Shoulda Coulda Woulda
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I thought of a good way to contextualize all of this. When I have that thought, it's almost always "I'll take what I wrote then and then talk about what it looks like now", but this time I realized that "what I wrote then" was in a newsletter. And that only went to Orange Tier or Seventeen Club members.
But hey, all I have to do is cut-and-paste part of that into this post and then Blue Tier people get to play as well. Even two-free-reads people. So let's go back to that article (from November 2nd) and then let's talk about it with the updated numbers from December 7th.
The premise of the November 2nd Newsletter: this is not what it's supposed to look like. If we're 12th in returning production after a bowl season, we should be leaping like everyone else. We're not leaping.
Here's what I wrote in that newsletter:
Let's look at other schools who have everything back this year. Illinois is 12th in returning production - that's from Bill Connelly's stat which looks at not just the number of players returning, but the statistics for those players. And it's weighted - historically, teams bringing back the majority of their passing offense make a big leap; teams bringing back the majority of their rushing offense don't make much of a leap (it's easier to replace tailbacks). On defense, teams losing a lot in the back seven (hi Minnesota) have a much harder time than teams losing a lot up front. So his projections weigh all of those things and say "here's the teams that should look much better this year".
The top 12:
Let's look at five of those programs. We'll toss out the Group Of 5 schools and just focus on the Power Five. There are seven of those, but Georgia Tech is in year two of a new coach, so it's hard to really look at much when they're just "played a bunch of freshmen in 2019 so everyone is back in 2020", and USC hasn't played yet, so we'll focus on the other five: Northwestern, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, Indiana, and Illinois. It's very early for those Big Ten programs, but we do have some data.
I'll use the SP+ stats here, but please note, they won't have moved too much for the Big Ten schools. The trends will show, but with only two games of data, they're still heavily weighted on last year's data. Minnesota's defense was #26 last year and has already dropped to #69 this year (even with the numbers heavily weighted to include last year's stats), so they're on a trajectory to end up #115 or something once it's just this year's data. Look for the trends, not the actual rankings. And remember, it's basically "what you were expected to do against the strength of your opponent vs. what you did", so these numbers have worked out the "but we played Wisconsin and Northwestern played Maryland" already.
I then laid out all of the numbers for those five teams. No need to copy-and-paste those here because we have updated numbers now. Five weeks of football have been played since then, and teams like USC have started their seasons now, so let's just go with the updated numbers. Here's the five teams referenced above plus USC (since they have actual data now).
5-1 so far, ranked #15
SP+ offense - #123 last year, up to #104 this year
SP+ defense - #27 last year, up to #3 this year
SP+ overall - #91 last year, up to #31 this year
4-6 so far
SP+ offense - #56 last year, up to #18 this year
SP+ defense - #39 last year, down to #52 this year
SP+ overall - #38 last year, up to #25 this year
6-3 so far
SP+ offense - #26 last year, down to #62 this year
SP+ defense - #58 last year, up to #22 this year
SP+ overall - #36 last year, up to #29 this year
6-1 so far, ranked #8
SP+ offense - #22 last year, down to #25 this year
SP+ defense - #43 last year, up to #33 this year
SP+ overall - #23 last year, #23 this year
3-0 so far, ranked #16
SP+ offense - #9 last year, down to #10 this year
SP+ defense - #60 last year, up to #35 this year
SP+ overall - #22 last year, up to #15 this year
2-4 so far
SP+ offense - #92 last year, up to #84 this year
SP+ defense - #54 last year, down to #77 this year
SP+ overall - #61 last year, down to #85 this year
I want to look at the overview of these numbers, not the numbers specifically. Because that's the crux of all of this.
Let's say that movement of 0-20 spots is "better" and 20+ spots is "much better". And let's do the same with defense - drop 20 spots and you were "worse", drop 20+ spots and you were "much worse". Let's apply that to a few teams.
Northwestern's offense is better (one spot from "much better"). Their defense is much better, and their overall SP+ is much, much better (jumping 60 spots).
Indiana's offense is worse (dropped 3 spots), but their defense is better and their SP+ stayed the same.
Maybe I should note it like this instead of going through every team: I looked at 18 categories there (three categories for six teams, all six being found in the top 12 of the Returning Production rankings). Of those 18 categories, 11 were "up" and 1 stayed the same. Here were the six in the "down" category:
- Virginia Tech defense dropped 13 spots (ask a Va Tech fan how they feel about Justin Hamilton's performance replacing Bud Foster this year).
- Oklahoma State's offense dropped 36 spots (they've had issues replacing 3 OL starters and Chuba Hubbard's numbers have dropped from 6.4 ypc to 4.7 ypc).
- Indiana's offense dropped 3 spots (statistically insignificant).
- USC's offense dropped 1 spot (statistically insignificant, especially with only 3 games played).
- Illinois' defense has dropped 23 spots
- Illinois' overall ranking has dropped 24 spots
Again, please look at this from an overview perspective. These are the "pretty much brought everyone back" teams in college football. Almost across the board, things have improved for each and every team. Do a thing, bring most of that production back, do the thing better the next year.
The four (out of 18) categories that took a hit despite the returning production: Virginia Tech defense (new coordinator in his first year), Oklahoma State offense (just couldn't replace the three lost OL starters and keep it going), Illinois defense, and Illinois overall ranking. I can be fair and say that the specific losses on the Illinois defensive line (like the Oklahoma State offensive line) were the reason for the defensive drop. But still, with all of the other returning production, Oklahoma State has climbed in the overall numbers. And Virginia Tech has climbed in the overall numbers. And Illinois... dropped 24 spots.
