Here Goes Nothing

Jul 10, 2019

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I group things. You probably know this. I rarely look at a single game or half and glean anything from it - it's always "in these next 10 games, I would like to see X". It's how I navigate our (mostly awful) seasons. Set expectations, see where we land.

I've more or less had three phases with Lovie Smith. Generally, this is the path I've taken:


We hired an NFL coach who is beloved in Chicago and we're finally going to A) build a defense in Champaign and B) make recruiting inroads in Chicago. This was the honeymoon phase. I basically discarded everything I said after Cubit was extended ("between the Beckman investigation and the Cubit extension we've given up on an entire recruiting class") and acted like everything was automatically fixed.

That ended during the Western Michigan game. We didn't know at the time that WMU would go undefeated and go to a NY6 Bowl, but still, when you lose at home to a MAC school like that, the honeymoon is over. By the time the Michigan game rolled around we were down to our third-string quarterback (Jeff George Jr), we had moved on from seniors and began starting the freshmen, and I figured I could clearly see the next phase:

2. We're not going to learn anything for 25 games.

Purdue game in 2016 through Purdue game in 2018, close your eyes because it's going to be u-g-l-y. Training camp 2017 I reported back with "yep - it's the worst Illini camp I've ever seen". So much youth, nobody knew what they were doing - I even went as far as predicting a loss to Ball State (thankfully, Dudek returned the punt deep into Ball State territory with 4:00 left and we eked out a victory).

But I think I stayed consistent through those 25 games. I went back to "no coaching staff could coach their way out of the Not Ideal hole". The day Cubit was extended, the fanbase universally stated "this will dig such a hole it will take years for us to dig out". It's why we all clung to the "Not Ideal" quote. "Won't put a dagger through the heart of the program"? That's exactly what it's doing!

So, in an effort to be fair, I approached the Lovie era as if he had to remove a dagger from the heart of the program. I do not believe that Jeff Brohm would have gone 6-6 his first two years in Champaign. I don't even think Nick Saban, bringing in a single Nick Saban recruiting class, would get to a bowl game in 2017. There was a hole here, and I said that there would be 25 games - Purdue 2016 to Purdue 2018 - where we'd play so many kids that we'd have almost no shot at winning.

But then, once those kids play those 25 games (more or less, 18 full games for each member of Lovie's first recruiting class), then we could start to evaluate things. I even amended it a little bit. Following the Purdue game was a trip to Wisconsin (where I figured we had no chance), so really, let's call it 26 games and start evaluating things with the game at Maryland. Not just "evaluating", let's start expecting some wins. The first set of freshmen have 20 games under their belts, the second set of freshmen have eight games played, now let's start to see strides in the right direction. And wins. Something like...

3. Win 18 of the next 31 games.

This was my declaration after the Wisconsin loss. I believe at the time I looked at the future schedules and estimated that in the next 18 games we might only play three ranked opponents. Specifically, the 2018 season ended with Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Northwestern (who didn't appear to be on their way to the Big Ten West title, at least not when I was looking at the final five games), and I figured we could maybe finish 2-3. And I had already put out my little 3-5-7-9 thing (win three in 2017, five in 2018....), so 7 + 9 + these two wins to close our 2018... win 18 of the next 31.

Why 31 games instead of 29? Because those win totals would mean a bowl in 2019 and a bowl in 2020. Which would provide a little cover for me. If we only win eight games in 2020? Bowl win gives us our ninth and gets us to 18.

So, how's the 18 of 31 going? We're finally clear of the 25 games that don't matter, so let's get to evaluatin', shall we?

Iowa 23, Maryland 0
Maryland 63, Illinois 33
Iowa 63, Illinois 0

Aaand... scene. A play in three acts. Maryland can't score on Iowa and then puts up 63 against Illinois the next week? Illinois loses 63-0 at home on Senior Day? After years of holding the door shut with my back (arms spread out to either door frame) I've finally declared "NOW this team can be evaluated" and those are the performances we get.

I get asked all the time what "happened" to me and where my "patience" went. Well, just picture me trampled by Black Friday shoppers. I stood there for what seems like forever yelling "wait" and "hold" and then, once I finally opened the doors, 63-0.

Does that mean it's "over"? Not at all. In fact, I still think I'd bet on a bowl in 2019 and a bowl in 2020. We'll have the single-most experienced team in the country in 2020, and it would take monumentally inept coaching for a team with that much experience in this system to not make a bowl. Even this season, they should be able to do this with their eyes closed.

No, that's not a set-up. I'm not putting "it would take monumentally inept coaching" on a tee for you to whack. It's how I see college football. Pretty much 90% of all coaches could play 22 true freshmen in 2017 and then go to a bowl in 2020. Even with four marginal recruiting classes. Just keep the systems in place and it's a near-lock. I mean, 61 of the 65 Power Five teams have been to a bowl since 2015. It's so incredibly easy to do.

