Really odd writing this post this year. It's usually "sure, we're home for the holidays, but next year maybe...". This year it's "three weeks of bowl practices, then a bowl game, and then right on to next year, which should be better". It's more fun to write these posts.
Let's start with the depth chart. Always start with the depth chart.
QB | Peters (SR) | Williams (rs-FR) | Robinson (SO)
RB | Epstein (rs-JR) | Bonner (SR) | C. Brown (rs-SO) | Norwood (SO)
TE | Ford (rs-SO) | Barker (JR) | Moore (rs-FR)
LT | Lowe (SR) | Slaughter (rs-SO) | Sparks (FR)
LG | K. Green (JR) | Myers (rs-SO) | Griffin (FR)
C | Kramer (SR) | Plohr (rs-FR) | Engel (SO-walkon)
RG | Cerny (SR) | V. Brown (rs-SO) | Tyler (FR)
RT | Palczewski (SR) | Pearl (rs-SO) | Kirts (rs-FR)
WR1 | Navarro (JR) | Stampley (SR) | Cumby (rs-FR)
WR2 | Smalling (SR) | Sidney (SR) | Holmes (JR-walkon)
WR3 | Imatorbhebhe (SR) | Washington (SO) | Ja. Thompson (FR)
WDE | Gay (SR) | Coleman (rs-FR) | Mondesir (rs-JR)
DT | Woods (JR) | Okpala (rs-FR) | some recruit (FR)
DT | Avery (JR) | Pate (JR) | McCoy (FR)
SDE | Betiku (SR) | Carney (SR) | Randolph (rs-FR)
WLB | Hansen (SR) | Cooper (rs-FR) | McEachern (SO-walkon)
MLB | Tolson (JR) | T. Barnes (SO) | Coghlan (JR-walkon)
SLB | Eifler (SR) | DeGroot (SR) | D. Smith (JR)
CB | Hobbs (SR) | Witherspoon (SO) | Jo. Thompson (rs-FR)
SS | S. Brown (JR) | Joseph (JR) | Marchese (SR-walkon)
FS | Ware (JR) | Martin (JR) | Knight (rs-JR)
CB | Adams (SR) | Beason (rs-FR) | N. Walker (SR)
Kicker | McCourt (SR) | Griffin (rs-SO)
Punter | Hayes (SR) | McCourt (SR)
Longsnapper | Tabel (SR) | Hall (rs-FR) | Rossback (rs-FR)
Holder | Hayes (SR) | Judd (rs-FR-walkon)
Punt Return | Holmes (JR) | Sidney (SR) | Cumby (rs-FR)
KO Return | Norwood/Love | Stampley/Sandy
As expected, that's a lot of seniors. In fact, I only have one sophomore (redshirt sophomore Luke Ford) in the starting lineup. Counting kicker and punter, in the 24 starting spots, it's 15 seniors, eight juniors, and one sophomore (who would be a junior if he had been allowed to play this year). If Barker is the starter and Ford is the backup, it's 15 seniors and nine juniors.
Which means any discussion of next season starts there. It's when I play the "nameless team" game. Tell me there's some random Power Five football team with an entire two-deep of upperclassmen, 126 returning starts on the offensive line, a quarterback returning, and eight players with 25+ college starts... and I'll predict at least seven wins without knowing if the team was 2-10 or 10-2 the season before. Tell me the team was a 6-6 team that was 59th in the NERDstats and - again, without knowing the name of the coach or the schedule or anything other than the experience chart and the previous season's NERDstats - I'd probably predict nine wins.
(With 15 seniors then graduating after that season, I'd also predict four wins the following season, sight-unseen, but we can get to that a year from today.)
Does that mean we're going to win nine games? Of course it doesn't mean that. It was set up like this in 2009 and we went 3-9. It's not some guarantee or anything. I'm just saying that the pieces are there for a big season. After years of "cupboard was bare" and "youngest team in college football", we're entering a completely excuse-free season. And, since, you know, it was the "youngest team in college football" a few years ago, it's now basically "the most experienced team in college football". The vast majority of college coaches - even some who were fired today - could coach a roster like that to eight wins in Year Five.
So that's where a discussion on next year has to start. An upperclassman team with experienced 22 year-olds all over the field. Sprinkle in the young talent (from Ford to Beason to Cooper to Williams) and it should really be a thing. No guarantees - again, 2009 still stings - but that's the first point. Experience experience experience. Mike MacIntyre proved he wasn't that great of a coach, but in 2016, with 23 seniors, many of whom he started in 2013 and played for four seasons, Colorado won 10 games. (They haven't been back to a bowl since and MacIntyre was fired.)
OK, NOW we can add the names to the jerseys and look at this season's stats. We'll start with the regular stats. This really kind of tells the story of this season:
Total yards allowed in 2018: 6,100
Total yards allowed in 2019: 4,915
Total yards gained in 2018: 4,904
Total yards gained in 2019: 3,833
Scoring defense in 2018: 124th nationally
Scoring defense in 2019: 54th nationally
Scoring offense in 2018: 93rd
Scoring offense in 2019: 78th
Wait, how did the yards fall so far but the points increased? Oh right - six defensive touchdowns (which end up in the "scoring offense" category). Take out those 36 points and the offense was tied with UNLV for 99th.
OK, let's go to the NERDstats. Using SP+...
2018 offense: 70th
2019 offense: 87th
2018 defense: 115th
2019 defense: 59th
2018 special teams: 13th
2018 special teams: 9th
Where do we stand on all of that? And what does it mean for next year?
Well, for starters, Lovie can probably just stare into the camera for 45 seconds and then walk out of the room at his postgame press conference. He names himself defensive coordinator and the scoring defense goes from 124th to 54th and the NERDstats go from 115th to 59th. He delivered on what he said he was going to do by improving the defense himself. Now do it again.
On offense, I think it's fair to ask some serious questions. 70th and then 87th in two seasons. Missouri fans wanted to run OC Derek Dooley out of town without letting him pack up his stuff. That offense finished 88th in SP+ - the Illini offense finished 87th.
To be fair, there were a lot of injuries. The leading rusher in the season opener this year was Mike Epstein, the top three leading receivers were Ricky Smalling, Josh Imatorbhebhe, and Trevon Sidney, and the guy delivering the ball was Brandon Peters. None of them played yesterday. Peters missed the second half of Minnesota, all of Michigan, and all of Northwestern. Besides the third quarter against Michigan, the offense sputtered in all of those games. That's going to impact your season statistics.
Still, there are serious offensive questions. When you bring back four offensive linemen and all of your tailbacks and the running attack gets that much worse, there are serious adjustments that need to be made.
And that's where I think things hinge next season. I'll end with offseason tasks for each side of the ball:
Defense: Need to improve once again. Front 7 will be the key. There's a triangle of players there - defensive tackles Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver, plus middle linebacker Dele Harding - who will be very difficult to replace. But the secondary should (and must) step forward to be top-3 in the Big Ten. And with so much experience everywhere else (Betiku, Gay, and Carney at DE, Woods and Avery at DT, Hansen and Eifler at linebacker, Adams, Hobbs, and Brown in the secondary), improvement over the numbers above should be expected.
Offense: One hundred and twenty six returning starts for the offensive line cannot be wasted. Coaches across the country would kill for that. There's a reason Phil Steele tracks that specific stat in his magazine. He doesn't track returning starts for linebackers or wide receivers. He's simply found that teams with the most returning OL starts are the teams that make big offensive jumps.
Time to jump.