Red - Yellow - Green

Nov 18, 2019

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What a relaxing weekend. After my wife was gone 3-out-of-4 weekends for a work thing (product launch) and I was gone 3-out-of-4 weekends for Illini football (Champaign and East Lansing), it was nice to just be home. Bowl game secured, bye week, relax and do nothing besides remember what it feels like to sit on the couch. Even our dog was extra happy - I think she was starting to think that the dogsitter had custody on the weekends.

It was also nice to not write anything. I did the depth chart on Friday and then put away the laptop for the weekend. This is going to be quite the run the next six weeks, (two more football games, a dozen basketball games, A BOWL GAME), so I shut off my Illini brain and just, like, organized my visor shelf (I don't know when I made the transition from hat guy to visor guy, but I did, and there's no turning back at this point).

Now, when I say "shut off my Illini brain" I'm talking about the part of my brain that is always planning the next post (the hypothalamus, I believe). The "thinking about the upcoming bowl game and then the 2020 season after that" part will never shut off. I find myself thinking about it nonstop, sometimes with my brain on red, sometimes on yellow, and sometimes on full-go green. I'll try to explain what I mean.


This is where I'm constantly slamming on the brakes in my brain. The "nothing means anything until we complete the rebuild" part. I get excited about a bowl, and then I start thinking about 16 returning starters and the possible 7-0 start next season and I race all the way to MULTIPLE ROSE BOWLS IN THE 2020's.

And then I slam on the brakes and remember my preseason post about how easy it is to get to six wins. 89 of the 96 Power Five coaches I studied pulled it off because it's really easy to do. Play some kids, keep the systems the same for a few years, you're almost always going to win at least six games in a few years. What we've accomplished here has happened to nearly every Power Five coach the last dozen or so years. Seven coaches were fired before they got to six wins, three of the seven at Kansas: Turner Gill, Charlie Weis, and David Beaty at Kansas plus Paul Wolff at Wazzu, Darrell Hazell at Purdue, Jon Embree at Colorado, and Gary Andersen at Oregon State. The other 89 coaches all won six games at least once. Even the several dozen we now view as spectacular failures as Power Five head coaches.

So there are cautionary tales everywhere. Mike MacIntyre went 4 wins, 2 wins, 4 wins, 10 wins at Colorado. But that was it. 5 wins, 5 wins, fired. Bret Bielema got to eight wins his third year of the Arkansas rebuild and then seven wins the fourth year but then the fell to 4-8, he was fired, and they haven't won a single conference game in the two years since. We really don't need to look much further than Ron Turner or Ron Zook to see rebuilds that went up and then came right back down to the same spot.

(Yes, you could argue that Zook left it at a higher spot because of the 6-6 record in 2011. But I'd just like to point out that Zook's recruiting had stopped. 19 NFL draft picks in the 2006-2009 classes. And then one in the 2010-2012 classes.)

I'm getting off track. And I already talked about this last week. But it needs to be reiterated. Grand scheme, this is phase one of three phases needed to rebuild:

I. Get to a bowl (check)
II. Get even better in 2020
III. Survive the fallback year in 2021 and then make a second surge in 2022.

Any time I need to slow myself down, I think on these things. We're just at step one, something that 93% of all P5 coaches are able to achieve given four seasons. It looks promising, and the fact that we're reaching a bowl and then returning 16 starters is very encouraging, but still, we're just at the "minimum expectations" stage.


Let's talk about luck again. And the turnover fairy. And how the turnover margin statistic should give us pause even though the fumbles forced statistic should leave us dancing in the streets.

What's not luck: forcing fumbles (for the most part).
What's luck: recovering more than 50% of all fumbles in a game.

What's not luck: Sydney Brown reading the QB's eyes, picking the correct receiver to double-team, and picking off the pass.
What's luck: Sydney Brown's first interception, a ball that was tipped by Khalan Tolson and the deflected by the MSU wide receiver directly to Brown.

Again, this is something I've gone over and over but I need to go over it again. We'll force a fumble, and someone offended by all my writings on luck will @ me with "yeah but @alioneye told me all of these fumbles are just luck", and I'll always feel the need to clarify once again (even though it won't stop the @-ings).

