-us-these-last-two-years Purdue. From nearly 2-5 and the season falling apart to 4-4 with possibilities galore.
Now, win two and open the door to everything.