Pick My Post - When Will We Know?
This isn't a typical Pick My Post. The standard is I ask for post ideas, pick one, and then try to crank it out in 45 minutes. This time I asked for questions and then did a bunch of other things for 90 minutes. And with time to reflect on all of the submissions, I chose this one:
When/how would we know it's over in the fall?
-- Forrest Chump ?? (@ForrestChump_) May 15, 2019
I'm glad I waited because I was going to pick a different PMP suggestion. But as I did my other stuff, this question stuck with me. There are so many different ways to answer this.
I'll start with the opposite: if we go 10-2, it doesn't really "mean" anything. If we go 10-2, I believe I will have a lot of people reach out to me saying "it happened - the thing you always wanted has happened!" and I will disappoint them greatly by responding with "it doesn't really mean anything yet". We've suffered through two "it's happening - we're in a BCS Bowl!" rug-pulls - more like Charlie Brown and Lucy football-pulls - and I won't get fooled again. I'll be thrilled if we go 10-2 - heck, I'll be over the moon if we go 6-6 - but it won't "mean" anything. We'll still have a massive climb ahead before we can declare that we finally have a football program.
I'm starting with that because I think my approach to "is this the right coach?" is different than nearly everyone on the planet. Really, the only comparable thing to our post-Not Ideal position is post-Weis Kansas. I guess post-Kyle Flood fired Rutgers is close. I should pause here and describe those three craters.
- Charlie Weis tried to fix Kansas with junior college players. It was a miserable failure. When David Beatty took over, his first spring had 28 scholarship players which meant his first team that fall had 53 out of 85 scholarships filled. That's worse than us - that's a minimum four year hole. I still don't understand why they fired Beatty. He had just gotten back to level.
- Kyle Flood actually had a winning record at Rutgers (27-24). But it started to fall apart fast, much like the Lou Tepper era here. And he tossed in a scandal on top of all that (Flood was accused of trying to influence player grades), so both he and the Athletic Director went out the door together (sound familiar?). Their situation was very similar to Not Ideal.
- What do I mean when I say "Not Ideal"? Where this football program sat on the day Lovie took over. A scandal had taken down a coach and an AD. We had a lame duck recruiting class. To make matters worse, instead of letting the interim AD make the hire (like Rutgers did), we punted, extending the interim coach for two more years so that the new AD could make the hire. The reason we all focused on the quote "it's not ideal but I don't think it will drive a dagger to the heart of the program" is because we all (almost universally) responded with "yes - it will absolutely do just that".
Because of that, I put our rebuild in a different category. Baylor had a scandal, and Baylor had interim coach issues, but Baylor was coming off seven consecutive bowls. That's not exactly the same hole as Kansas/Rutgers/Illinois.
As a result, I try to adjust to that. I know you know this, but to answer the question, I need to establish this again. I've been excessively patient with Lovie. I've used the term "year zero" to describe 2016. I've tried to comp the youth on the 2017 team and settled on "youngest college football team of the decade". I predicted 3-9/4-8 the last two years and got 2-10/4-8. Many people have claimed "I think we know now", especially after the Maryland and Iowa losses last fall, but I haven't gone there. I've continued to - probably idiotically - point to the youth and inexperience.
But now we're reaching a "finally we'll find out if this is going anywhere" season. And the question here is "how/when would we know that it's over". And my answer is... not until very late in the season.
I'm going to the UConn game. I was discussing it with a friend recently and we were trying to picture what the fanbase would be like if we lost that game. If you thought our defense was bad last year, UConn had the worst defense (statistically) of the modern era of college football. We'll likely be favored by 14+. And if we lose that game.....
OK I'll finish the thought. If we lose that game.... it's still not over. It will feel like it's over, just like it felt like it was over after the Purdue loss in 2014, but I don't think it will be over. In 2014, it was out-of-nowhere wins over Minnesota, Penn State, and Northwestern late in the season that saved Tim Beckman's job. That team looked quite incompetent in September but then somehow put it together in November.
I could see the same thing happening this season. Lose one of the non-conference games (we absolutely should not lose one of the non-conference games), start the Big Ten 0-4 (Nebraska, at Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin), there we sit at 2-5 with the world declaring it over. But then we surprise Purdue, beat Rutgers, surprise either Iowa or Michigan State on the road, and head into the final week 5-6. Not likely, but I could see it. When young teams grow up, it happens all at once.
A good example of that: Mike Leach at Washington State. They got to 6-6 in year two but fell to 3-9 in year three. And in the first game of year four, they lost to FCS Portland State in the opening game. Leach was 12-26 at that point, so many Washington State fans thought they KNEW. They didn't know. Wazzu turned that season around, won eight games, and are now on a four-year bowl streak.
Now, if you read this space frequently, you'll know that my confidence in 2019 being a bowl season took a huge hit watching spring practice. I didn't see a starting quarterback on the field (and that was before MJ Rivers transferred). I'm not sure who steps up as the #1 receiver (or the #2 or the #3). I think the defense is improved, but I'm not sure if it's 6-6 improved (or even 5-7 improved). If we go to UConn and give up 525 yards then yeah, it's probably over.
But I don't think we'll "know". This feels like a team that will be better in November than September (especially if we're immediately turning to the superstar freshmen like Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, and Shammond Cooper). Which means that when we're 2-5 in mid-October (oh crap we're probably going to be 2-5 in mid-October), I'm going to be standing in the face of the violent WE KNOW NOW winds and saying "let's wait a little bit longer".
Again, if the opposite happens and we go 9-3, I'll be saying "we still don't know". I'll be encouraged, but we haven't followed up a great season with a great season since 1989/1990 (seriously - look it up). There will be a lot of people declaring "the longform rebuild worked!", but I won't be one of them (and yes, someone screencap that in case I forget I said it).
So when would we know? I'll play out both scenarios:
- If the season starts out poorly (the 2-5 I suggested above), then we know once the eighth loss arrives. That would mean zero improvement with everyone back.
- If it's a successful season and we follow it up with another bowl in 2020, uh, sorry, we still won't know. 2021 looks like an obvious step back with 30 seniors graduating (and I'll allow for one bad season), so then 2022 tells us everything. And yes, you won't even recognize me in 2021 if we're on our way to back-to-back bowls and I'm writing "people, we still don't know anything" articles.
So put me down for "8th loss is when we know" on the bad side and "when we lose a bunch of seniors but we're still good the next season" on the good side. I'm not sure the AD feels that way, but that's the way I see it.
One last thing. Kevin Wilson went 4-8 (1-7) at Indiana in year four and kept his job. David Cutcliffe went 3-9 (1-7) in year four at Duke and kept his job. So while I think the eighth loss tells us what we need to know, there is precedent for AD's keeping coaches after four bowl-less years. And yes, both Wilson and Cutcliffe went to bowls in years five and six. So... just be prepared for a scenario where most of the fanbase thinks we "know" and the AD says "one more year".
OK, that was a lot of words to say "eighth loss". Maybe I should just respond to these questions on Twitter.
"Robert, when will we know?"