I've posted those links on fumble studies before so I'll just sum them up. All in all, fumble recoveries are right around 50/50. Offense recovers half, defense recovers half. When you break that down, the main reason the offense is at 50% is offensive backfield fumbles. If the QB is in shotgun and drops the snap (and either picks it up and continues the play or falls on it), that's a fumble recovered by the offense. If you take that out and just look at offensive players with the ball in their hands getting tackled and fumbling, the defense recovers about 62% of those (more players around the ball). If you just look at fumbles in play (it doesn't bounce out of bounds and the guy who fumbled it just can't fall on it - your typical "Hanson hit him after a 7 yard gain and the ball popped out), the defense recovers 75-80% of those.

Any deviation away from what is expected is "luck". Oblong ball bouncing wherever it wants to go. Yes, you can teach your team to fall on it, and you can maybe move the needle a few percentage points, but overall, it's random chance. Jordan Holmes was able to grab his muffed punt at Purdue because it didn't bounce too far away. If it did bounce too far away, Purdue would have been all over it. We got lucky. And that luck usually evens out.

Here's the raw statistics:

  • We've fumbled 16 times. 12 of those were forced fumbles, 4 we just dropped the ball (like the muffed punt or a fumbled snap). We've recovered 9 of the 16.
  • Opponents have fumbled 22 times. 17 of those were forced fumbles. We've recovered 16 of the 22.
  • In total, 38 fumbles in our games this year. We've recovered 25 of the 38.

Lucky? Yes, but maybe only a little. If you go by the 50/50 thing, then yes, lucky. We should have recovered 19 of the 38 fumbles this year. We have six extra fumble recoveries. But when you look at how many of those are forced fumbles by our linebackers and safeties (14 of our 17 forced fumbles), those are happening in areas where the defense typically recovers 75-80% of all forced fumbles. So when you lead the nation in forced fumbles, you're going to recover more than 50%. (On the flipside, our opponents have forced 12 fumbles and we've recovered the majority, so there's still luck at play.)

Where I land: we're definitely getting some help from the turnover fairy this year. The Michigan State game being the biggest example (tipped interceptions, etc). But given all of the numbers and the way we're punching/ripping the ball out, I'd say this is a season where we should probably expect to recover 22 of the 38 fumbles. We've recovered 25. So put me down for a luck quotient of 3. Which isn't much.

Why am I concerned with this? Because when I see us leading the country in turnover margin, my brain immediately goes to "we've been having one of those crazy luck turnover seasons, and once that dries up, we fall right back down to where we've been". My feel right now is that yes, we've been having a luck turnover year (especially with fumbles of our own that haven't been turnovers and tipped passes that fall harmlessly to the turf), but it's not the drastic "we're just lucking our way to wins" like, say, Northwestern last season. SP+ had Northwestern at 68 last year and they won the Big Ten West - a 6-6 team went 9-3 with a lot of luck. SP+ has Illinois at 51 right now - a 7-5 team that's probably going to go 7-5.


It's when I think about next year that I find it difficult to not press the accelerator to the floor. I wrote that post after the Rutgers game about how we were on the cusp of so much if we could just win one of the final three games. And then we went ahead and won that one game immediately the next Saturday. Which allows me to say crazy things like this:

After Iowa, will we be favored in eight consecutive games?

We'll certainly be favored over 2-9 Northwestern. And then let's just say we're favored in whatever bowl game we'll be going to. First game next season is FCS Illinois State, so we'll be favored. And then, well, here's the schedule (I'm adding my guess as to the final 2019 record for each team):

UConn (2-10)
Bowling Green (4-8)
at Rutgers (2-10)
at Nebraska (5-7)
Purdue (4-8)

I think we can say for certain that, after Iowa, we'll be favored in six of the next eight games. The only question marks are if we're favored over our bowl opponent and if we're favored at Nebraska next season. Then our seventh game is Minnesota, who returns a lot and will likely be ranked, but what will the line be if we go into that game 6-0? They have Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan before that matchup in Champaign, so I doubt they're starting the season 7-0, but.. we might?

Am I getting ahead of myself? Absolutely. That's the point. For the first time in forever, I can get ahead of myself and not feel the least bit bad about it. We answered my "on the cusp" call seven days later and now the door is open. The recruiting door, the "can we win eight games this year and REALLY boost recruiting?" door, every door. The worst case scenario right now is two losses and a bowl loss to finish 6-7, but even with that - even with the absolute worst-case scenario - we'll still have bowl momentum going into next season. And a minimum 5-1 start will still be expected.