Let's look at the four teams that haven't been to bowls since then. There's Kansas and their two year firing program. Turner Gill fired after two years, Charlie Weis fired four games into his third season, and when David Beatty takes over they have 39 scholarship players (Weis had tried to K-State his way to wins with junior college players). That's a minimum four year hole, in my estimation.

Rutgers had Kyle Flood getting fired for off the field stuff (player arrests + Flood had gone to a faculty member to try to change a player's class grade), Oregon State had the weird Gary Andersen thing (he resigned and didn't ask for the $12 million buyout of his contract without ever saying why - he just walked away), and Illinois had Cvijanovic/Beckman/Cubit. My takeaway: most any coach can get back to a bowl in three years by just implementing new schemes. It usually takes something off the field (leading to excessive roster turnover) for it to take longer than that.

Which is why I tossed out "18 of the next 31" and why I'm sticking with it (even though it now means we have to go 17-9 the next two seasons). The program might not go anywhere, and it might sink right back down like Zook or Turner, but the next two seasons should be solid. "Experience" almost always points to wins.

The concern? That we're in that "10% of coaches would actually fail to get an experienced team to a bowl" category I listed above. Why? Zero improvement over three years.

Here are the numbers from the S&P+. We'll just go through Beckman/Cubit and Lovie. I'm including their "second order wins" category which is more or less "how many wins should these statistics would produce". Some teams are incredibly fortunate (Northwestern's 2nd Order Wins last year: 6.2. Actual wins: 9). Some are incredibly unlucky (Nebraska's 2nd Order Wins last year: 6.7, Actual wins: 4). So 2ndO Wins helps sort out the seasons.

2012: 93rd, 2ndO Wins 3.2 (actual record 2-10)
2013: 79th, 2ndO Wins 4.7 (actual record 4-8)
2014: 68th, 2ndO Wins 5.7 (actual record 6-7)
2015: 68th, 2ndO Wins 5.2 (actual record 5-7)
2016: 94th, 2ndO Wins 3.0 (actual record 3-9)
2017: 96th, 2ndO Wins 2.3 (actual record 2-10)
2018: 97th, 2ndO Wins 3.9 (actual record 4-8)

What does that say? Beckman was building something (not much, just something), but it leveled off as the 68th-best team so it wasn't going anywhere. Lovie started from a lower point (Beckman inherited the 44th-best team from Zook), but in three years it hasn't budged: 94th-best team, then 96th-best team, then 97th-best team.

Yes, there are "reasons" for that. The 2017 roster cliff Beckman had built with jucos, made worse by the lame duck Cubit class, meant that Lovie would almost certainly have a worse team in 2017 while Beckman would have a better team. But the 2018 team dropping a spot in the NERDstats (mostly because the defense was so incredibly horrific) is a very scary thing.

The question now: can Lovie make a surge (and then can he maintain that surge). David Cutcliffe at Duke was 86th, 86th, and 98th in these rankings his first three years before going 84th, 58th, 47th the next three seasons. Mike Leach yoyo'd from 79th to 50th to 77th to 61st his first four years before climbing to 54th and then 40th and then 31st. Normally, you'd like to see something like what Jerry Kill did at Minnesota - 80th his first year then 69th then 64th then 50th. Yes, Kill didn't have to deal with Not Ideal, so Kill at Illinois would have gone 80th to 85th his second year (or whatever), but you want to see progress. Statistically, we've seen no progress.

Which means we need to see a leap. Which means that 18 of 31 remains a good guidance (at least in my eyes). We rebuilt a different way by dumping most of the Beckman/Cubit roster and starting over (we basically had to), so the year two and year three numbers probably weren't going to be there. They shouldn't be getting worse, but there are some reasons there.

The experience is there now. Guys like Palcho and Smalling and Hobbs and Hayes have 20+ starts. They've added 4th-year and 5th-year transfers who will play immediately. If you go by average age of your 24 starters (including the kicker and punter) I'm guessing Illinois would have been 130th out of 130 teams in 2017 and will be something like 40th this season (and then something like 2nd next season). Rebuilding this way means "make a big leap when they're all juniors and seniors".

So this all seems very... simple. Defense broken? The head coach decided to fix it himself (and, if it fails, will have no one to blame but himself). This coach was given a long leash by the athletic director to play the kids and try to use their future experience to catapult the program over the hump. Those seasons (or perhaps just "that season") has arrived now. Time to leap.

The good news: those leaps have happened before. Illinois went from 70th in the S&P+ to 32nd from 2006 to 2007. It can happen in Champaign.

The bad news: Second Order Wins told that story, as that 2006 team's number was 5.5 (meaning that was a 5-7 or 6-6 team that finished 2-10 with some really bad luck and some Zooking). If you were studying the NERDstats at the time, you could see the 2007 leap coming. If you study the NERDstats right now, they agree with 63-0. 97th is 97th.

