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Topics like this spin me into a vortex. I know myself very well, and I know that for the last, oh, 30 years or so I've had this constant thought that people are underestimating Illini football. It's not a thought I pay attention to very much - it's just my hopeful side screaming "maybe this is the year!" - so I've learned to basically ignore it. The heart doesn't get what it wants, fan-me has decided.
So when cautious, calculating me aligns with fan-me, I don't know what to do. I've told myself over and over and over that I cannot listen to my hopeful side, and I've mostly learned to do that, squelching every "you know, they're overlooking us this year..." thought which enters my brain. Yet these thoughts I'm having today... I think they're coming from calculating-me, and I'm not sure what to do with them.
It started when this tweet popped across my timeline. I don't follow Tom Loy, but Twitter thought I might be interested in a Brandon Marcello article he tweeted:
I read the article. And I'll be honest - in an article sold as "calling our shot", I was hoping for some bold predictions (and I was hoping to see Illinois pop up in the predictions). There's no bold predictions there - just some safe hedges. This is not to trash whoever Brandon Marcello is or whatever 247 site he writes for. 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). That's fine. Lord knows I've written a ton of safe articles.
I will say, though, it's now June, and I still don't understand why I haven't seen any "don't sleep on Illinois" articles. And that's not my yearly "don't sleep on Illinois" side saying that either. That's my numbers side. 6-win team last year, returns a ton, year 5 of a rebuild, top-5 nationally in experience, quarterback returns, 126 career starts from the four offensive linemen who return - take the names off the jerseys (including the coaches "jersey") and that's a team that wins 8 games even without much talent.
That doesn't mean this is a guarantee. Year five of Zook looked like this (senior QB, tons of experience on the line, lots of returning starters, 7-to-9 dot com) and year five of Zook finished 3-9. Bad coaching/chemistry can always take a roster primed to break out and sink it. I'm not really trying to make a prediction here. That comes after seeing what this thing actually looks like in August.
What I'm saying here is that I'm surprised a "20 bold predictions" article - this one or any of the others - doesn't see "Illinois might be really good" as one of the bold predictions. I keep looking for the national writer who will see the numbers and raise them to everyone's attention but I keep not seeing it. Maybe no one will?
Here's what I mean by "the numbers":
This is a stat that Bill Connelly tracks. He's now at ESPN, and he wrote about returning production in February.
I'll do a quick list of how he tracks it. He weights certain positions over others (based on tracking the data over the years). A quarterback returning is huge for a team - historically, much bigger than running backs returning. On defense, "returning starters in the secondary" is a much bigger indicator of future success than "returning starters on the defensive line". That's what the numbers have shown in the past.
Here are the percentages he uses on offense:
- Percentage of last season's QB passing yards returning: 32% of offensive returning production formula
- Percentage of last season's WR/TE receiving yards returning: 32%
- Percentage of career starts returning on the offensive line: 17.5%
- Percentage of last season's offensive line snaps returning: 12%
- Percentage of last season's RB rushing yards returning: 6.5%
And here's how he does it for defense:
- Percentage of defensive returning production formula derived from defensive line: 5%
- Percentage derived from linebackers: 37%
- Percentage derived from secondary: 37%
- Percentage derived from full defense: 21%
Add it all up and Illinois is 12th out of 130 FBS teams in "returning production". Makes sense. The places where we did lose players (defensive line, running back) are the places where, historically, roster churn doesn't hurt as much.
It's important to note that "returning production" doesn't exactly mean "experience". Illinois had a fair bit of "returning production" in 2018... the players were just sophomores who started as freshmen. Northwestern is #1 on Connelly's Returning Production list and Georgia Tech is #2 because both of them went way young last season (and will still be young this season). So you have to balance "returning production" with "experience". Are those returning sophomores with one year of starting experience or are they returning seniors with three years of starting experience?
The chart I use for this isn't out yet. And when I say "use for this" I mean "for that section of the big football preview every year". Which means I'm basically writing a section of the preview right now. Hey, look at that, the preview just got shorter.
The chart I'm referring to is Phil Steele's Experience Chart. Here's how he sets it up:
- Senior starters
- Seniors in the two-deep
- Percentage of lettermen returning
- Percentage of total yards returning
- Percentage of total tackles returning
- Career starts from your offensive line
And here's where Illinois has ranked on that chart the last four years:
2016 - 85th out of 130 teams
2017 - 124th
2018 - 100th
2019 - 31st
Once Phil Steele's magazine comes out, we'll see where Illinois stands for 2020. Back in 2017 I predicted we'd jump from 124th (in 2017) to 1st (in 2020). It hasn't exactly played out like that - I expected Bobby Roundtree, Larry Boyd, Bennett Williams, and Louis Dorsey to be four-year starters at this point - but I still think Illinois will be top-3. Here's a few of those numbers:
Career starts on the offensive line? 126 (and that doesn't count transfer Blake Jeresaty who started for three years at Wofford and was a first-team All American last season). 126 would have been 4th out of 130 on last year's list.
