Editor's Note: This post is about four months in development. I had the idea for the post in January, and that's when I made the screencaps you'll see below. But it was a fairly large undertaking, so I didn't write it until late February/early March after I had left my job. The plan was to build up several posts for "debut week" when we launched the new and improved subscription format. There would be a ton of basketball content with the BTT and the NCAAT, so I wanted to have a football post to pair with all of that. Then COVID hit.
And, honestly, I forgot about this post. It stayed in the drafts folder the last five weeks. In my mind, I thought I published it. I went to reference it this weekend for something else I'm writing and couldn't find it on the site. So I checked the drafts folder and there it was. It's a little outdated now, given that we might not even have a 2020 football season, but I'm just going to publish what I wrote pre-COVID. Screencaps made in January, written in February and March, published in April.
It's all that really matters here: trajectory. Where do we go from here? Was the 2019 season a blip or part of a spike? Are we going to 2007 or will we 2009?
For starters, I'll briefly walk back through how I've approached the Lovie era. If you're a regular reader, you probably know most of this, but I need to start there.
When Cubit was extended, meaning he'd coach one more year, likely get fired, and the new coach would be handed two lame-duck recruiting classes, I uttered the "the next coach will need to get five years, no questions asked" on a radio spot which I've both stood by and come to regret. After starting 22 different true freshmen in 2017, I was all "THIS is why he's going to need five full years". After losing 63-0 to Iowa in late 2018, I was all "it's really hard to cling to 'five full years' when game #35 is a 63-0 loss at home".
But mostly, I've stuck to it. "Stuck to it" meaning "for Lovie to get a fair shake here". Because of this list...
- No first recruiting class because he was hired in March.
- Inheriting the juco cliff where Beckman had recruited 16 jucos and Lovie would either need to replace them with jucos or start over with true freshmen.
- The lack of any known NFL talent on the inherited roster.
- The general condition of the program in March of 2016.
...I said that it would be five years before we knew what we had. Now, it's not what I expected. On a giddy podcast the day Lovie was hired I believe I said "6-6 this year, then 3-9 in 2017, then 6-6 again in 2018, then the program really takes off in 2019". I calmed down and later amended it to "October 12, 2019" as the moment the program would establish itself on the national scene again, but overall, what I expected was not what we've received. I did not expect 15-34 in four years with the only bowl coming in 2019.
I'm starting there because it lays a foundation for what we're going to discuss. I knew it would be rough, and I knew that 2017 would be a cliff, and I knew that this rebuild would be a lot more like Duke and Indiana than, say, what PJ Fleck inherited at Minnesota (a team that had been to five straight bowls under Kill/Claeys). Perhaps a better way to put that: it would be more like the program that Kill/Claeys inherited than the one they handed to PJ Fleck.
And perhaps that should be our jumping-off point here. What I wanted to investigate when I made all of these screencaps: what does the typical trajectory look like when someone inherits a program like 2016 Illinois? How quickly should it take off? And when you compare it to other programs who have gotten off the ground quite quickly under their new coaches, uh, how bad does it make us look?
For this, I'm using the SP+ visualizations from CollegeFootballData.com. They have taken Bill Connelly's SP+ data and allow you to apply it to several charts. Please note that the SP+ data "officially" goes back to 2005 when Connelly first put together the metric. The data 2004 and before is an attempt (by Connelly himself) to recreate it using whatever data is available. Meaning, his 2009 SP+ is based on his current formula and looks at your offensive efficiency and whatnot. Pre-2005, it's an attempt to get to a number like that without the specific metrics being available. According to Connelly, it gets close to his current stuff, but it's not exact like the post-2005 numbers.
The charts are simple. Using the SP+ number (which, by the way, has 1994 as our best statistical season, and that makes sense given how close that team was to winning every game), it graphs each season. You can see when programs started to climb and when they started to fall. It's not an exact science - was 1994 really better than 2001? - but it helps us see the trends.
Let's start with Minnesota. The red line below is Minnesota, the orange line is Illinois. Each circle represents one season, so if you want to see Lovie's numbers, look at the last four circles on the orange line. If you want to track which years we're discussing, just look at the line for 2010 and then count forwards or backwards.