So what am I saying? Pretty simple. There's a massive hill to climb. We don't have much in the tank. So we're gonna have to leap it.

Here goes nothing.


Groundhogday on July 10, 2019 @ 01:22 PM

Yep. I was on board with Lovie through the first two seasons. But not many coaches find success if they don't show some improvement the first three seasons. It is particularly disturbing that the coach known for D has led a program that got worse on D three years in a row.

Let's see if Lovie is an exception to the rule. But it is hard to be optimistic based upon what we saw last year.

Robert on July 10, 2019 @ 04:58 PM

My hope for the exception to come through: Lovie's read on the Beckman/Cubit players was right and turning to 22 true freshmen in 2017 was the correct choice. If that were to work, in a few years it would seem fairly simple: roster-wise there was nothing to work with, he took his lumps playing 19 year-old kids, it started to pay off Year Four and beyond.

But yes, even the longer rebuilds (leaning heavily on the first recruiting class) typically show improvement year to year. Kevin Wilson kept his job after four losing seasons at Indiana but on the S&P+ those years were #103, #80, #66, #65.

HiggsBoson on July 13, 2019 @ 12:29 PM

Lovie handled the Beckman/Cubit players like an NFL coach would do a rebuild. He just didn't get any draft choices for losing. I still think that Cubit might well have gotten to a bowl with those seniors, though I'm not as sure how things would have worked out later. Good coaches can win with what they inherited while they get their guys. We didn't see that here.

IBFan on July 10, 2019 @ 02:00 PM

It was/is a rebuild/overhaul in the BigTen...bumpy. Won a bigten road game, also destroyed Minnesota....improvements. South Florida - rewatch game, you can see vast improvement even in very close loss. Nebraska - who wins that game with DudeK on the field.
Some ugly losses for sure.

Groundhogday on July 10, 2019 @ 02:40 PM

Anecdotal observations don't capture the big picture: 97th best team in the country last year. Offense improved and defense regressed. Overall, that is not improvement.

Bear8287 on July 10, 2019 @ 03:40 PM

I rarely look at a single game or half and glean anything from it - it's always "in these next 10 games, I would like to see X"

*cough* 63-0.

ATOillini on July 11, 2019 @ 08:20 AM

To quote the great Lou "Body by Lou" Hernandez.....

"Get Your Mind Right!"

thumpasaurus on July 11, 2019 @ 01:03 PM

It is patently ridiculous for anyone to write off 63-0 as insignificant.

We were 4-6 and still alive for a bowl playing at home against a solid but very human Iowa team. Head coach Lovie Smith has said "screw it, I'll call the defense myself!" and rallied the team to a slumpbusting win. Mistakes cost them a shot at Nebraska, but dammit, here's where you rally.

You'd figure we would get at least an 80 percentile performance out of our team given the stakes. Back against the wall, final home game, predictable opponent, you want to see some FIGHT!

Thinking about it makes me sick. I'll concede that it's possible we win some games this year and Lovie Smith coaches Illinois until he retires. That could happen AND it could remain true that 63-0 was the kind of performance that, under the circumstances, invites criticism of ANY coach, no matter their track record.

Yes, it WAS that bad, and you're an absolute rube if you think it wasn't.

Go Illini.

Imagine, though, if Lovie decides to get fiery for once in his life before the Nebraska game and tell the team about all these "anyone can win the West except Illinois!" takes in the media he's heard about, and make it the linchpin of an absolute pump-up moment.

It's nice to dream.

Bear8287 on July 11, 2019 @ 11:26 PM

Thinking about it makes me sick.

Then don't think about it. It's obviously not good for your health.

thumpasaurus on July 12, 2019 @ 08:17 AM

It's impossible to think about the trajectory of the program without that game coming up. I'm not great at sustaining cognitive dissonance.

illiniranger on July 12, 2019 @ 12:01 AM

This year’s recruiting class is shaping up to be the 63-0 of recruiting classes...

orangejulius on July 11, 2019 @ 01:58 PM

It seemed like we had some momentum with the 2019 class. Landed some really solid prospects that a lot of other Power-5 schools wanted. We got Luke, possibly the best transfer TE in the country. We had the USC transfers who seem like very talented players. Got off to a good start with the 2020 class with 3 solid guys. Things were looking up. Then the best player on our football team gets in a freak accident and probably never plays football again. We lose one of our recruits, Harper, at a huge position of need. And then it's been nothing but L's on the recruiting trail since then. Now everything depends on the 2019 season and we have to do it without our best player and either a true freshman qb or a guy who was 4th string at Michigan. It's hard to be optimistic about the program right now.

uofi08 on July 11, 2019 @ 03:40 PM

Great article. Love the data and your explanations.

