A Different Kind Of Year One

Oct 26, 2021

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I'll just start by quickly going through the Year Ones for the last four Illini coaches - Ron Turner, Ron Zook, Tim Beckman, and Lovie Smith. Lou Tepper was a different scenario entirely because he was handed a program coming off four straight winning seasons. When you take over a program that was 30-16-1 the previous four seasons, it's a slightly different situation than taking over a program that was 129-209-2 the last 30 years.

So here's the last four restarts:

1997 Ron Turner
Previous season: 2-9
1997 record: 0-11 (pushed the losing streak to 17 games)
Big Ten record: 0-8
Best win: none
Worst losses: 48-3 to #22 Purdue at home, 41-6 at #4 Ohio State, 41-6 vs #2 Penn State

2005 Ron Zook
Previous season: 3-8
2005 record: 2-9
Big Ten record: 0-8
Best win: 33-30 over 7-5 Rutgers in OT
Worst losses: 61-14 at #17 Michigan State, 63-10 to #12 Penn State at home, 40-2 at #12 Ohio State

2012 Tim Beckman
Previous season: 7-6
2012 record: 2-10
Big Ten record: 0-8
Best win: 24-7 over Bill Cubit's Western Michigan Broncos
Worst losses: 45-14 at Arizona State, 52-24 to Louisiana Tech, 45-0 at #25 Michigan

2016 Lovie Smith
Previous season: 5-7
2016 record: 3-9
Big Ten record: 2-7
Best win: 31-27 over 3-9 Michigan State
Worst losses: 48-3 at #7 Wisconsin, 41-8 at #3 Michigan, 34-10 to Western Michigan

I realize that there are four games remaining, and I'm risking the whole thing where the "worst three losses" column is filled by three of the next four games, but here's the 2021 season so far:

2021 Bret Bielema
Previous season: 2-6
2021 record: 3-5 through eight games
Big Ten record: 2-3 through five games
Best win: 20-18 at #7 Penn State
Worst losses: 37-30 to #23 UTSA, 24-0 to Wisconsin, 42-14 at Virginia
Remaining games: 3-4 Rutgers, at 5-2 Minnesota, at 6-1 Iowa, 3-4 Northwestern

Let me take a quick peek at the expected wins for these last four opponents (using SP+) because I know a lot of them have tough games remaining. Northwestern, for example, has Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue, and then Illinois. Here's the expected wins using Bill Connelly's formula:

3-4 Rutgers: 4.7 wins
5-2 Minnesota: 8.0 wins
6-1 Iowa: 8.9 wins
3-4 Northwestern: 4.5 wins

So not exactly murderer's row. One ranked opponent (Iowa) and two opponents who will likely finish the season with losing records. I have a lot to say about that, but I should pause here and do a bunch of disclaimers.

First off, we need to acknowledge the set-up here. I wrote about this in the season preview. The whole "first chance to make a second impression" thing.

Turner and Zook both inherited programs that had bottomed out. Turner got a program seven games into what would eventually be an 18 game losing streak, he built it all the way up to a Big Ten Championship in 2001, and then it fell right back down to where it started (going 4-19 his final two seasons). Beckman and Lovie inherited programs that had been 7-6 and 5-7 the previous seasons but both those seasons ended poorly (2011 with a six game losing streak; 2015 losing six of the last seven). They both had one year with some seniors before the full-on rebuild began. They went 2-10 and 3-9, respectively.

Bret Bielema inherited a second chance at what was supposed to be the Lovie Smith capstone season. Lovie was trying to go 2 wins, 4 wins, 6 wins, 8 wins and he went 2 wins, 4 wins, 6 wins, 2 wins (in only eight total games, to be fair). Bret Bielema takes over and, with a Covid year, all of those 2020 seniors can return again in 2021. So Disclaimer #1: he probably has more to work with in year one than any of the previous four head coaches.

Disclaimer #2: it's October 26th. Lose to Rutgers at home on Saturday and it's going to be "we're not beating Minnesota or Iowa so now we'll have to beat Northwestern to avoid 3-9." It's probably too early to write this article.


None of the teams listed above had anything anywhere close to Illinois 20, #7 Penn State 18 on the road. And none of them had one-score games in other Big Ten contests, either. Let's just compile average Big Ten scores for each season. One more time: the average score in Big Ten games only:

1997: 35.4 - 9.5
2005: 43.9 - 11.8
2012: 35.1 - 11.8
2016: 33.1 - 16.8
2021: 19.4 - 15.2

That is what one would call "significant".

Another way to look at this is to search through some NERDstats. I use SP+ all the time, but I saw that Brian Fremeau updated his FEI ratings this morning (and I tweeted them as a jab at Missouri since they're currently 91st in his ratings). Here's how the Big Ten currently shakes out using his formula:

3. Ohio St.
4. Michigan
10. Iowa
15. Penn St.
19. Wisconsin
26. Michigan St.
27. Nebraska
35. Purdue
36. Minnesota
72. Illinois
74. Indiana
77. Rutgers
86. Northwestern
90. Maryland

(Missouri is #91.)

Clearly two tiers there. Nine Big Ten teams in the top-36. And then five Big Ten teams from 72 to 90. But hey, look at the team on top of B-Flight. I mean, I still wear a golf polo that I won because my team won B-flight at a golf tournament in like 2006 or so. B-Flight wins are still wins in my book. A B-Flight win would be a fantastic Year One.