Here's what I said in that post after the Rutgers game when I proposed that we just needed to win one more game:

To declare ourselves "good", we need to do one thing: win one of three football games. That's it. Win one of three and the door is open. What door?

Well, win that game and we'd go to a bowl. Go to a bowl and you really have something to sell in recruiting. Offseason momentum would be off the charts.

You also return nine starters on offense and seven starters on defense. You'd have 30 seniors. You get injured players back (Marquez Beason), you get transfers becoming eligible (Luke Ford), you get freshmen from this current class starting to contribute (Shammond Cooper) and you get some impact freshmen (Jadon Thompson).

Achievement unlocked. Bowl eligible. Now playing for bowl positioning and the possibility of eight wins. A whole offseason showing off the new facility to recruits who will actually listen to us. And then next season, the chance at a 7-0 start is right there for the taking.

Green light.


ktcesw on November 18, 2019 @ 06:05 PM

Lovie's teams have always forced fumbles. Not saying that you are doing that, as I agree with most of what you just said. He puts emphasis on this so, all of the football scholars that are claiming this is luck need to back off some. It is a skill (for lack of a better term) that he teaches and his defense is always alert and looking for fumbles and are therefore, not surprised when they occur.

darenberg on November 18, 2019 @ 06:43 PM

This was a fun read. Not just because I share the excitement but this is just really good writing about something I already love....the Illini.

ktal on November 19, 2019 @ 08:00 AM

If we're only +3 from the turnover fairy perspective, then regressing to the mean would still leave us about 22 turnovers with this many opportunities. I'm okay with that. I feel like we were so far below the mean for so many years that we could turnover fairy at a +3 clip for several years just to get us to the mean over the past decade (or two!).

Like you, I called for 7-5 this season. I'm embarrassed to say I flew into a rage after the EMU & Minny losses, which massively undermined my confidence. As a 'process guy', I couldn't understand how/why it wasn't working. But I also couldn't watch the games, so my only gage of progress was what I read here and at Loyalty. The words were not kind.

Now that we're where we thought we should be, I'm feeling very green about the future. Even if we're getting there by luck this year, I really like Lovie's confidence about recruiting (it's subtle, but he appears to like the talent giving us attention), and what that means to have a Program.

I'm not at the "it was worth the wait" stage, but I really couldn't handle another re-build, so there's an extra special ingredient to enjoying the success we're cooking up right now. Go Illini!

Sweetchuck13 on November 19, 2019 @ 08:50 AM

I agree that we're slightly lucky when it comes to fumble recoveries. But one thing that isn't much luck is the amount of defensive TDs we've scored this year. 6!! That's something Lovie teaches religiously, and I love seeing our defensive guys immediately look to set up blocks as soon as we get a turnover. That pick-6 by Brown is so cool because all the guys are just pumped to block and run down the sideline with him.

And given our offense's boom-or-bust type of pattern this year, it's possible the defensive TDs may have more of an impact on our overall record than just the fumble recoveries. If we recover the same amount of fumbles but maybe only have 2 defensive TDs, I'm not sure our offense would have scored those other 4 times.

Hoppy on November 19, 2019 @ 12:09 PM

Robert, I have an idea for a post. It’d take a little time, though I bet you already have a lot of the info.

Could you do a breakdown of each takeaway of the year? Maybe with a GIF that shows from half a second prior to the takeaway until the ball has been secured by one of the 2 teams?

I think it would be so cool and would really lend credence to support your “somewhat lucky” argument. It would also give visual evidence so people could see what you mean by skill/luck/turnover fairy. This could even scratch any itch you may have to do some “Check the Tape” type work as I loved those posts back in the day.

For instance, I know I’ve seen Peters have to chase down a bad snap or two a couple times this year, yet we recovered. Why? Because 85% of the time, the offense recovers those. (Or whatever it is) Yet, we JUST saw in the MSU game a bad snap for MSU go haywire and our guys were somehow able to pounce on it BEFORE the MSU QB. (Who was the closest to the ball the entire time) THAT is luck.

IBFan on November 19, 2019 @ 09:59 PM

The great thing about playing make believe is once you start you always have somewhere to go back to that’s warm, safe, and the rules of science need not apply.

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