Stream Of Consciousness - Wisconsin 2020

Oct 23, 2020

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I've probably started the last nine of these with "man does it feel good to be sitting here writing an SOC post" but man does it feel good to be sitting here writing an SOC. The Iowa basketball game was 229 days ago. That's the longest any of us have ever waited between Illini games (football + basketball or otherwise). Tomorrow (later today, actually), football.

I was in St. Louis most of the day today. Came back to Champaign tonight. So apart from scrolling through Twitter a few times, I was mostly unplugged from Illini land all day. I didn't see the news about the black block-I helmets until much later than you did.

One of the tweets that came across my timeline was this one:

That's CBS News, with its 7.7 million followers, tweeting about Illinois football. And that's after many positive articles about the University's Covid testing program which has already advanced to the Big Ten Championship Game. I need to toss out some stats again.

The University of Michigan has issued an emergency stay-at-home order for all students due to Covid outbreaks. Last week their positivity rate rose from 2.0% to 2.9%, and that led to the campus-wide shutdown this week.

What is the positivity rate at the University of Illinois?

Illinois 51, Michigan 3

(Actually, probably the other way around if we're talking positive Covid tests.)

My point: the University of Illinois is tracking well with 2020. The University as a whole, I think, is on point right now. The football players, encouraged by the staff, are the most vocal team in the conference about the issues they want to spotlight. To the point where the school revised the helmets for the first game. The University has the best testing program in the country, pushing the campus positivity rate to 0.15%. The main stories on the news in 2020 all have an orange and blue tint. I don't see Indiana being praised for its incredible campus testing program. I don't see CBS News tweeting about Northwestern football.

So as I approach this season prediction, that's where my thoughts go in 2020. This is the most insane year of my lifetime. I quit my job to leap into the great unknown and the great unknown issued a shelter-in-place order three weeks later. It's late in the evening on October 22nd (actually early in the morning on October 23rd) and we haven't played a football game yet. But there's still going to be nine Big Ten games played. With no fans. Imagine telling that to someone on January 1st.

Normally, when writing these, I'm coming off an August filled with practice-watching and depth-chart building. This year, no practice, no clue on the depth chart besides the obvious starters. Jamal Woods and Roderick Perry are going to start at the two defensive tackle spots in this game. Guess the third DT. No idea? Me neither.

That's why this is so different. I don't have a handle on what this team will look like or what the rotations will be or even what the schedule will look like. Purdue's head coach currently has Covid - what if there's an outbreak in West Laff and the game is canceled next week? When I do my season prediction, should I predict 9 games? Assume 7 because two games will certainly get canceled?

All I know is that this is Year Five. Which, if you're one of those Year Zero people for Lovie's first season, is really Year Four. And Year Four is when programs either take off or they don't. I predicted 3-5-7-9 a few years go, saying that once this experienced team arrived in 2020, we'd win nine games. We've gone 2-4-6 so far. And with all these seniors, we're going to improve on last year, right?

Man, I don't know. We went 4-5 in the Big Ten last year. Do I see at least five wins on the schedule? I don't think I do. And Vegas certainly doesn't. The over/under out there is either 3 or 3.5. And I think we might be underdogs in 6 of the 8 games currently on the schedule. If Vegas isn't seeing it, and if every single media outlet that puts out previews has Illinois 7th in the Big Ten West, then there's no way we're going to be better this season. Every single media outlet imaginable can't be wrong.

Which pushes me towards what I've been talking about for four years. When you play that many freshmen in 2017, it pays off in 2020. It has to. Every one of those outlets is overlooking a 6-win team that brought everyone back.

But are they? "Better than last year" would mean at least 5-4. Do you see five wins? Man, it's really hard to see five wins, "blindly trust senior-laden teams" or not.

So I think my prediction has to be boring. I think we'll be... as good as last year. "Recover 70% of the fumbles" will dry up but we'll make up for it with a better offense and a steady-enough defense. This would have been 7-5 had we played the non-conference games, which would have been our first win improvement after a bowl game since 1988-1989, but it's still the same Big Ten record as last year.

Season prediction: 4-5

As for this game, no, I do not feel good about this game. I think Wisconsin's defense is really, REALLY good. Get your stretches in, Blake Hayes becuase I feel like you're gonna have to punt it away 10 times. Wisconsin returns 9 of 11 starters from a defense that finished 4th nationally in Total Defense. That has the makings of the top defense in the country.

So I really can't see more than maybe 240 yards for the offense. The question is then... if the offense only gets maybe 14 points out of those 240 yards, can the defense hold Wisconsin to 13 points? I do not think the defense can hold Wisconsin to 13 points.

