Bye Week Mailbag IV

Oct 17, 2021

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Writing location: an Airbnb in Kansas City early on a Sunday morning while my wife kids (and their various wives and girlfriends) are asleep. Had a wedding here yesterday. The schedule change for Illini football that came down back in February was a rough go for some weddings (see the article I wrote last week), but for me, it meant that our bye week moved from the 9th to the 16th and that meant I could attend this wedding without having to miss a game.

So I'm going to try to squeeze in one final mailbag post before everyone wakes up. (Won't happen.)

This one comes from an email:

How does the BIG office schedule the hapless Illini to be the punching bag for Penn State six years in a row with 4 of the 6 at Happy Valley(2020,2021,2022 & 2024)??? It's beyond comprehension to try to explain why one of the best teams in the BIG East gets such a gift. Thank you, in advance, for trying to explain this. It really bothers me. Going to Happy Valley 3 years in a row can induce PTSD almost.


I'm going to try to do this quickly. This is the kind of question that can get away from me, so I'll attempt to keep this answer as compact as possible.

Maryland and Rutgers are added to the Big Ten starting in 2014. The Leaders and Legends divisions disappear, replaced by East and West. In addition to this, two years later (in 2016), the Big Ten moved to nine conference games.

The divisions were assembled in a way that most all rivalries remained in place within the divisions (Iowa and Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State, others). The one rivalry that was split: Purdue and Indiana. So the Big Ten built these two divisions and kept one cross-division rivalry: Indiana and Purdue play every single year.

To make all of that work - 14 teams, two divisions, nine games, Indiana-Purdue play every year - the Big Ten developed six-year rotations for other "protected rivalries". If Indiana-Purdue are going to play every year, each Big Ten team has to have a cross-division rival that they play every year in order to make the rotation work. They didn't want to make any of those "rivalries" permanent - again, it's just a way to keep Indiana and Purdue playing each other every season - so they decided that every six years, you'd have a cross-division "rival". Then, for the next six-year rotation, you get another "rival".

Why six years? Because that gives you the following math. Nine conference games in those six seasons so you're trying to get to 54 games...

  • Play the other six teams in your division every year (36 games)
  • Play your "rival" all six seasons (6 games)
  • Play every other other-division team twice in six years, home and away (12 games).

So that's how the rotation sets up. And for the first six years of the plan - 2016 (the first year of nine games) through 2021 - our protected "rival" was Rutgers. In these six seasons we were set to play Ohio State twice, Michigan twice, Penn State twice, Michigan State twice, Indiana twice, Maryland twice, and Rutgers six times. The two games against Penn State? 2018 (in Champaign) and 2021 (in Happy Valley).

They needed a new rotation starting in 2022. So they decided to switch up the protected "rivals" (again, they're not supposed to be rivals - it's just a way to keep Indiana and Purdue playing each other every year). Illinois is no longer paired with Rutgers. For the next six seasons, Illinois will be paired with Penn State.

Why Penn State? The Big Ten says it happens by random draw. Here's the image from that article with all the pairings:

There's one more thing before I can finally put all of this together. Last year, during Covid, in order to max-out the number of games, the Big Ten decided that during the week of the Big Ten Championship Game, every team would play a "bonus" game. The top team in the East would play the top team in the West in Indianapolis, but they'd also pair 2 vs 2 and 3 vs. 3 and so on. Now, it didn't exactly work out like that - some teams were on a Covid hold and didn't play at all - but it did mean that Illinois played a bonus game at Penn State on December 19th.

So now I can answer the question.

Why do we play Penn State six years in a row, with four of the six in Happy Valley? We actually play Penn State eight years in a row, with five of the eight in Happy Valley. Here's those games:

  1. Illinois at Penn State in 2020 (bonus game during Covid - not part of any rotation).
  2. Illinois at Penn State in 2021 (second of two Illinois-Penn State games during the 2016 through 2021 schedule rotation).
  3. Illinois at Penn State in 2022 (first game of the 2022 through 2027 six-year rotation).
  4. Penn State at Illinois in 2023 (second game of the rotation).
  5. Illinois at Penn State in 2024 (third game of the rotation).
  6. Penn State at Illinois in 2025 (fourth game of the rotation).
  7. Illinois at Penn State in 2026 (date not scheduled yet, but this will be the fifth game in the rotation).
  8. Penn State at Illinois in 2027 (date not scheduled yet, but this will be the sixth and final game in the rotation).

After that, the Big Ten will randomly select another cross-division opponent for 2028 through 2033. Probably Ohio State.

I'm amazed at the number of people calling for Petersen to be fired. How do you separate execution, scheme, development? And does everyone think they can call plays b/c of Madden video games.


