One More Mailbag Question

Jan 25, 2021

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.


AHSIllini32 on January 25, 2021 @ 08:32 AM

Similarly to assuming there was a jump coming due to the progress and roster from the 2018 to 2019 season you can’t just assume we’re bad or have a roster full of bad players because this past year flopped.

There’s a reason most of us were expecting another bowl game in 2020. Most of those players have returned with (more than likely) a much better staff coaching.

arie_0444 on January 25, 2021 @ 09:15 AM

We returned a lot from the team that won 6 games the year before. So I do not think this all falls just on recruiting. I will say that Lovie and staff did not recruit up to my expectations especially the last few years. However, I think what gives me hope this year with a similar roster is that we have a Head Coach and staff that are going to adapt to the talent we have in place. If the talent in place is a 5 then I expect given our coaching staff that they can coach them up to a 7 or 8. They have said we are going to run Illinois' offense and defense not the Lovie Cover 2 and Rod smith spread and hope we can make it work with the guys here. There was no adaptability before and there was a lack of adjusting. It was a 100 miles an hour forward, the only problem was never even got up to speed.

mmyers74 on January 25, 2021 @ 09:26 AM

So many times during Lovie's tenure, watching what can only be described as inexplicable game-planning (opting for a pass-heavy offense in extremely inclement weather and never wavering, as NW put a RB at QB and trounced us....) and what can only be described as "bumbling" when contemplating the final 4 minutes of any half, any possible challenge flag or our mismanagement of timeouts and game clocks..., I thought "man...give me THIS team, with a coaching staff that has the ability to TEACH between games and the ability to game plan appropriately and then ACTUALLY manage a game, and this team could win some games!"

Well... you never actually get that chance, Bc no seasons ever get "replayed".

This will be the closest you'll ever get to that.

I don't KNOW that Bielema is a great, any of those things. What I do know is that for all of Lovies good qualities, his staff's in game management, was bottom 10 in major college football.

This team WILL be better in 21. Bowl better? Maybe. Better? I'd bet the house on it.

Chief4ever on January 28, 2021 @ 10:58 PM

100%. This is the discussion rarely had about Lovie because the recruiting failures are talked about so much. Exactly. Terrible, awful, inexcusable game planning, in game coaching, and clock management.
Regularly the most unprepared team in college football coming into a game, and after halftime when the opponent made adjustments.

macdivot on January 25, 2021 @ 09:44 AM

I think we’re going to find out just how dysfunctional Lovie’s program was. It’s X’s & O’s; it’s motivation, it’s culture. I expect improvement in all three areas which will translate to much more success.

Brave Illini on January 25, 2021 @ 10:02 AM

I agree that at this point the expectations for next season should not include number of games won and lost. There are too many relevant factors involved, and many of those factors are changing and will change further. The areas of improvement should include most of the things that go into winning. Recruiting, conditioning, skills development, team camaraderie, discipline, effective practices, scheme development, game management, putting players in the right positions, etc. I expect improvement across the board in most if not all areas that ultimately affect wins and losses. But relative to the team's opponents, how can we possibly start to know at this point how we will fare?

skibdaddy on January 25, 2021 @ 11:58 AM

I think depth was the main problem, especially on defense. We had some Jimmys and Joes, but when they came out for injuries or Covid we couldn't compete.

I'd be willing to bet that our depth is much better in a few years with this coaching staff

Eagle on January 26, 2021 @ 12:21 PM

Agreed. In both of the last two years, we looked worse as the season went along. The same set of players will eventually have a similar set of injuries by the end of this coming year. Will BB be able to build depth is one year? Only the transfer talent will tell.

Groundhogday on January 25, 2021 @ 12:05 PM

Both Hayden Fry and Barry Alvarez put a huge emphasis on teaching, player development and culture. Yes, you need competent schemes, but more importantly recruits need to get better, tougher, and smarter. And you see that with the staff BB assembled--they are all teachers.

For that reason I have some doubts about how much to expect next season. Fry, Ferentz, Alvarez didn't turn things around in year 1. You need time to teach, develop and build a culture. The exception could be if Lovie's staff really was grossly incompetent: in which case we might see a big improvement in year 1.

ktcesw on January 25, 2021 @ 01:40 PM

We were too intent upon pounding the ball on the ground under Lovie. BB says he will spread the O and has an OC very capable of incorporating a passing game. His past history does not show this so, we will see.

Groundhogday on January 25, 2021 @ 02:48 PM

Strengths are OL, TE, RB. Biggest weakness is WR. I'd be happy with a run-focused offense that has enough passing to keep teams honest. Expecting a LOT more 1-2 WR sets.

jono426 on January 26, 2021 @ 06:03 AM

I think the optimists outlooks says we were competitive with and probably should have beat Purdue, and we had Iowa one the ropes but couldn’t capitalize.

It shows you the potential is there but something is missing. Whether it’s coaching or talent will be fully displayed this year. I don’t think anybody doubts our guys are going to be fully coached up. So if they are and still can’t close, it’s talent. If they are coached up and do close, the talent was there, so it was probably coaching.

iluvrt on January 26, 2021 @ 09:39 PM

I wonder at what point in the season Lovie checked out. After the first beat down? The players would know that and it would affect their play.

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