One More Mailbag Question
This was a very unconventional stretch of mailbag posts. On Friday I took an email and turned it into two mailbag posts. Now I'm going to take a simple DM and respond with the answer here. I'm making this one free just in case the DM-er isn't a subscriber.
He didn't respond yet to my "are you OK if I just take this and respond with a full post?", so I won't include his name here. And I'll cut the "Robert love your writing" stuff out of the beginning. Wait, I just included it.
I'm excited about Bielema but I feel like the expectations for next year are already too high. I don't believe Lovie recruited well, and so I don't think Bielema has much to work with.
He went on from there but I think that give you the gist. It's not really even a question, but those two sentences are all I've thought about for the last hour. It's so simple yet very profound.
I've written a decent amount about the 2021 season being a 2020 "re-do". These 12 seniors who are returning get a second chance at the season they thought they were going to have this fall. As do all the juniors and sophomores in the two-deep. It was going to be 2-4-6-8, and it turned out to be 2-4-6-2, and now, a second chance.
And I say that because, as you know, I thought the talent was there this fall to do what Indiana did - surprise everyone and have one of those special seasons. The Wisconsin game last year would be the CLICK moment, and then this year gets even better with so many players back.
So I'm probably more comfortable wandering into "could Bret Bielema get to a bowl in Year One?" waters than most because I was on the record saying that the talent was there to go 7-5 at a minimum in 2020. I honestly believed for four years that it was going to be 2 wins, 4 wins, 6 wins, 8 wins. I was also a big fan of using the transfer portal as a cheat code to improve the talent at Illinois. Illinois was in the top-12 in returning production last year, and the 11 teams in front of Illinois all improved significantly from 2019 to 2020, so Illinois was a lock to get better, right? Illinois went from 6-7 to 2-6.
And so the reality I faced this fall keeps sinking in more and more: if "play the freshmen early and patch the holes with transfers" didn't work - and I really had to come to grips with that after the Purdue and Minnesota losses - then I can't really go back on that now and say that the talent is there to win right away.
Now, obviously, there are other factors here. As always, the debate goes back to X's & O's vs. Jimmies & Joes. Some teams have 8 talent and coach them to a 5. Some teams have 4 talent and coach them to an 7. I know it's just not as simple as "it was a bad team last year so it will be a bad team this year". Experience factors in as well, and Illinois will have one of the more experienced offensive lines in college football. Four seniors return on the OL and four seniors return on the DL and that's huge for any college football team regardless of talent.
But after reading that DM, I keep coming back to the overall roster vs. the rest of the Big Ten West. I think that if you asked every Illini fan to rank the Illini talent during the second half of the Northwestern game last month, 95% of the fans would say that the Illinois talent is 7th out of 7 Big Ten West teams. That didn't suddenly change in the last month, even with the seniors coming back, so I'm fascinated by the number of fans I've interacted with recently who are bullish on the 2021 season. I get that a new coach brings excitement, and that the "see what an experienced college staff can produce?" narrative is ready for liftoff, but do we really have the talent to stand toe-to-toe? Last fall proved that we didn't, right?
I think mostly I need to write this "mailbag" post for myself. I was stubborn enough to hang onto "play freshmen early and plug holes with transfers - it can work" all the way until the Minnesota game in November. And since that was only a couple months ago, I'm quite worried I'll relapse into "SEE? The talent was there all along" if this goes well next fall. So I feel like I need to stay strong here. I came to the humiliating understanding that recruiting was a much bigger issue than I was allowing myself to see, and immediately following something like that, I need to put some protocols in place to prevent a relapse.
(Even as I'm typing this, forcing myself to face it, I'm thinking "you know, these 12 seniors who are returning simply get their redshirt back. We get to see what the team would have been if those players had redshirted instead of playing as true freshmen in 2017!" Hope always perseveres.)
This wasn't really a question, I guess. I'm just reacting to a statement. "I don't believe Lovie recruited well, and so I don't think Bielema has much to work with". Why is that sentence so hard to agree with?
Hope, I guess.