I'm the absolute worst person to ask. I've given the same answer for 10+ years and each year more tomatoes are thrown. I have one single stance:

Keep one offensive coordinator for four years. Any offensive coordinator. Just do a thing and do it for four consecutive years.

What's an offense that is really clicking right now? Pitt maybe? Pitt is probably a good example. I don't know the offensive coordinator at Pitt but let me look him up. The Pitt offensive coordinator is... Mark Whipple. Mark Whipple has Pitt's offense #9 in the country (per SP+ last week). Do I think that if Illinois hired Mark Whipple as offensive coordinator next season we'd immediately move into the top-10 nationally in offense? I do not.

Let's see where Mark Whipple was the OC before going to Pitt. He was... not an offensive coordinator anywhere. He was the head coach (and he ran the offense) at UMass. He went 3-9, 3-9, 2-10, 4-8, 4-8 and was fired. He then got the job at Pitt. So let's go look up his numbers there.

OK, look, I swear I didn't search for Whipple. You're watching this in real time with me. I didn't pick the perfect example to make my point. I stumbled on this.

Pitt's offense under Whipple using SP+:

2019: 109th
2020: 86th
2021: currently 9th

They didn't add a new quarterback. Kenny Pickett has been the quarterback all three years. They didn't significantly upgrade talent, at least not by the recruiting ratings. As best I can tell, they just put in an offense, kept at it, and now it's humming in the third season.

It doesn't always work like that, of course. There are "good" offensive coordinators and "bad" offensive coordinators. There are guys who can call a game and guys who can't. My point is not "every offensive coordinator will eventually build something if you give them long enough." I'm just saying the same thing I've said for fifteen years. Get the head coach to establish an offensive identity ("we're going up-tempo spread with 11 seconds between plays" or "first five tight-end offense in CFB history that runs the ball 94% of the time", I don't really care), find the players who fit that system, find the coordinator to run that system (and if you change coordinators, don't change the identity), and then eventually you'll move the ball.

So for Petersen, I have no idea if he's the guy who will eventually figure out the specific offense Bret Bielema wants to run. Pitt fans certainly wanted Whipple gone the first two seasons (I'm guessing - their offense prevented them from having great seasons in 2019 and 2020). I don't think I'd ever have enough information on a coordinator after one year. And yes, I said this exact same thing after Garrick McGee's 2016 and Billy Gonzales/Chris Beatty's 2012. I can't picture a scenario where I'd ever consider a coordinator firing after one season.

I simply want one thing: Offensive identity established, recruited-to, and developed. The end.

How many multi-year transfers do we need to bring in to upgrade talent for next year, and let our current guys develop?


Here's how I think the math will work out.

The new NCAA rule allows you to push the recruiting class number to 32. But that extra seven requires that seven players transfer out. If you have a least seven players transfer out, you can bring in an additional seven players above the limit of 25. We will have seven players transfer out.

So we have three numbers so far: 15, 7 and 32. Fifteen high school recruits currently in the class. 32 total recruits that can be added. And 7 of those have to take the scholarship of a player who transfers out.

32-15=17. So we're really trying to decide how those 17 scholarships will be divided. 2 additional high schoolers and 15 from the transfer portal? 5 high school, 5 juco, seven transfer portal?

I still think the number will be right around 10 from the transfer portal. And we've seen tweets this week of the coaches checking in on junior college players, so I think they have that in mind as well. Put me down for this:

  • High school: 19 (the 15 currently in the class plus 4 more)
  • Junior college: 3
  • Transfer portal: 10

I think that would be a solid mix. You can't go all Portal because you have to build a foundation with high school recruits. You can't go all HS because this team needs an infusion of upper-classman talent immediately. So I think that's the best balance right there. The depth chart I put together last week included "TRANSFER" in ten spots. So I'll stick with that. 4 more high schoolers, 3 jucos, 10 transfers.

What would our record be with IW or Deuce Spann as QB1 this year.


There's many different ways to answer this question but I'm a bit trapped by the "establish the Bret Bielema offensive identity" answer above. Because I don't think the offensive identity that Bielema wants matches with the identity that I want.

I want an offense led by a dual-threat QB. Something similar to the 2007-2008 offense with Juice at the helm. It's just the kind of football I like. It's why I loved Aaron Bailey so much and it's why I love Deuce Spann so much. I've begged for that offense for 10 years. Rod Smith showed the most potential of establishing that kind of offense, but it never happened. 2018 with AJ Bush in charge is the closest we've come to the Illinois offense I've wanted to see.

So when I first read this question, my brain goes directly to those thoughts I've had for a decade. Had we put in that kind of offense and started Deuce Spann as a true freshman last season he'd just now be starting to round into form. We didn't, and our offense requires a different skillset (although I'm such a Deuce homer that I think he could run this pocket-centric scheme), so I don't even consider it anymore. And IW is 5'-9", which makes it really difficult for a quarterback in a "stay in the pocket and read the defense" offense.