I start with this one because if Lovie does not produce a great team in 2020, this will be the one single image to look at. It tells the whole story.
Let's start by talking about coaching changes here. Start with the Minnesota line when it switches from Claeys (who took over for Kill when Kill had to retire due to the seizures but kept the coaching staff the same - it's the spike before last year's spike). The next year is a big drop for Fleck. Many fans, at the start of a coaching change, will scream "look at how much worse this coach is!", but so much of that is found in the coaching change. New system, players leave, freshmen start - many first years are disasters. Matt Rhule is considered a coaching god now, but his first year at Baylor he took the interim coach's 6-6 team and went 1-11. He also then began a meteoric rise. More on that in a moment.
Back to Minnesota. Kill started in 2011 (one year after they bottomed-out) and began a slow and steady climb. Go follow that purple line from 2011 forward - better every year. It's the same thing he did everywhere else he went. Fleck, after dropping off his first year (understandable) has been somewhat meteoric. We'll see what happens to that next season.
Lovie can be spotted on all these charts as three years that went nowhere and a fourth year that possibly began a climb. I say "possibly" because it could go right back down and then we know his peak. That's the whole point we're going to get to here - was this season the beginning of a rise? Or was it as good as things will get? Fleck went drop, then much better, then holy crap. I'm willing to forgive (and understand) Lovie's three years of bad if it's followed by much better and then holy crap.
But not all coaches immediately take over and things get bad. Let's make that point before moving on. Here's Illinois compared to UCLA so you can see an example of "walk into a great situation but then build nothing".
Look at the two dots just past the 2010 line where UCLA begins a rise and Illinois begins a fall - that's when Illinois and UCLA met in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with two interim coaches in 2011. Tim Beckman took over Illinois and things were immediately rough. Jim Mora Jr. took over UCLA and things skyrocketed.
And that made sense to me. As I wrote at the KFHB that year, UCLA's roster looked like an NFL team on the sideline. Big, strong, fast, and really bad at football. Mora took that the next year and immediately won. But once he had a full team of his recruits, things began to decline rapidly. Chip Kelly took over and it went down in 2018 and then down some more in 2019. Given the trajectory of Mora the years before that, I think that decline is somewhat understandable.
Let's look at what one of these lines should look like. Best case scenario. I've chosen Matt Campbell at Iowa State here as the example, mostly since he and Lovie were hired the same year. Please note that I'm not saying "had we hired Matt Campbell, the trajectory would have looked like that". Any coach taking over Illinois after Not Ideal with the roster cliff we were facing in 2017 was going to dip. But, once it's rolling, this is what it should look like:
Campbell is the last four dots on the red line (just like Lovie is the last four dots on the orange line). Even though they were 3-9 his first season, statistically, solid season. Then up, then up some more, then up even more.
Another one similar to this is Virginia. Bronco Mendenhall got the job the same year as Lovie. Yes, he didn't have to deal with Not Ideal and such, but here's how he did. Again, last four circles:
This is probably a good place to point to where Lovie should be after 2020. Mendenhall and Lovie took over the same year (and saw a drop). Mendenhall then began a climb while Lovie stagnated (again, roster cliff, young team, not ideal - there are #reasons). Mendenhall then leveled-off year three to year four (could be any number of roster reasons - you just can't have a big drop when you're building).
Now, Lovie needs to think about passing Bronco this fall. When you play the kids and lose (and we did), there needs to be a slingshot on the other end. This will be a good one to look at after the season. The orange line needs to skyrocket past UVA.
This is probably a good time to talk Zook. Look back at Ron Turner's line at the other end of the chart. Great in 1999, drops back in 2000, jumps right back up in 2001. And then, a cliff. The biggest bottoming out you can imagine. By 2003, we're one of the worst teams in the country. He went nowhere with that in 2004 and was fired.
Zook picks it up and there's an upswing. A little better in 2005 (but still really bad), better in 2006, massive slingshot in 2007. But it was a flash in the pan. Down in 2008, market crash in 2009. Lots of talent so a surge back in 2010 and 2011, but the 2012 bottoming out loomed on the horizon. Recruiting had fallen off after 2009, and the trajectory was headed down.
