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"Robert, we're ranked #19 with a home game tomorrow and then three top-20 matchups after that and you're writing about FOOTBALL?" Hi, have we met? I'm beyond excited to get to Champaign for the game tomorrow... and also thinking about the 2020 football season.
Actually, I'm thinking about the next 12 months for the football. The 2021 recruiting class and then the 2020 season. For the first time in a long time, it's all right there. On a silver platter, if you will.
Let's start with the bad. I've written this post before, back when the blog was A Lion Eye. I wrote something similar in the summer of 2009, talking about how the 2009 season presented everything on a silver platter. Senior QB who was a legitimate Heisman candidate, junior receiver in his final year before turning pro, seniors up and down the lineup. Vegas even got on board and set the season over/under at 7.5 or 8, depending on where you looked. Votes in the preseason poll, 7-point favorites over Missouri in the opener, everything was aligned for a fantastic season.
So we have to start there. This is not a "it's totally going to happen" post. This is a "man, everything is aligned for it to happen" post. What things are aligned? Let's go through a list.
I wrote about this in the big football preview back in August. I went through Phil Steele's experience chart and talked about how Illinois was making a big jump for the 2019 season:
Here's the list of what goes into his Experience Chart:
+ Senior starters
+ Seniors in the two-deep
+ Percentage of lettermen returning
+ Percentage of total yards returning
+ Percentage of total tackles returning
+ Career starts from your offensive line
Here's where Illinois has been on that chart under Lovie Smith:
2016 - 85th out of 130 teams
2017 - 124th
2018 - 100th
2019 - 31st
2020? I'm guessing we'll be top-3 in all of college football when he puts out his chart. Senior starters? I think we'll have 14. Seniors in the two-deep? At least 19. Percentage of lettermen returning? We lost 9 of the 55-or-so players in the regular rotation, so 84% returning. Total yards returning? Subtract Corbin, Brown, and Reams. Tackles returning? Subtract Harding and Green (defensive linemen don't usually have many tackles). Career starts for the offensive line? I just totaled it up and it's 126 - that would would have been 4th out of 130 teams last season.
Now, this team is not without massive replacements being needed. With Ayo Shogbonyo graduating and moving on and Wole Betiku declaring for the draft (plus Tymir Oliver and Jamal Milan being seniors), the entire defensive line needs to be replaced. There are experienced players there (Jamal Woods has started 12 games, Isaiah Gay has started 9 games, and Owen Carney has started 8 games), but there are no "starters" returning from last season.
Still, all that matters is comparing this roster to other college football teams (everyone loses players every year, sometimes as many as 30), and when looking at experience here, we're likely 98th percentile in all of college football.
Someone sent me this tweet listing the 2020 schedule strength for all of the Power Five football teams. Illinois is 51st out of 66 teams (Power Five conferences plus Notre Dame and BYU). That twitterer also broke out each conference, and here's where Illinois landed:
2020 Big Ten SOS Rankings:
1. Michigan State
8. Ohio State
12. Penn State
That's not really all that surprising. It depends on who you get as your crossover games and who you schedule for your non-conference matchups. Let's just compare Illinois and Purdue. Purdue plays Rutgers-Indiana-Michigan as their crossovers and Illinois players Rutgers-Indiana-Ohio State, so they're similar there. The main reason Purdue is so high on the list and Illinois is so low - non-conference schedules:
Air Force (25)
at Boston College (92)
Illinois State (FCS)
Bowling Green (128)
Three home games for Illinois (Purdue has to go on the road to BC), and the FCS opponent might be the toughest out for Illinois (except ISU graduates their all-everything NFL tailback). AND, the conference schedule starts like this for Illinois (including 2019 record and SP+):
at Rutgers (2-10, #117)
at Nebraska (5-7, #55)
Purdue (4-8, #64)
The first Illini opponent who was in a bowl game this last season? Minnesota on October 24th. Compare that to, say, Iowa. Before October 24th, Iowa will have played Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State.
The point: we have a very easy schedule. Honestly, the only way to make it easier would be to replace Ohio State with a different crossover game. If that crossover game was Maryland, meaning we'd like have the #5, #6, and #7 teams in the Big Ten East as our crossover games, we could declare it the easiest schedule of the next 50 years. Two of the worst FBS teams (UConn is bad, is leaving the AAC, and currently has 24 players in the transfer portal), a FCS opponent, and then a crossover schedule which avoids Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State. With Penn State becoming our "protected" crossover game in 2022 (replacing Rutgers), I think we can easily say that it's between 2020 and 2021 (UTSA, Charlotte, and Virginia with crossover games against Maryland, Rutgers, and Penn State) for easiest Illini schedule of my lifetime. 2022 crossovers are Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State, so yeah - it's about to change.
That was a long paragraph. Let me make it simple. We'll always have to play every team in the Big Ten West. So if we were to design the easiest possible schedule, it would be an FCS opponent (you can only play one and can only do it every other year), plus two of the worst FBS teams you can find - all at home - and then Rutgers, Maryland, and Indiana in the East. We play an FCS opponent, two of the worst FBS teams you can find, Rutgers, Indiana, and Ohio State. One opponent away from the easiest schedule we could possibly design for ourselves.
Experienced roster + nearly the easiest possible schedule = silver platter. So then what about recruiting? We just went to a bowl game - are we set up to take a step forward with recruiting too?
Oh hey check out this list:
College football's 25 best facilities
23. North Carolina
22. Oregon State
21. Texas Tech
14. Notre Dame
5. South Carolina
4. Ohio State
3. Texas A&M
First off, two minor quibbles with the list. One, I don't understand ranking South Carolina above Illinois. They both built facilities last year, but South Carolina built a $50 million facility and Illinois built an $80 million facility. Both were close to the same square footage and had nearly the same amenities, but South Carolina went cheap by building a big metal shed and then putting everything inside. Architecture still matters, at least to me. Steel frame it or you're cheap.
Also, kudos for Northwestern for selling their facility as a football facility. Like Minnesota, they simply have an athlete's village. The women's cross country team uses it and the football team uses it and the wrestling team uses it. There's no exclusivity and no privacy like all the other facilities listed provide. But hey, it's by the lake.
The reason I included this list: the recruiting excuses are gone. As you probably know, I've been OK with "recruit the players you need, then win, then recruit better based on the winning". I've covered that in football previews too. In the 2017 preview, I listed several "they built it from nothing" coaches and the ranking of their first five recruiting classes:
Jerry Kill -- 57th, 59th, 67th, 57th, 63rd
David Cutcliffe -- 54th, 73rd, 63rd, 62nd, 71st
Kevin Wilson -- 55th, 57th, 42nd, 48th, 53rd
Mike Leach -- 58th, 50th, 53rd, 42nd, 56th
Mike MacIntyre -- 68th, 74th, 69th, 69th, 35th
Art Briles -- 58th, 53rd, 38th, 46th, 26th
Lovie - 46th, 54th, 53rd, & currently 69th with signing day next week.
The hope for the 2021 class? Something like what you see from those last two above (or Leach with his fourth class) - go to a bowl and then make a big jump recruiting-wise in the next full class.
And that all means that recruiting is on a silver platter as well. Bowl game + 11th-best facility in the country needs to = a top-35 class. Yes, it will probably start slowly (it's just how this staff has gone about recruiting the last four years). We'll probably look up in April and see Northwestern with 13 recruits and Illinois with 3. But by the time December rolls around, that needs to be the best signing day of Lovie's tenure. Perhaps even boosted by an 8-4 season for an even better December close.
It's all right there. Roster + schedule + facilities. Time to take one big step forward.
(Please don't fall apart like 2009.)