Senior starters? Right now my depth chart has 13 senior starters - that would have been tied for 6th last season.
Seniors in the two-deep? Right now my depth chart has 6 seniors on the second string for a total of 19 seniors in the two-deep (not counting kicker and punter). That would have been #2 behind Air Force last season.
I feel fairly confident that when his rankings come out, Illinois will be top-3 in experience. Perhaps even #1.
This is always something I look for when evaluating teams. A senior QB returning to the starting job is perhaps #1 on every "let's evaluate what every team has returning" list. It doesn't guarantee success (see: Juice Williams, a four-year starter, not meshing with Mike Schultz in 2009), but it's a big indicator of "this offense will improve".
Hey, I think that's all the words I'm going to add to this section. See, I'm improving! A bullet point can be as simple as "Brandon Peters is the senior QB who is returning and he is a senior which is important".
You know what I'm going to say. The Purdue thing is about to be regurgitated for the fifth time.
Purdue's 4-8 season last year? "Oh, but they were dealing with injuries." Well, there was another Big Ten team that had a nearly identical injury list. Care to guess? (Hint: colors are orange and blue.)
Why do you not know this? PR, mostly. Purdue put the narrative out there, and with their best player only playing four games (Rondale Moore), it was an easy sell. Lovie Smith simply refuses to talk about injuries, and won't put out an injury list that his opponents might be able to use, so we find out that Jake Hansen will miss the Michigan State game an hour before the Michigan State game. If this was Tim Beckman or Ron Zook, we would have heard "Hansen out for the season" in the week leading up to MSU. We didn't really know if Hansen was out for the season until the injury list came out an hour before the bowl game.
But here's your comparison of Purdue and Illinois. I'm using this tweet from before the Northwestern game and this Purdue article after their final game to come up with the lists. And I should note: that tweet there tells you everything you need to know about how Lovie treats injuries. He won't allow the information to get out until one hour before the final game. An hour before the final game was the first time we learned that guys like Sidney, Wyatt, and Knight had been "out for the season" all along.
Purdue offensive starters out by their final game: Sindelar (QB), Moore (WR), Beach (C), Sparks (WR), Fuller (RB)
Illinois offensive starters out for the Northwestern game: Peters (QB), Imatorbhebhe (WR), Smalling (WR), Kramer (C), Sidney (WR)
Purdue offensive backups out by their final game: Plummer, Worship, Washington, Pittman, Sheffield, Rice, Sipe.
Illinois offensive backups out for the Northwestern game: Epstein, Carter, Norwood, Sandy, Holmes.
The Purdue article linked above points out that at one point during the season, for their game against Penn State, Purdue was down to six healthy wide receivers on the entire roster. This is where I point out that during the Northwestern game, with Imatorbhebhe, Smalling, Sidney, Carter, Sandy, Campbell, and Holmes all injured, Illinois was down to Caleb Reams, Donny Navarro, Casey Washington, and Trenard Davis. Seven injured wide receivers, four available.
Purdue defensive starters out by their final game: Neal (DT), Bailey (LB), Jones (LB)
Illinois defensive starters out for the Northwestern game: Roundtree (DE), Hansen (LB), Adams (CB)
Basically identical except for Bailey missing 9 games and Hansen missing 4. Best defensive player (Neal/Roundtree) missed the entire season. Best linebacker (Bailey/Hansen) injured during the season and out for the year. Jones (LB) missed six games; Adams (CB) missed four games.
Purdue defensive backups out by their final game: Reviere, Grant, Marks
Illinois defensive backups out for the Northwestern game: Beason, Woods, DeGroot, Knight, Wyatt, Mondesir
Looking at those lists, Illinois had more injuries (numbers-wise) and more players out for the entire season but Purdue had earlier in-season losses. The big comps: QB1 Sindelar missed eight games while QB1 Peters missed 2.5. WR1 Moore missed 8 games and WR1 Smalling missed 6. Neal missed the entire season as did Roundtree. LB Bailey missed 9 games and LB Hansen missed 4. And off the bench, the Illini losses of Beason, Epstein, Sidney, and Woods were much more impactful than any of the Purdue losses (many being third-stringers and freshmen).
MY POINT: I'm sure you can find seven "Purdue looks to bounce back from injury-plagued 2019" articles right now. I doubt you'll find a single "Illinois looks to recover from injury-plagued 2019" article. Meaning, if I'm writing one of these "bold predictions" articles, shouldn't "Illinois went 6-6 with injuries and now they get everyone back" be on my radar?
