2020 Out Of Focus

Jul 09, 2020

I'm a bit torn with this news (the news that Big Ten non-conference schedules are canceled). On one hand, if this gets us some form of college football this fall, so be it. Whatever it takes. On the other hand, the season I've been pointing to for years is basically gone.

I should explain that. On September 14, 2017 I wrote a post I called 2020 Vision. The 2020 schedule had been released, and I could hardly contain my excitement. We had just manhandled Western Kentucky with a dozen true freshmen in the starting lineup (at the time we thought it was the 11-win Western Kentucky from the season before, not the 6-win Western Kentucky they would become that season followed by the 3-win Western Kentucky in 2018). So as I looked forward, those freshmen would all be seniors, we'd start the 2020 season with three non-conference nobodies followed by Rutgers, Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota, and it made me all "it's totally happening".

As you might know, before that, I had been waiting for years for the schedule to align. Part of my 19 Point Plan after the 2009 season pointed to our ridiculous non-conference scheduling, and then we fixed that, and then I got all excited when Jim Delany talked about "weighted" crossover opponents (Wisconsin would play Ohio State and Michigan; Illinois would play Rutgers and Maryland). But that went away when they switched to East/West and then moved to nine conference games. So for an entire decade I was waiting for that perfect schedule where the Big Ten went easy on us and we went easy on ourselves. In 2020, we finally had it, and now the non-conference part is gone.

Which, fine, whatever. That was just going to help us maybe get that 8 or 9-win season. That can still scale, and we've only won five conference games three times in the last 30 years

~record scratch~

Yes, we've only won five or more Big Ten games three times in the last 30 college football seasons - 1993 (when we didn't even go to a bowl), 2001, and 2007.

~places needle back on record~

so we'll be able to scale it and set some goals based on a conference-only schedule. We finished solo fourth in the Big Ten West last year so... just improve on that.

My point: I predicted 3-5-7-9 (wins in 2017 through 2020), and we went 2-4-6, and now there's no way to get to 8 or 9 (unless we... hahahahahahaha). That's fine. Whatever.

Now, with non-conference games officially cancelled, two questions.

If we go to 10 conference games, who is the 10th opponent?

This is assuming the plan is to take the current schedules and add one more other-division opponent. It's possible they blow up all of the schedules and start over, and maybe that even includes a few home-and-home series with your geographically-close neighbors (maybe we have home-and-homes with Northwestern and Purdue or something?), but for now let's just assume it's the nine current Big Ten opponents plus one more from the East. (And let's also assume that we actually have a season, which isn't guaranteed at all with that massive "IF" in the announcement linked above.)

The current schedule is as follows:

Big Ten West opponents (Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern)
at Rutgers
at Indiana
Ohio State

So we'd be due a home game. That's the way they set it up with the divisions: in odd-numbered years, the Big Ten West teams have five home games and four road games. In even-numbered years, the Big Ten East gets the five home games. So it could be as simple as the seven Big Ten West teams adding a home game (from one of the four East teams not currently on the schedule). Those four not on our current schedule:

Penn State
Michigan State

Heart says "gimme Maryland". Head says "it's the Big Ten - they're going to give us Penn State or Michigan".

Actually, there's a chance Michigan State is worse than Maryland this season. Here's the Vegas over/under for win totals (obviously before the non-conference games were canceled):

Penn State 9.5
Michigan 9
(Illinois 5)
Michigan State 4.5
Maryland 3.5

We don't know if there's going to be a college football playoff this season (we don't even know if there's going to be a season), but it seems to me that with games like Ohio State-Oregon canceled (plus Penn State-Virginia Tech), the Ohio States and Penn States will be looking for some strength-of-schedule boosters so they can get into the playoff. Penn State plays Northwestern, Nebraska, and Iowa, so I'm sure they'd be eyeing a strength-of-schedule booster like Wisconsin instead of playing Illinois or Purdue. So looking over all of the schedules, I'll make a guess on who plays who:

Ohio State (already playing Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois): Wisconsin
Penn State (already playing Iowa, Nebraska, and Northwestern): Minnesota
Michigan (already playing Wisconsin, Purdue, and Minnesota): Iowa
Indiana (already playing Wisconsin, Illinois, and Purdue): Nebraska
Michigan State (already playing Northwestern, Iowa, and Minnesota): Purdue
Rutgers (already playing Illinois, Purdue, and Nebraska): Northwestern
Maryland (already playing Minnesota, Northwestern, and Wisconsin): Illinois

Maybe Illinois plays MSU and Maryland plays Purdue. But I could see them aligning the 10th game that way to max out the SOS for the Ohio States and Michigans.

OK, so if that's our schedule (West teams plus Ohio State, Indiana, Rutgers, and Maryland), then, um...

This is an extend-or-fire season for Lovie - what's the bar now?

This non-con cancellation might actually bring a lot of clarity here. I shall attempt to explain.

I do believe this is an extend-or-fire season for Lovie. He has a contract through 2023. It's really tough for a coach to go into a season like next season (2021) with only a three year deal. When you're recruiting, you're not able to tell those parents that you'll be coaching their son for four years. Once your contract dips under four years, you're either getting an extension or you're probably getting fired.

