The Age Thing
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So LSU wins the national title and then, exactly three games later, loses to a Missouri team that might go 3-7 this season. How is that possible? How can a team fall that far that fast? For me, it's simple: age. The thing that no one ever seems to consider.
OK, that's not exactly true. People consider age as it relates to college football, mostly in terms of "experience". DJ Uiagalelei will be the next Clemson QB after Trevor Lawrence goes pro, and I think everyone understands that 2022 DJ Uiagalelei will be better than 2021 DJ Uiagalelei. Get a year of experience under your belt and you're almost always better the following season. Everyone accepts this, I think. Joe Burrow was pretty good in 2018 and otherworldly in 2019. At some point, the game slows down and it's pedal-to-the-floor.
The thing I'm not sure everyone believes - and the thing that's been on my mind lately - is that age is important independent of experience. I'll try to explain it this way:
There's 9u soccer and 11u soccer (and probably 5u although I'm not sure I want to watch. Actually, check that - I do). Why are there teams of nine year-olds (or under) and teams of 11 year-olds (or under)? Because, for the most part, a team of 11 year-olds would destroy a team of 9 year-olds. Yes, I realize that your nephew's 9u team could beat every 12u squad in the county. I'm not talking about outliers. I'm saying that, in general, tournaments are grouped by age because 12 year-olds are better at soccer than 7 year-olds. So to hold fair competitions, the 10 year-olds play the 10 year-olds (and so on).
The same is true for my nephew's swim meets. The 9-10 year-olds swim against the 9-10 year-olds. As soon as you turn 11, you're in the 11-12 bracket and you go from finishing 4th out of 110 to finishing 53rd out of 110. And then you slowly work your way up and up in that next age bracket until you age-up again and drop down. The older you get, the better you are. Everyone understands this.
But I'd say most people think that stops at age 18. The 14 year-old beats the 12 year-old in the 100m backstroke because the 14 year-old hit a growth spurt and his arms and legs are now much longer than the 12 year-olds giving him a huge advantage in the pool. But because kids "stop growing" at age 18 (or whatever late-teen age), I feel like the prevailing thought is "OK, now everyone is on an even playing field". I don't believe that to be the case at all. Quite the opposite. In fact, for college football, I sometimes think the difference is similar to 12 year-olds playing 9 year-olds in soccer.
Let's start with LSU-Missouri and branch out from there.
LSU has five returning starters from last season. 20 players from LSU's 2019 roster are now on NFL rosters (either by being drafted or by making the roster as a UDFA). So they probably lost more than any single football team in the last 20 years. Teams like LSU with their 40+ four-stars always reload instead of rebuild, so there's not too much to worry about, but five returning starters is a really difficult hurdle to overcome. Not only because of the experience lost (and the learn-on-the-job required of the next set of guys), but also because the age of their average starter is going to drop significantly. I don't know the exact numbers, and I'm not even certain how I'd research it, but they were dominated by juniors and seniors last year (their junior class is probably one of the best of all time) and this year they have a lot of sophomores and freshmen in the lineup.
I just had the thought that I wrote something about LSU this summer so I did a quick Google search and found it. In an article I wrote in June (where I asked why no one was predicting a surprise from Illinois in 2020) I said this while talking about one of the articles I read:
It's simply a safe article that predicts things like "LSU will lose 3 games" (uh, they lost 90% of their offense and more than half their defense - of course they'll lose at least three games).
I guess I didn't write much about LSU. But the reason I'm fairly confident when I write that is because they're starting over with kids again. They can rebound quickly, but the first few games out of the gate after turning to the kids usually equals a disaster. Especially when you switch up your defense to a completely new scheme like LSU did this offseason.
I should cover that, too. I should cover all of the categories as I see them. Let's call these my Five Factors To College Football Success:
- Coaching. Obvs. This includes scheme, motivation, and getting players into the Proper State Of Mind.
- Order. Call this the Wisconsin Plan. Be very, very intentional. Have a scheme. Recruit to that scheme. Build it that way and then sustain it with the same framework in place. Tweak where you have to - heck, change up the schemes if you think college football is moving a certain direction - but maintain order.
- Age. 22 year-olds are significantly better at football than 19 year-olds, and it's nearly on the same level that a 12 year-old is significantly better at soccer than a 9 year-old. Get old, stay old.
- Talent. Duh. Trevor Lawrence is better at football than Hunter Johnson. More talent, more wins. Recruit and then recruit some more.