I suppose my answer to this question is "doesn't matter". The staff looked at the talent they inherited and said "Deuce, IW, in our scheme you're wide receivers". And that's where we are.

(But I'll forever dream of Deuce leading us to the Big Ten Championship Game with 225 rushing and 225 passing.)


orangejulius on October 17, 2021 @ 11:56 AM

When you're always playing from behind when it comes to recruiting, why not at least have a style which has a chance of exciting high school athletes. We've done that in basketball, and the score in 7 seconds is a brand that has really caught on with recruits.

It's pretty clear our coach wants to do Wisconsin 2.0, and I get it, it's what he knows. But no kid wants to spend his career losing AND playing boring, conservative, when it doubt punt, football. Give them a reason to consider Illinois aside from early playing time. I'm not sure we're doing that.

ktcesw on October 17, 2021 @ 03:30 PM

I agree with you 110%!!! Robert, I would love Spann to be the qb in whatever system we use!

steveinseattle on October 17, 2021 @ 06:55 PM

Bert’s scheme is power football and our plays calls are the same as the Tennessee Titans if you want a direct comparison.

This scheme is great…if you have a Derrick Henry, a Julio Jones and a Ryan Tannehill. We have none of those.

The old school football guy theory is that power football works in all weather, co tells the clock, and…that’s about it. It’s also a scheme that guarantees you’ll never be able to come from behind, requires you to out Iowa Iowa and is like watching paint dry.

It’s not hard to find players who can execute modern offenses and it’s not hard to find coaches who can teach it.

thumpasaurus on October 19, 2021 @ 06:21 AM

What it means is that we’ll never see a big upset win that looks like Purdue over Iowa, or even Illinois over Ohio State 2007. It’ll look more like when Michigan beat MSU 12-10 back in 2012. Or, to use a basketball analogy, when we beat #10 MSU 42-41 earlier that same year.

Eagle on October 17, 2021 @ 11:08 PM

BB is going to stick to his guns. That’s very clear or he would have made the changes by now. He’s betting his career that he can make his preferred system work here though many of the fans agree with you Robert. At this point, a QB who can occasionally hit the wide open receiver, and mix things up with regular Deuce-like runs would be much more successful than QB’s who take too long to make a decision and then can’t get the ball within reach of the receiver. The week off would be the perfect time to implement the change and get energy flowing toward next season.

Chief4ever on October 18, 2021 @ 11:30 PM

THIS. ALL OF THIS. Don’t put Deuce in as a running qb. Call the exact same plays with him in there. He can’t possibly be LESS accurate, and he has the ability to extend plays, scramble. He has a good arm, couldn’t make slower or worse reads. Play BB ball with a better athlete.

O&B4life on October 19, 2021 @ 11:07 AM

That was my thought when I asked the question.

What's interesting is that the one year BB had a great athlete at QB (Russell Wilson) was arguably his best team.

HNLINI on October 18, 2021 @ 02:31 AM

Robert, who is the prototype QB that Illinois will look for in the Transfer portal - and who currently in the portal fits that prototype?

Gen. Buck Turgidson on October 18, 2021 @ 12:48 PM

Robert - I realize it wasn't the point of your article, but Mark Whipple has a history as a good offensive coach. I personally saw his Univ of New Haven teams in the early 90s (where he was HC) average 50+ points per game. He also won a Div I-AA title at UMass. He went to the pros in 2004 as an assistant where he bounced around a bit.

To be fair his second stint as HC at UMass was not good, but he's a good offensive mind. And (off topic) his son called the plays yesterday for the AZ Cardinals with Kingsbury out.

Boneyard Surfer on October 18, 2021 @ 03:58 PM

"How many multi-year transfers do we need to bring in to upgrade talent for next year, and let our current guys develop?"

The flip-side to this question is how many guys (Chase Brown?) are we going to lose after this season because they're sick of losing?

tgb on October 18, 2021 @ 05:01 PM

So, if we want to pound the ball, why didn't we go for the two 4th down calls, that might have given us two victories. Why would you not give the O-line confidence by going for it. We're Illinois and have nothing to lose but we play scared.

Bear8287 on October 18, 2021 @ 05:09 PM

Definitely not, "Send Ameche at me!"

Joe Edge on October 18, 2021 @ 06:27 PM

I simply want one thing: Offensive identity established, recruited-to, and developed. The end.

This needs to be bolded, and restated - OVER and Over and OVER Again !!!!!!!!!!!!!

The scenario of lose once, and fire people has been in place (with one or two exceptions) since 1959... And is the reason we've poorly hired, then fired, and then poorly hired AGAIN ever since... AND is a MAJOR reason why we are NOT GOOD at playing football.... Keep it up, and you'll get the exact SAME results...

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