That's the fear of Syracuse fans right now. Dino Babers was a hero (and was given a big extension), but was it just a one-year peak? (You should know the Illini line by now, so the other orange line is Syracuse.)
They were hired the same time, so just look at the last four circles. Babers is a little better than the team he inherited, then better, then a lot better and in a solid bowl. But this year, Lovie passed him. If that continues, perhaps Babers built one third-year team (like Zook) and Lovie flies past him at this point.
Or, perhaps Syracuse bounces back next year, Lovie falls off, and that was that.
Which reminds me of what I wrote about Jeff Brohm in the 2017 IlliniBoard football preview. This post is already headed for 3,000 words, so I'll just cut and paste that section here. This was written in August of 2017, just before Lovie's second season and Brohm's first.
This fall might be rough. There's a chance we're the worst team in the Big Ten this year, even worse than first-year-coach Purdue.
Let's pause there, because some of you just record-scratched on "worse than first-year-coach Purdue." Wouldn't "2017 Purdue >>> 2017 Illinois" mean that Jeff Brohm is a "better" coach than Lovie Smith?
Not necessarily. I shall attempt to explain.
Darrell Hazell was mostly a disaster at Purdue. More of a disaster than Tim Beckman was at Illinois (wins-wise; the Beckman investigation and firing left a bigger crater, which we will discuss in a moment). Beckman clawed his way to 6-6 in his third season; Hazell went 2-10 in year three. Purdue's last four seasons: 1-11, 3-9, 2-10, 3-9.
So how might Purdue be better? Well, whatever Hazell was building (and it wasn't much) was set to crest in 2017 and 2018. Brohm has a pretty great QB for his system (David Blough, now a junior), two senior receivers, two junior tailbacks with experience, an offensive line that has four experienced juniors -- this was Hazell's attempt at an Indiana rebuild. Kevin Wilson went 4-8 in his fourth year at Indiana (with no bowls in the first four years) but kept his job, and we saw the program he was building with two bowl appearances in 2015 and 2016. So Hazell's attempt to resurrect Purdue was slated to crest this year and next year.
Beckman's attempt to rebuild Illinois was set to crest in 2015 and 2016. He made a bowl in 2014 and then was going to lean on his experienced defense (and 4-star transfer QB) to theoretically win a lot of games in 2015 and 2016. But even back then, 2017 looked like a rebuilding year. I wrote about that many times on the site, even back when Cubit was handed the interim reins in August 2015 -- 2015 has a solid enough defense to win some games, and the 2016 roster looks pretty good, but 2017 is a steep cliff.
As it turned out, what Beckman was building wasn't much of a structure. 2015 probably had the talent to bowl, but the mess of the investigation and program turmoil left them short at 5-7. I had high hopes of one year of decent before the Lovie rebuild began in earnest, but last season fell apart quickly. We could get into the reasons for that (eight opponents who went to bowl games, seven opponents who won at least eight games, two injured QBs dropped the team down to their third-string, freshman QB, etc., etc.), but really, in the end, I saw it more as the final chapter of Beckman/Cubit than the first chapter of Lovie. What was being built wasn't much.
That's similar to Purdue (what was being built wasn't much), but Jeff Brohm will get two Cubit-like seasons to find out. I could see Purdue being decent (not bowl-decent, but maybe 4-8/5-7 decent) for two seasons before Brohm has to start his full-on rebuild. For Lovie, the full-on rebuild begins right now.
Brohm did better that 4-8/5-7 decent. He went 6-6 followed by 6-6. But then that third-year rebuild did catch up to him, and he went 4-8 with a very young team. Let's just look at the chart:
Purdue certainly did crest "this year and next year" before falling back down a bit. Lovie stayed in the basement for three years before surging this season and just eclipsing Purdue this season. So for things to track this season, well, this one is nearly perfect. Brohm had some advantages roster-wise (and didn't have Not Ideal), but those are mostly gone now. Lovie enters his fifth year and Brohm enters his fourth year both with mostly their own players and, SP+-wise, nearly the same 2020 launch point. Which coach pushes his team higher in 2020?