- Experience. It wasn't just "he turned 22" that made Joe Burrow so much better in 2019. It's also all the mistakes he made in 2018 that led to a light bulb coming on in 2019. A player with 22 starts is so much better than a player with 2 starts.
COATE. Put on your COATE and let's go win some football games.
Of those five, I feel like "Age" is the least understood. People know you need talent and coaching. Most understand that experience helps a lot. The Wisconsin thing ("Order") probably isn't understood as being an intentional thing but most people grasp the concept. Age? Most seem to approach that from a weight room angle ("well, once he's squatting 550 then he'll be ready for Big Ten line play") but never look at it like they did for high schoolers. High school freshman vs. high school senior - "yeah they're like two completely different human beings". College freshman vs. college senior - "they're basically the same player all four years, right?".
But I feel like Age is right up there with all of the other factors. A guy you gave up on as a sophomore is a completely different player as a senior and not just because he got some experience and "the game slowed down". It's also because you're more prepared, both physically and mentally, to perform on Saturdays as a 22 year-old than you are as an 18 year-old.
I've spoken about all of these categories a lot and will occasionally hear about it on Twitter. Some team with 27 seniors will go 2-10 and I'll get "hey Robert I thought you said teams just needed to get old to win". Of course not. With bad coaching and horrific recruiting, a team of 84 seniors is going to lose. Or some coach will take over a 4-8 team and go 8-4 and I'll hear "I thought all coaches needed to put in a framework in order to win - this guy just snapped his fingers and the team was better" (I doubt it - I'm guessing the guy took over an experienced, older team and the schemes were similar. Look for a drop in year two or three when they first turn to their own players).
It's never just about recruiting or just about coaching. You take inventory about the state of the program (if a coach takes over Oklahoma he must be in the top-10 midway through his third season or he's fired; if a coach takes over Rutgers he needs five years without a single question being asked) and then you apply those five factors. Introduce workable schemes, restore order (maybe I should have called that one "culture"), get old (and stay old), recruit talent, and build experience.
When Ed Orgeron took over LSU, he basically did this. In 2017, Illinois was #1 in number of true freshmen playing in a game with 22. LSU was #2 with 20. Orgeron recruited a fantastic recruiting class in his very first class (so much better than our 2017 class, thus the national championship), played 20 of them that first year in 2017, took his lumps (they lost at home to Troy in his fifth game as head coach to fall to 3-2 and out of the polls, even with players who would eventually win a national title), and then, well, you saw what happened. He found great coordinators, restored order to the program (probably the best cultural fit LSU could find), and once the age and experience cranked up to the necessary levels, 15-0, national champs.
And now a second rebuild (and a loss to Missouri). 17 starters gone. 20 players off to the NFL. So you turn to a bunch of players who haven't really played before and you find a way to put it all together again. I'm guessing that this second time it won't be so "we're pretty much 80% just relying on the 2017 recruiting class to get us there" and much more balanced across multiple classes. They don't care - they went for broke and won a title in the jump-start of all time - but I don't think you'll see them playing 20 freshmen again. Time to build some balance.
How does this apply to Illinois? Well, we're really old now (my depth chart shows 2 sophomores and 0 freshmen among the 24 starters), and we're really experienced (12th on the SP+ returning production chart), so cross the A and the E off the list. We're now at COT - the 2020 season will come down to Coaching, Order, and Talent. If the coaching is there, and order has been restored, and talent has been recruited, then we'll win. If not, we won't.
That's where I'm going with all of this when I talk about "age". I'm sitting there on the Owen Carney Zoom call today realizing that if he had picked Georgia (one of his many high major offers), he wouldn't have played yet. He would have added the 35 lbs of muscle away from the field and then, this season, as a redshirt junior, they'd get their first glimpse of a 21 year-old junior ready to produce at defensive end. Instead, we've seen the overmatched defensive lineman playing as a true freshman 35 lbs short of where he needed to be. (Which is also what LSU fans are watching as they see LSU giving up 44 to Mississippi State and 45 to Missouri.)
So I see it all like this:
- Age is so incredibly important.
- We finally have it now.
- That doesn't mean we're going to win.
I mean, hopefully it means we're going to win. Every player gets on these Zoom press conferences and says something about winning the Big Ten West. They all believe they're there. It's a very confident group. I would love to see the turmoil of the last four seasons turn into something special in 2020.
But it doesn't mean we're there. We'll now see if we have C, O, and T. We were the youngest team in college football in 2017 and bottom three age-wise in 2018. Last year, middle of the pack (and a 6-7 record). This year, top-10 oldest.
A's there, E's there. COT?