Stream Of Consciousness - Wisconsin 2020
You have currently viewed 1 story this month.
IlliniBoard now offers two free stories per month, for more please subscribe.
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:
University of Illinois' football team will include a black fist and social justice messages on helmets https://t.co/clIvg2QN3k— CBS News (@CBSNews) October 22, 2020
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