Positive Polly thinks we should really be 8-2 right now. Negative Norm believes that this team is a whisker from 4-6. Instead, we're 6-4, bowl eligible, and playing for bowl positioning. Is 6-4 the "correct" result for this team? Let's try to break it down.
I've played this game a lot over the years. Three of you might remember my posts during the 2-10 season in 2012 where I pointed out that we were three quarters away from the Big Ten Championship Game. It's some of my finest "What If?" work ever. I guess I should go back through that.
This was back in the "Leaders & Legends" days. We were in the "Leaders" division with Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Indiana. In 2012, Tim Beckman's first season with the Illini, both Penn State and Ohio State were facing NCAA sanctions and neither could go to the Big Ten Championship Game. Ohio State was 8-0 in the Big Ten - not eligible. Penn State was 6-2 - not eligible. So the representative from the Leaders division would be either Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana, or Illinois.
Wisconsin ended up going to the Big Ten Championships Game at 7-5. Everyone laughed until they beat Nebraska and went to the Rose Bowl at 8-5. Illinois finished 2-10 on the season and winless in the Big Ten. But DID YOU KNOW that Illinois was three quarters of three games away from playing in the Big Ten Championship Game?
That Illini team lost to Purdue by three (20-17). That Illini team entered the fourth quarter of the Wisconsin game trailing 10-7 (lost 31-14). That same team entered the fourth quarter of the Indiana game trailing 24-17 (lost 31-17). If Illinois finds some way to win all three of those fourth quarters, Illinois goes 5-7 (3-5), holds the tiebreaker over Wisconsin, and would have gone to the Big Ten Championship Game. That really bad, Arizona-State-was-maybe-the-worst-game-ever, two-win 2012 Illini team would have "won" the Leaders Division.
I've always used that to say that college football exists right on the edge of "what if?". Penn State will likely "what if?" those two interceptions they threw in the endzone at Minnesota for a long time (and, given that the CFP Committee put them ahead of Minnesota, they have some backup for their "one pass at the end of one game can't define everything" stance). The same can be said for Wisconsin. If James McCourt misses the field goal, Wisconsin is sitting at "beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game and qualify for the playoff" with two more wins.
So where do we stand in this "this should be an 8-2 team/this really is a 4-6 team" sweepstakes? My answer is... 6-4.
The balance in our "oh man we almost won/oh man we almost lost" games is surprisingly even. Like, if this was some math problem where you're supposed to cross out certain things on either side of the equal sign, we have some things we can cross out immediately. I see it like this:
- Two field goals sailed through the uprights in the north endzone of Memorial Stadium as time expired. One meant Eastern Michigan somehow beat Illinois. One meant Illinois somehow beat Wisconsin. If either field goal missed, things would be different, but one win/one loss there seems fair.
- In two games, Illinois gets the ball back, down four, with one final drive and a chance to win. In the Nebraska game, a fourth-down incompletion meant that the game was over, Nebraska wins. In the Michigan State game, a fourth-down completion to Josh Imatorbhebhe meant that the drive continued, Illinois scored, Illinois won. This also seems fair. Yes, the Illini were one good drive away from beating Nebraska and being 7-3 right now. The Illini were also one bad drive against Michigan State away from being 5-5.
There are other factors, of course, but our what-ifs seem to balance out. What if Robinson doesn't fumble and Michigan can't put us away? Well, what if the UConn QB doesn't throw that late pick. In the realm of "what if?", this is a balanced year.
Which is different from, say, 1994. For you youngins, 1994 is the team you should have heard about but didn't. It should be up there with 1983 and 2001, but it isn't. Using SP+, it's the highest rated Illini team (statistically) of the last 50 years. So how did that team finish 6-5?
- Missed a field goal as time expired to lose to Washington State 10-9.
- Ken Dilger tackled at the one in the final seconds to lose to Purdue 22-16.
- Trailing Michigan by five, four minutes left, just need to get a third down stop, and two big third down passes to Jay Riemersma and Michigan kneels out the clock.
- Leading Penn State (ranked no. 2) the entire game but a 95 yard touchdown drive in the final four minutes gives Penn State the win.
- A 19-13 loss at Wisconsin the final weekend (I went to the game but I can't remember exactly what happened - just that Darrell Bevell beat us with his arm).
What should have been a 10-1 kind of season ended 6-5 because, as I recall, we were 0-5 when the final score was within a touchdown. Six comfortable wins (seven when you count the shutout in the bowl game), five close games and we lost all five. A "what if?" season for the ages.
This season doesn't feel like that. Yes, I've let my mind wander to "man, if we had only completed that drive against Nebraska we'd be in serious contention for the Big Ten Championship Game", but then that's balanced out by the other close games we had no business winning. 6-4 season feels like a 6-4 season.
Next year, more wins are possible. The turnovers will likely dry up but the offense should put up more yards and the defense should give up less. Hopefully, that means we won't need turnovers to hang close with, say, Nebraska. With 30 seniors, it really is set up to have a special season.
Hopefully, the kind where you don't have to play "what if?".