Last year we were supposed to start seeing where this thing is going, and the picture was pretty clearly showing something we didn't want to see.

I don't think you can overstate how important this next 5 months is. We absolutely need to see a giant leap on the field and in recruiting. The recruiting momentum has completely dried up. If Lovie doesn't have a very good class lined up, I don't think there's any way he stays with less than 6 wins.

Douglascountyillinifan on July 11, 2019 @ 04:37 PM

I get it Robert, I really do. You've been the lone voice of positivity for years, but I really think 63-0 has gotten into your psyche more that it should have. They started 4 drives on our side of the 50. They returned a punt and a fumble for TDs, and of course we threw a pick inside their five. I remember you posting some time ago about how important field position is, and this game bore that out in spades. Just remember. We want you on that wall. We NEED you on that wall. We were bad last year, but I just don't think we were 63-0 bad.

HiggsBoson on July 11, 2019 @ 07:23 PM

How will you feel if we lose 63-0 again this year?

Douglascountyillinifan on July 11, 2019 @ 09:16 PM

how will you feel if we go into IC and win?

HiggsBoson on July 13, 2019 @ 12:32 PM

I'd be pleased, though, given that the Lovie Smith era has been a disappointment ever since the "bold move" euphoria wore off, I won't be surprised if it doesn't happen.

Douglascountyillinifan on July 11, 2019 @ 09:17 PM

Groundhogday on July 11, 2019 @ 11:34 PM

If 63-0 was an anomaly, we wouldn't have finished the #97 team in S&P rankings. Yes, that game contributed to our poor statistical performance, but overall we were not good.

thumpasaurus on July 12, 2019 @ 08:31 AM

I also don't think we were really 63 points worse than Iowa, which raises the question of why our offense was so poorly prepared for that game. Was the talent gap really that overwhelming? Illinois had a lot more to lose than Iowa in that game. They'd just been eliminated from the division race, but we were still alive for a bowl. To come out and perform like that is absolutely pitiful.

Robert has never been "the voice of positivity," he's just been a rational optimist who is fueled by hope. He's never shied away from pointing out warning signs and it's disingenuous to pretend that he has defected from the ranks of The Good Guys just because his big-picture viewpoint of this program right now only contains a somewhat narrow path to sustained success.

That's not the same thing as being a sycophant who ignores every cause for concern and writes off every setback in the service of trying to speak a winning program into existence.

This has never been an Illini juche blog, and no amount of complaining is going to make it one.

Bear8287 on July 12, 2019 @ 12:07 PM

This has never been an Illini juche blog, and no amount of complaining is going to make it one.

Hey, IlliniBoard is educational too. Maybe it's just me, but I had to consult the web to find out what "juche" meant.

"The Juche idea is a revolutionary theory which occupies the highest stage of development of the revolutionary ideology of the working class", Kim Jong-il said, further stating that the originality and superiority of the Juche idea defined and strengthened Korean socialism.

Nothing goes together better than Illini football and the ideology of North Korea's dictator Kim Jong-il.

Today's word is "juche".

thumpasaurus on July 12, 2019 @ 01:26 PM

In practice, Juche is just a dictator-engineered cultural identity used to justify the semi-divine worship of the Great Leader as a natural and inevitable phenomenon. As such, the Supreme Leader is infallible, everything he does is by design and beyond the intellectual grasp of the common people, and any indicator of any kind of failure is either dismissed as fake or explained as "that's just what Supreme Leader wants people to think!"

If, for instance, Supreme Leader coached a football team and they lost their last game at home by a score of 63-0 and followed that up by securing only 3 commitments by midway through July as all his top targets looked elsewhere, Juche would compel the masses and the state media to say things such as "yeah but Supreme Leader will be more hands on with the defense so 63-0 might as well not have happened!" and "AVERAGE STAR RATING!"

Bear8287 on July 13, 2019 @ 07:33 PM




MuckFichigan92 on July 13, 2019 @ 11:45 PM

lol In the words of Norman Chad, "Pay the man, Shirley."

IBFan on July 11, 2019 @ 11:09 PM

We've gone from fighting off Northern Illinois for our top picks to being crushed because we lost a recruit to Ohio St, another to Mizzou that is from Mizzou(not to mention they play in the SEC and have had better results than our beloved), and a kid flips to Oregon(dig and see why). This staff has won some monumental recruiting battles, battles we weren't even in before.
Yes it could be better....but as Robert keeps pointing out, Lovie has certain types of players he likes, and isn't recruiting to "Stars" and is also heavily dependent on their own evaluation. I also agree with the sentiment that on average the players that have those multiple P5 offers are the ones you win with. Sooo much riding on this year. I don't want to see another tear down, partial rebuild, new AD, blah blah blah. Let's just hope everyone has a good year and we can all smile. Most importantly not have anymore kids get seriously hurt.

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