It's an adjustment game for the defense with four new starters on the defensive line, three linebackers at different positions from where they were last year (Hansen from WLB to MLB, Eifler from SLB to WLB, Tolson from WLB to SLB), and a secondary needing to replace secret star of the second half of last season: Stanley Green. So when you have an adjustment game, and it's at Wisconsin, get nervous.

I could see a path to a close game or even a win. Any time a team starts a freshman QB for the first time, it can go very badly. There are so many stories of those guys - Texas fans excited to see their latest savior who was ranked in the top-10 QB's nationally and by the third quarter they're already looking at the depth chart to see who the backup might be. Remember the hype around Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson at Northwestern last year? The story: he left Clemson because he was behind the top QB in college football. He's still really good - he was just stuck behind Trevor Lawrence". The actual story: statistically, he was the worst QB in the Big Ten.

So I can see an "Illinois dares Wisconsin to throw and they just can't do it (like, at all)" kind of game. Three picks, Wisconsin's run game is good but not Jonathan Taylor good, and Illinois hangs around and pulls one out at the end like last year. I can also see Wisconsin just kind of doing their Wisconsin thing, time-of-possession climbs to 38 minutes, and our defense is worn down so they just put us in a fourth-quarter chokehold and ease us to the floor.

I should note here - this is the least-prepared I've ever been for a game prediction. I'd say 80% of my knowledge when making these predictions on Friday nights comes from things I learned about the team at training camp. So with no training camp open to the media, and no games played so far, I'm completely blind. All of the questions I have (how does Epstein look? is the new DL stout or falling apart?) are completely left unanswered.

But I think I know enough to know that the oddsmakers probably have it right. I'm gonna pick a score that makes those people who landed Illinois -23.5 very happy yet still gives Wisconsin the game-time cover. The line is currently 19.5, so put me down for...

Wisconsin 35, Illinois 14


taz on October 23, 2020 @ 02:55 AM

I get the uncertainty. Especially given that it's 2020. I also get the reality of our level vs Wisconsin's. But... where's the hope? Where's the excitement? I was so excited to see the SOC (I woke up at 1a, refreshed the page, was disappointed it wasn't up yet, have been trying to fall back to sleep and failing, so thought I'd check again just now) but this has done nothing to generate or even discuss the excitement most of us are feeling at finally starting the season. Covid testing and social awareness? Yes, great job UI! But that's not why we're excited on October 23rd.

Nells on October 23, 2020 @ 06:50 AM

Does excitement to you mean lying to yourself or your readers? Robert is never one to be rational.

Refugee from Illinois on October 23, 2020 @ 07:14 AM

I think you meant “irrational”?

Nells on October 23, 2020 @ 08:14 AM

No, I didn’t mean “irrational.”

taz on October 23, 2020 @ 07:52 AM

I'm not looking for lies nor a false prediction for the season or game. I'm just talking about the discussion around the start of the season (finally!). I'm excited, win or lose. I know Robert is, too. I just usually feel that excitement and I didn't when I read this post this year (and I feel like with everything that has gone on, we should have more excitement, not less).

Nells on October 23, 2020 @ 08:15 AM

Maybe because we’re a 20-point underdog? There’s a significant chance we get beat down.

uilaw71 on October 23, 2020 @ 07:23 AM

When did SOC become analytics driven? You sound like a Cardinals GM. What does you gut say, Robert? This is football, being contested by young men who are excited about this game. And not just any young men, but those who will represent the tradition we love. My gut says we Zuppke them with quick strikes, including at least one pick six, en route to 6-3.

W.I.N.T. on October 23, 2020 @ 09:34 AM

I think the lack of gut instincts is driven by him not being able to go to practices or training camp.

If you haven't seen anything to tell you differently, Vegas is generally more right than anything else.

Nusspickel on October 23, 2020 @ 07:25 AM

At least playing in an empty Camp Randall is better than a crazy full house for your first game. I see a path to a W, but I really have to squint to get there.

DB50 on October 23, 2020 @ 07:35 AM

21 point beat down huh? We’ll see.

ktal on October 23, 2020 @ 07:45 AM

I have to believe.

Season: 7-2

Game: Illini 41-32

Let's do this thing!

mrozny on October 23, 2020 @ 08:00 AM

Here is the problem with the media and the odds makers can’t be wrong, they are using historical bias and confirmation bias. They are using both of those to say that we are what we were at the end of the season, even though we had a tremendous amount of injuries. They are giving a pass to Purdue on that front, because of recent success and them being very vocal about what they were missing. I Also think you can’t take anything the odds makers or media say because they have not seen any of the teams just like you, this you have no gut feeling on this based on how good or poorly the practices looked. I’m going with the surprise here of 6-3. ILL

Ellisrt1031 on October 23, 2020 @ 08:50 AM

Kind of a don't let yourself get your hopes up prediction. I would be disappointed in this result. Going to be cold. Maybe more turnovers and more emphasis on running/short passing game. Rod needs to be "plus" on scheme for us to be in this game at end. Defense has to be respectable on run.