Hopefully, Lovie's line looks like Matt Rhule's line. Here's what Baylor did (and the years prior, which are quite similar).
This one is a good example of why I screencapped all of them to cover 20 seasons. Baylor was absolute trash. Think of our 2003, 2004, and 2005 seasons and how hopeless they were. Then see that every season for Baylor from 1999 to 2003 was worse than any of those Illini seasons. Complete trash. Somehow, a lower building point than Illinois.
I hate even using this example, because it's so gross the way Art Briles rebuilt it, but 2008 was immediately better, 2009 was a big dip, 2010 was back up (and in a bowl, against Illinois), and then a massive climb to heights we haven't reached. Baylor in 2013 through 2015 was a legitimate top-15 program (and also a disgusting cover-up machine).
Briles is fired and in 2016 you can see a dip under their interim coach (but still a bowl). Then Rhule takes over and they dip even further (first year, scandal fallout, starting over). I made a lot of comments about how 2017 Illinois was the youngest college football team I could find in the 2010's... and 2017 Baylor might be second on the list for the decade. Rhule took that and put it in a slingshot. Lovie began to build this season, so... slingshot or flicked rock falling back to earth?
I also screencapped a few what-not-to-do examples. I've mentioned many times how Chris Ash didn't try to "build" at Rutgers. His first season he added something like 12 grad transfers and tried to be better immediately. Then he turned to jucos and more transfers. But no foundation was laid, and, well....
One blip, but for the most part, nothing built. I would have probably said "five full years, no questions asked" when Ash was hired, but when he tried to win immediately instead of playing freshmen, I would have had some serious questions and would likely have voted to fire after four seasons. I don't mind supplementing with transfers later (once you have a foundation of players who know your system), but transfers right away instead of those freshmen? I don't like it.
Maryland is another build that went nowhere. Here's Maryland vs. Illinois:
Now there's two similar programs. Maryland under Ralph Friedgen (2000 to 2010) was much higher than Illinois under Turner, but this last decade, basically the same team. DJ Durkin built something a little higher than Lovie his first few seasons, but they fell off hard under Mike Locksley this season (first year) while Lovie saw a surge. So now... Illinois must stay ahead. Slingshot, as they say.
I saved the best for last. And by "best" I mean "Kool Aid". In all of these screencaps, is there an example of a team that did what Lovie did (three years of a flatline and then surge into greatness)? Well, yes, and it's very Kool-Aid-y. It's Wisconsin when Alvarez took over. Look at the red line on the other end of the chart (and it's similarity to the orange line to the right).
It's not exactly the same - you have to include the year before Alvarez arrived - but if you're one of those "Lovie's Year One was Year Zero because he took over mid-year" people, here's your numbers. Nothing, nothing, nothing, better, slingshot.
And that methodology makes sense. Alvarez played a ton of freshmen his first year - Lovie played a ton of freshmen his second season (he couldn't his first year because he didn't get a recruiting class). Alvarez then went nowhere in 1991 - Lovie went nowhere in 2018. Alvarez then took a step forward in 1992; Lovie got to 6-6 and made a bowl. Alvarez then took all of those freshmen he played in 1990 and went to the Rose Bowl in 1993 when they were seniors. Lovie will take all of those freshmen he played in 2017 and will ___ in 2020 when they're seniors.
That's really the whole thing, right? The orange line took an upswing this year, but it only looks dramatic because of the three awful teams the previous three seasons. In order for it to really look dramatic, it needs to look like Wisconsin's line from 1992 to 1993.
If it does? Well, then we'll deal with what Alvarez dealt with there (a dropback, and then a secondary rebuild) but hopefully never see the all those circles well below the line. There are a lot of challenges after that initial rebuild, especially when all those seniors graduate.
If it doesn't? Well then this whole thing wasn't going anywhere. Lovie will be out of a job, and we'll enter rebuild attempt number five.
For me, that's a relief. No more debates. No more stances. It's all very simple: what this coaching staff can produce with all this experience and all these seniors in 2020 will tell us what they're capable of building. And whether they should get a chance to try to maintain it.