(It won't be. Lovie refuses to talk about injuries, even when doing so might earn him some breathing room.)
Edit that's not really an edit but while proofreading I decided to add this: I googled "Purdue injury plagued 2019" and "Illinois injury plagued 2019". You should do the same. My results show one Illinois article (talking about how Mike Epstein's career has been injury-plagued) and at least 4 pages of results from dozens of news outlets talking about poor Purdue and their devastating injuries last season. The power of selling a narrative. I mean, Sindelar, Moore, and Bailey were all out there when Purdue blew a 24-7 halftime lead and lost to Nevada last season. But all anyone wants to talk about is poor, injury-plagued Purdue.
I don't know what's wrong with me. This was going to be a short article and here I am 4.5 hours later still researching and writing. This could have been a series of 800-word posts this week talking about this topic. Instead, it's still going, all in one post.
I'll try to make this one quick. In fact, I have this faint memory that I already broke down the schedule months ago. Let me see if I can go find it.
OK, yes, it was my "Silver Platter" post back in January talking about how this season is on a silver platter for Lovie. Here was the tweet I referenced in that article:
2020 Big Ten SOS Rankings:— Matt Smith (@MattSmithCFB) January 28, 2020
1. Michigan State
8. Ohio State
12. Penn State
Easiest schedule in the Big Ten. Sweet. I then took that overall list and used the 2019 SP+ to look at the strength of the opponents on the 2020 schedule. I'll just cut and paste that entire section from January:
That's not really all that surprising. It depends on who you get as your crossover games and who you schedule for your non-conference matchups. Let's just compare Illinois and Purdue. Purdue plays Rutgers-Indiana-Michigan as their crossovers and Illinois players Rutgers-Indiana-Ohio State, so they're similar there. The main reason Purdue is so high on the list and Illinois is so low - non-conference schedules:
Air Force (25)
at Boston College (92)
Illinois State (FCS)
Bowling Green (128)
Three home games for Illinois (Purdue has to go on the road to BC), and the FCS opponent might be the toughest out for Illinois (except ISU graduates their all-everything NFL tailback). AND, the conference schedule starts like this for Illinois (including 2019 record and SP+):
at Rutgers (2-10, #117)
at Nebraska (5-7, #55)
Purdue (4-8, #64)
The first Illini opponent who was in a bowl game this last season? Minnesota on October 24th. Compare that to, say, Iowa. Before October 24th, Iowa will have played Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State.
The point: we have a very easy schedule. Honestly, the only way to make it easier would be to replace Ohio State with a different crossover game. If that crossover game was Maryland, meaning we'd like have the #5, #6, and #7 teams in the Big Ten East as our crossover games, we could declare it the easiest schedule of the next 50 years. Two of the worst FBS teams (UConn is bad, is leaving the AAC, and currently has 24 players in the transfer portal), a FCS opponent, and then a crossover schedule which avoids Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State. With Penn State becoming our "protected" crossover game in 2022 (replacing Rutgers), I think we can easily say that it's between 2020 and 2021 (UTSA, Charlotte, and Virginia with crossover games against Maryland, Rutgers, and Penn State) for easiest Illini schedule of my lifetime. 2022 crossovers are Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State, so yeah - it's about to change.
That was a long paragraph. Let me make it simple. We'll always have to play every team in the Big Ten West. So if we were to design the easiest possible schedule, it would be an FCS opponent (you can only play one and can only do it every other year), plus two of the worst FBS teams you can find - all at home - and then Rutgers, Maryland, and Indiana in the East. We play an FCS opponent, two of the worst FBS teams you can find, Rutgers, Indiana, and Ohio State. One opponent away from the easiest schedule we could possibly design for ourselves.
- Redbox Bowl last year (six wins, four of them Big Ten games).
- 12th in returning production.
- Likely top-5 in experience, possibly #1.
- Senior QB.
- Players like Marquez Beason, Jake Hansen, Tony Adams, Mike Epstein, Ricky Smalling, and Trevon Sidney missed much of last season (or all of it) and none were healthy for Iowa-Northwestern-Cal. All return.
- The only way to possibly design an easier schedule would be to replace Ohio State with Maryland. One game away from the easiest possible schedule you could play in the Big Ten West and the easiest non-conference schedule in the nation.
We're Illinois, and I know better than to scream "it's going to happen!!!". Someone could debate me on this topic at Foellinger Auditorium and simply respond with "because Illinois" to every one of my points and they'd win the debate. I get why those of us who have experienced letdown after letdown would shy away from predicting a big 2020.
But why wouldn't at least one national writer pick up on the list above? What am I missing?
(I know, I know. We're Illinois football and we can't be trusted.)