Eagle on October 23, 2020 @ 08:59 AM

We know our back seven are solid. We have the best selection of receivers we’ve had in years. On the other hand, our inexperienced DL will give up way too many yards to the Wisky rushing game and we have little idea what our running game can produce. And they have no idea what their rushing or passing game will look like. All those prognosticators are probably forgetting about our top shelf special teams. I think we had a 10% chance of winning last year and pulled it off. I’d say our chances are better this year at around 40% so we can make it a game. Too many unknowns and variables but my gut tells me our inexperienced DL is the deciding factor. Wisc. 38 Illini. 34

IlliniBobLoblaw on October 23, 2020 @ 09:36 AM

Oof, Robert, I can't believe what I'm reading. 4-5? After building your case for the last four years? This is a crazy year and we're all a bit discombobulated, but I think six weeks from now you're gonna be admitting that you're gut told you 6 or 7 wins. And we'll all understand.

IlliniBobLoblaw on October 23, 2020 @ 09:48 AM

"you're gut" --> "your gut" :-)

Robert on October 23, 2020 @ 10:41 AM

FWIW, I don't believe the case I built was ever "here's what's going to happen". I always framed it as "here's what should happen".

For example, during and after the Northwestern game I stuck to what I saw: this is an injured team, this loss doesn't mean much, and everything is still on track. Now, with player departures (Shogbonyo, Betiku, and Smalling being the biggest), the lack of development from guys like Avery, and the national consensus that we're finishing 7th in the West, I'm less in that camp. Just don't have a good feeling that the 8-4 (or better) season I was hoping to see is still possible. Scared to death of 2-7, to be honest.

IlliniBobLoblaw on October 23, 2020 @ 11:41 AM

I don't believe the case I built was ever "here's what's going to happen". I always framed it as "here's what should happen".

Fair enough, but you still f****ing nailed it. Absolutely. Nailed. It. Oct 12, 2019. I mean, look, that was an epic prediction made four years earlier! It seems to me that you still haven't been given the proper credit. Sure, we lost, but the second half of the Michigan game was the moment it turned around. We couldn't overcome the injuries later, but it all still looks in place to me. And Lovie knows it too.

You know you want to do it man! It's not too late to edit this post! :-)

Efremwinters84 on October 23, 2020 @ 09:46 AM

It's a good time to remind everyone that, despite all of his in-depth Illini knowledge, Robert is not necessarily the World's Best Prognostictor. Let's take 2019 as an example. Robert, I believe you picked the wrong winner in all of the following regular season games:

  1. Eastern Michigan
  2. Michigan
  3. Michigan State
  4. Wisconsin
  5. Northwestern

Here's hoping you once again miss the ILL vs. WIS margin by 28 points!

illinizeeman on October 23, 2020 @ 01:23 PM

I think depth has been the greatest issue. We have been relatively unlucky in the injury department. I think last year wa: a)the first evidence we've seen that Lou really makes a difference; b) we've had QB stability (minus three games). Look at the QB first. If Peters stays healthy, I say 5 wins.

WeatherfordForMVP on October 23, 2020 @ 02:38 PM

I definitely get the unknowns, but I am a little surprised that Robert leaned into the pessimism with his prediction for the first game of the season.

To me, an encouraging game would be one where a) we are still competitive going into the 4th quarter, and b) we win (duh), c) we lose by something like 10 points or less. This being probably the second toughest game on the schedule, I think that would be an encouraging result. A 21-point loss would definitely be disappointing. on October 23, 2020 @ 05:20 PM

Resurrection is complete tonight fellas. The Lovie Smith era of Illinois football will be fully recognized as our emergence from the dead “tonight”! Tonight, we will own these bastards! I feel it. That is my stream of consciousness. The hits will be laid and the Illine will be looked upon this evening as the ones deserving of the characterization of a badger. Go Illini! Bring back the Chief!

Ellisrt1031 on October 23, 2020 @ 10:07 PM

Good call. Only one resurrection. This was a desecration. Robert, you called it. The offense wasn't up to it. Safety play hurt by Witherspoon being out. Peters extremely disappointing. Next week a must or we are heading for one win season.

illinisludge on October 23, 2020 @ 10:18 PM

What happened to the O/Peters/rod?! Yes Wisconsin is good but you can’t lay a turd like that in year 5. Utterly disappointing

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