Here Goes Nothing
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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:
1. IT'S HAPPENING.
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.