With any extend-or-fire season, there's always a tricky middle ground. Ron Zook landed there in his extend-or-fire 2011 season. He won six games. Back to back bowls! That should earn a contract extension at Illinois, right? Well, he only won two Big Ten games and got to a bowl based on four non-conference wins, so did he really earn an extension? Like, maybe he could keep his job with back-to-back bowls and come back for one more year, but this was an extend-or-fire year. Does 6-6 (2-6) finishing on a six game losing streak really earn you an extension?

(It did not.)

That was the issue with this 2020 schedule for Lovie. It was by far our easiest schedule in 20+ years, and when you get that in an extend-or-fire season, it makes the decision so difficult. I told someone this summer that I could see a scenario where Lovie "retired" at 7-5 (4-5) and that person told me I was crazy. But this is year five of a long-rope rebuild that has started 15-34, and there are 25 seniors who will graduate after this season, so this is the year to prove what kind of program you can build. Would 7 wins be enough if next year is 4-8? Especially if four of those seven wins are Illinois State, UConn, Bowling Green, and Rutgers? Does that earn a contract extension?

That's why I think a 10-game conference schedule might help sort that out. Let's face it: the 2012 team probably would have beaten these Illinois State, UConn, and Bowling Green teams. Yes, I want easy non-conference schedules to boost our win totals and jumpstart our program, but in a extend-or-fire season, all that does is muddy the waters. Now, it's a lot clearer. Win at least five (what would have been an 8-win season had the non-conference games been played) to prove this thing is going somewhere. 4-6? Especially 4-6 in the Big Ten after conference records of 2-7, 0-9, 2-7, and 4-5? That's probably not good enough to earn a big contract extension. Show you're a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten program now by winning half your conference games.

Hmmm... maybe 2020 is coming into focus after all.


89illini on July 09 @ 06:30 PM CDT

Great analysis as usual, Robert. However, football isn’t going to happen.

Efremwinters84 on July 09 @ 09:44 PM CDT

Excellent insights, Robert. Surprisingly, I got the sense that you're anticipating/expecting that Lovie will not make the grade --- and that he WILL indeed be fired if the season is played. I think that's where my head is. We've compiled a very disappointing W/L record so far in Lovie's tenure. There's really no sense in masking the staff's performance with 3 non-conference patsies.

It may be time to give Whitman one more shot with the football coaching job. I hope the season is played so that we can get resolution.

orangejulius on July 10 @ 11:52 AM CDT

he's just not going to work out. I thought his celebrity status and being one of the few African American head coaches in Power-5 would serve him much better than it has. His game coaching is not good; he is often confused and slow to respond to what is happening on the field. This can be masked if you get really good players, and he hasn't been able to do it. We need to get a young, dynamic coach, preferably with some local ties, in to follow him.

orangejulius on July 09 @ 10:02 PM CDT

This recruiting class is a disaster so far. The # of guys with no other power 5 offers is just astounding. Just really disappointing as I think it is an indication that Lovie will not make it.

uofi08 on July 09 @ 11:04 PM CDT

This 10 game conference slate is perfect for an extend or fire season. What better way to see how good you actually are them facing off against your peers every game? Unfortunately I think the point is moot. Even assuming the season is played, the financial burden athletic departments will face this year will probably lead to almost no firings. Schools won’t be able to afford it. Put me down for 1) Lovie failing to clear the bar (4 or less wins), 2) bringing in an abysmal recruiting class, but 3) keeping his job for financial reasons. The prediction I’m least confident in is the failing to clear the bar one. It’s clear the recruiting is brutal and pretty clear that athletic departments will take a hit this year. But there is talent on this years team, and the west and bottom half of the east are a big enough crapshoot that there’s a good chance to string together some wins.

uilaw71 on July 10 @ 07:41 AM CDT

The BIG statement does not specify a number or format. Matt Daniels has suggested home and home within the divisions, keeping the season (if it occurs) at 12 games. His rationale is to reduce travel and minimize risk. MLB is doing exactly that, albeit from a different starting point.

iluvrt on July 10 @ 11:15 AM CDT

Because of COVID, I think Josh will extend Lovie. Esp. if there is no season. I am not confident that there will be a season.

thumpasaurus on July 10 @ 01:04 PM CDT

Lovie would have to be shut out in every game while losing by at least 28 to be fired after the season.

Revenue shortfalls are going to be much more important than the record.

larue on July 10 @ 02:50 PM CDT

Yeah, I think there is virtually no chance Lovie gets fired this year.

IlliNYC on July 10 @ 03:09 PM CDT

Agree that barring complete disaster (on the field), Lovie is not getting fired this year.

IBFan on July 11 @ 10:14 AM CDT

Fired? For not getting players from Illinois? Who gives a rats ass where the players are from? I don’t care if they are black or white, Christian, Muslim, Juco, Transfers, highschool...none of it matters. Players that graduate-important. Players that represent the University (Milo) - important. Coaching staff that respects players, protects players, and help them achieve their maximum potential - important. Wins on the field - important.

Recruiting players based on evals from fan sites or where they happen to go to high school is not important.

Talking about firing a coach that just took us to a bowl game, most conference wins in I don’t know how long, players discovered and developed that are likely drafted, a clean program, highest team talent level in a decade who inherited and absolute dumpster fire.

Do I love the recruiting site numbers in this class, no.

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