So let's bring the G5 teams (and Georgia Tech) back into this and look at everyone's rankings. Here's the top 12 teams in returning production and their SP+ ranking (ranked here by total returning production):
- Northwestern - up from 91 to 31
- Georgia Tech - up from 111 to 72
- Houston - up from 82 to 56
- ECU - up from 116 to 96
- USC - up from 22 to 15
- Virginia Tech - up from 38 to 25
- Old Dominion - canceled football this fall
- UAB - up from 67 to 45
- Oklahoma State - up from 36 to 29
- Rice - up from 121 to 95
- Indiana - stayed the same - 23 to 23.
- Illinois - down from 61 to 85
"But Robert, why are you so confident that bringing players back will automatically mean more wins?"
Because, like, every team that brings this much production back gets better. And if we went 4-5 in the Big Ten last year we should be significantly better this year.
"But Robert, when will you learn that when crappy players return, they're still crappy players".
OK, sure, maybe, but Rice's crappy players got better and UAB's crappy players got better and East Carolina's crappy players got better - everyone's players got better besides Illinois.
"But Robert, why would you tweet something like this?"
Illinois 2020 Predictions:— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) October 19, 2020
Phil Steele: 7th in the Big Ten West
Pick Six Previews: 7th
College Football News: 7th
247 Sports: 7th
The Sporting News: 7th
Cleveland Plain Dealer survey of 34 Big Ten beat writers: 7th
I get it. "Illinois". But every single prediction?
Because of this. These statistics. This is why I would do that. When you bring back this much production at these specific positions, 95% of teams get better.
After finishing 4th in the Big Ten West in 2019, keeping the same offensive and defensive scheme, and ranking 12th in returning production out of 130 college football teams, there's a very low chance that you're looking at a team that will finish last in the conference the next year. Maybe a 3% chance? I'd be willing to bet that 97% of all teams in that position in college football history (4th place one year + top-12 in returning production and no coaching change) stayed out of the basement the next year. And here we are, currently tied with Nebraska and Purdue for last place in the Big Ten West.
And no, you can't scream "see, it was just the turnovers" either. That was the popular offseason take (even on this site where I cited as part of the reason for my 4-5 prediction). "The turnovers will dry up and the wins will go away." The turnovers haven't dried up - they've gotten wetter. Turnover margin (per game) last year: 15th nationally. This year? 11th. 11th nationally in turnovers and 2-4 in this Big Ten West while at 78% on the returning production chart is hard to put into words.
Basically, I'm saying this: travel back in time to 2016. Tap me on the shoulder and say "hey Robert - this 'five full years no questions asked' thing you're talking about? Stick with it. Because going into the 2020 season, Illinois will be A) coming off a 4-5 Big Ten season with B) the 12th-most returning production in the country and C) will be 11th-nationally in turnover margin, I'm probably saving money for four years so that I can bet every dime I have on the Illinois over. You'd have five full years of laughs at me, no questions asked.
I mean, just look at the Big Ten East. Indiana finished 4th in the East last year (they were 5-4 and finished 4th, we were 4-5 and finished 4th), they brought back the 11th-most returning production, and they're currently ranked 8th. We've brought back the 12th-most returning production and we're... not.. ranked 8th.
Now, they've had a ton of luck on their side (they beat Penn State despite being outgained by 277 yards, beat Wisconsin despite being outgained by 125 yards, and beat Michigan despite being outgained by 103 yards. I'd venture to guess that they're one of the few top-10 teams in the history of the AP Poll to be 1) Ranked in the top 10 after seven games and 2) actually somehow negative in total yards for the season (they've allowed more yards than they've gained on the season).
OK, now I'm on a little Indiana fun fact hunt. Here's a simple yards gained/yards given up differential for the top 10 teams in the country.
1. Alabama +1,722
2. Notre Dame +1,599
3. Ohio State +843 (only five games)
4. Clemson +1,932
5. Texas A&M +802
6. Florida +1,097
7. Cincinnati +1,320
8. Indiana -25
9. Miami +716
10. Iowa State +1,036
Back to the actual article I'm writing. The whole point in referencing Indiana is to compare the 4th-place team in the Big Ten East in 2019, 11th nationally in returning production going into 2020, to the 4th place team in the Big Ten West in 2019, 12th nationally in returning production. They went up (everyone in the top 10 went up), we went down.
And that's really the whole story when it comes to the five years of the Lovie Smith era. I said "five full years, no questions asked" after I saw the condition of the program in March of 2016. I stuck by that while nearly everyone I know bailed. I answered every "it's plain as day - Lovie can't coach" question with references to other coaches who had to build from bottom-10 programs and lost over and over in the first three years. 95% of you were at "we know already", and I was in the 5% at "we don't know yet" (joined mostly by people who would predict that 1997 Illinois could beat 2001 Miami).
In 2019, we saw a 4-game Big Ten winning streak, a bowl game, and a single AP poll vote. A mini corner had been turned. And we had everyone coming back. I punch those numbers into my brain and beep boop beep beep beep boop teams that are top-10 in returning production jump an average of 22 spots so Illinois should be at least be the 39th-best football team in college football this fall. Really, with this many players having 3 years of starting experience, I could easily see how it could be a top-25 team. Would it surprise me to see something like what Northwestern is currently doing? No it would not.
12. Illinois - down from 61 to 85