Remaining on the schedule: #77 Rutgers and #86 Northwestern at home plus #36 Minnesota and #10 Iowa on the road. After the Penn State win, a split seems possible, but our QB issues suggest that 1-3 is probably the most likely outcome. Just a little more offense and 3-1 is on the table, but the offense is second-to-last in the Big Ten at this point and will probably finish there. A run game can only take you so far.

So maybe we should look at the specific matchups for the last four games using FEI offense and defense ratings:

Illinois vs. Rutgers
Illinois' #96 offense faces Rutgers' #41 defense
Rutgers' #113 offense faces Illinois' #60 defense

Illinois at Minnesota
Illinois' #96 offense faces Minnesota's #39 defense
Minnesota's #38 offense faces Illinois' #60 defense

Illinois at Iowa
Illinois' #96 offense faces Iowa's #3 defense
Iowa's #72 offense faces Illinois' #60 defense

Illinois vs. Northwestern
Illinois' #96 offense faces Northwestern's #63 defense
Northwestern's #95 offense faces Illinois' #60 defense

Just going by that, Illinois-Northwestern is a straight-up pick 'em (with a bump for Illinois because the game is in Champaign). Defenses are 60 and 63; offenses are 95 and 96. Rutgers is trickier. Rutgers' D is 55 spots ahead of the Illinois offense. Illinois' D is 53 spots ahead of Rutgers' offense. So that feels like a pick 'em as well.

And then in the other two games, the only matchup that leans Illinois is the #72 Iowa offense vs. the #60 Illinois defense. Everything else seems to be a mismatch. (Of course, Penn State's D is #6 nationally and they just gave up 357 rushing yards to Brown and McCray, so...).

One last thing there. Fremeau also has a "special teams and field position" ranking. Here's how those five teams shake out:

Iowa - 4
Rutgers - 40
Illinois - 45
Minnesota - 52
Northwestern - 119

So if those two "pick 'em" games above are the kind that will come down to a single possession, Rutgers and Illinois are fairly even there and Illinois holds a big advantage over Northwestern.

But all of that is kind of taking me away from my point. I'll close by listing the point differential on that list above. Point differential in Big Ten games only for the last five Year Ones:

1997: -25.9
2005: -32.1
2012: -23.3
2016: -16.3
2021: -4.2


But there's still four games to go.

Don't make me look silly for writing this too soon, boys.


'98 on October 26, 2021 @ 11:37 AM

Only nit… MSU 2005 was on home turf. I remember they were a 10-point home dog and a popular pick to cover… and then gave up a 60-bomb.

The special teams and field position ranking surprised me. Maybe our offense isn’t getting advantageous field position, but i feel like we have generally been in good position defensively at the start of most series.

Bear8287 on October 26, 2021 @ 11:51 AM

Worst losses: 37-30 to #23 UTSA

:-D Just aren't going to let go of that one are you Robert?

Given what you've posted above, wouldn't the loss to #90 Maryland (at home) 17-20 be a worse loss than the one to UTSA?

Robert on October 26, 2021 @ 01:25 PM

Not following here. What am I supposed to be letting go?

Bear8287 on October 26, 2021 @ 06:25 PM

This reply (link) to this story (link).

The Olaf Rules on October 26, 2021 @ 12:59 PM

… and just think about how much better they’d be with only “moderately worse than average” QB play.

Illinir1 on October 26, 2021 @ 04:09 PM

My reaction to "Illinois' #60 defense" was "no way our defense is #60". Then I remembered what I've been conditioned to watching on defense the last five years. Amazing how much better a #60 defense is!

WoodsyMoose on October 26, 2021 @ 06:45 PM

Narrator: "and boy did he look silly"

side note: my whole winter moral/mood improves if we end the season well. I do this to myself investing emotionally this much

Chief4ever on October 27, 2021 @ 12:02 AM

I feel like our defensive rating is massively skewed by the Virginia and UTSA games. The Defense has picked up the new scheme and been amazing. Keeping us in games, actually WINNING games in which we don’t sniff 100 yards passing. The D we have put on display the last few weeks is easily better than any opponent left besides Iowa. Not even close.

O&B4life on October 28, 2021 @ 10:21 AM

Great summary and article. This year has definitely felt different than several of the previous year 1's.

BanTheCharge on October 28, 2021 @ 11:18 AM

Just HAD to put that Cubit was coach of that Western Michigan team didn't you?

Made me feel anger I didn't I know I had inside me haha

UofIx3 on October 28, 2021 @ 11:45 AM

I've been thinking a lot about Bielema's first year, especially in comparison to the first year experiences of previous coaches.

All the things that are going through my mind when I'm trying to decide what significance it has (if any):

  • Bielema and staff really benefit from having so many super seniors vs. the super seniors weren't that good in their previous years
  • Smith and staff may not have been able to coach a college defense, but it does look they recruited a college defense vs. Smith and staff couldn't coach or recruit quarterbacks or wide receivers for an effective, balanced offense
  • Bielema gets big credit for putting together a very good staff unlike many of his predecessors, especially Smith vs. Whitman has provided sufficient funding for this to happen unlike prior A.D.s
  • Anyone that has ever coached college football and has a pulse vs. Smith towards the end of his time at the U of I

I think I've decided that the multiple close games and very flew blowout losses means that Bielema and staff know what they are doing. It's amazing that they have any wins with an offense that has been mostly able to run the ball despite having absolutely no passing threat and QBs that are more than just zeroes given their propensity to turn over the ball. And the defense didn't collapse after giving up 35+ points twice in the non-conference. A cynic might argue that has a lot do with BIg Ten offenses, but it's still demonstrates substantial growth.

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