One Question Mailbag - Football Season Projections

Jul 21, 2021

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I've been so bogged down with LLUOI posts and 90 Illini posts (and ZOMG KOFI IS BACK posts) that I haven't had time to answer many questions. Some arrive on Twitter, some on Slack, some in the comments, and I need to be better about answering them.

For this one, which was in the comment section of a recent post, I'll just turn it into a one-question mailbag. The question:

Robert, I know we're always away from your football season prediction, but it is somewhat baffling that we are projected as the worst team in the conference with I think a predicted win total of 3+, if I remember correctly. Do you have a view of how in depth the teams are analyzed at this point in time, and generally how reliable the projections are, or how accurate that have been in the past? I don't get it. Have all the other Big10 teams just improved that much more than we have since 2018-19? Did the Illini record and subpar play in 2020 sour the evaluators?

It's true. The Cleveland newspaper will likely release their media poll tomorrow at the start of Big Ten media days, and I'm guessing that Illinois will be picked 7th in the West. They usually have something like 28 writers vote in the poll (two covering each school - something like that), so I'll also predict that Illinois will get something like 31 points in the vote. 26 votes for last place, plus maybe a 5th-place vote from one Illinois writer (3 points) and a 6th-place vote from the other Illinois writer (2 points).

Edit: In between starting and finishing this article, the poll was released this afternoon. Illinois was, in fact, picked last. But I was wrong about the points. There were 34 votes, and Illinois got 47 points. Nowhere close to the writers picking Purdue 6th with 72.5 points, but still, it's not what I predicted. If I predicted Illinois would get one 5th-place vote, one 6th-place vote, and then all 7th place votes, it would be 37 total points. Illinois got 47. Progress!

Here's the poll:

1. Wisconsin (29 first-place votes) 233 points
2. Iowa (5) 202
3. Northwestern 160
4. Minnesota 146
5. Nebraska 91.5
6. Purdue 72.5
7. Illinois 47

1. Ohio State (34 first-place votes) 238
2. Penn State 192
3. Indiana 169
4. Michigan 144
5. Maryland 79
6. Rutgers 77.5
7. Michigan State 52.5

I'm glad I could put this in here for context. Because this is really what the question was getting at. Lowest number of votes of any Big Ten team? Are we really that bad?

Here's my thinking on the subject. The three main things keeping the expectations very low.

1. We're Illinois

Zook went 34-51. Beckman went 12-25. Lovie went 17-39. That's nearly 20 years of losing.

Actually, let's look at 20 full seasons. To those three records we'll add the Cubit year (5-7) plus the last three years of Turner (5-7, 1-11, 3-8). That's a football program that has gone 77-148 in the last 20 seasons. Several of those seasons only had 11 games, but if we averaged it all out in today's 12-game world, that's more or less 3.5 wins and 8.5 losses for 20 years straight.

So when we see that the over/under in Vegas is 3.5, that makes total and complete sense to everyone on the planet besides Illinois fans, right? If you see some Kansas fan saying "Leipold knows how to coach - we're winning at least five games", you'll just quietly tell him that it's going to take Lance a long time to rebuild it, yes? There's fandom, sure, but there's also reality.

That's how nearly everyone (besides us orange-and-blue gogglers) is looking at this. The previous coach went 17-39. The new coach takes over and changes the schemes. Sure, there's some scheduled wins that are supposed to be scheduled wins (UTSA, Charlotte), and the home schedule is fairly "easy" compared to other seasons, but at the end of the day, it's a 3.5-8.5 football program expected to win 3.5 games. Very much a no-brainer.

2. New coach

Alabama went 6-6 in 2006 and Mike Shula was fired. They brought in Nick Saban and Alabama went... 6-6 the next season including a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe in November. So that's Nick Saban taking over a 6-6 team and coaching them up to... 6-6.

Kirk Ferentz took over a 3-8 team and went 1-10 his first season. Barry Alvarez inherited a 2-9 team and went 1-10. Pat Fitzgerald inherited a 7-5 team and went 4-8 his first season. James Franklin inherited a 7-5 Penn State team and went 6-6. Everyone's favorite coach (now) Luke Fickell inherited an 11-1 Ohio State team in 2011 and went 6-6 in his one season as head coach. Coaching changes almost always mean a worse record.

Just look at The University Of Illinois Fighting Illini. Ron Turner inherits Lou Tepper's 2-9 team and goes 0-11. Ron Zook inherits Ron Turner's 3-8 team and goes 2-9. Tim Beckman inherits Ron Zook's 6-6 team and goes 2-10. Lovie Smith inherits Bill Cubit's 5-7 team and goes 3-9. So now Bret Bielema inherits Lovie Smith's 2-6 team and goes... 2-10?

I get it. The easy thing to say there is "yeah but all of those coaches sucked and now there's a good coach." Well, the previous paragraph has a list of pretty great coaches and not one of them got better in his first season. In fact, every single one of them (besides Saban, who took a 6-6 team and won 6 games) got worse. It's really, really hard to watch the first season of a new coaching regime and not have Yakkity Sax playing in your head.

The only examples where a team improved are when the new coach took over a fairly experienced team ready to crest. So maybe I should move on to the third (and somewhat encouraging) part which is...

3. Nationally, no one really understands the experience level on this team

The example that comes to mind here: Jeff Brohm taking over at Purdue. And of course I'm only bringing that up so I can say "called it" for the 19th time.

Here's what I wrote in the 2017 football preview about Brohm, who was taking over a 3-9 team left behind by Darrell Hazell:

Darrell Hazell was mostly a disaster at Purdue. More of a disaster than Tim Beckman was at Illinois (wins-wise - the Beckman investigation and firing left a bigger crater which we will discuss in a moment). Beckman clawed his way to 6-6 in his third season - Hazell went 2-10 in year three. Purdue's last four seasons: 1-11, 3-9, 2-10, 3-9.

So how might Purdue be better? Well, whatever Hazell was building (and it wasn't much) was set to crest in 2017 and 2018. Brohm has a pretty great QB for his system (David Blough, now a junior), two senior receivers, two junior tailbacks with experience, an offensive line that has four experienced juniors - this was Hazell's attempt at an Indiana rebuild. Kevin Wilson went 4-8 in his fourth year at Indiana (with no bowls the first four years) but kept his job and we saw the program he was building with two bowl appearances in 2015 and 2016. So Hazell's attempt to resurrect Purdue was slated to crest this year and next year.

Beckman's attempt to rebuild Illinois was set to crest in 2015 and 2016. He made a bowl in 2014 and then was going to lean on his experienced defense (and 4-star transfer QB) to theoretically win a lot of games in 2015 and 2016. But even back then, 2017 looked like a rebuilding year. I wrote about that many times on the site, even back when Cubit was handed the interim reins in August of 2015. 2015 has a solid enough defense to win some games. The 2016 roster looks pretty good. But 2017 is a steep cliff.

As it turned out, what Beckman was building wasn't much of a structure. 2015 probably had the talent to bowl, but the mess of the investigation and program turmoil left them short at 5-7. I had high hopes of one year of decent before the Lovie rebuild began in earnest, but last season fell apart quickly. We could get into the reasons for that (8 opponents who went to bowl games, 7 opponents who won at least eight games, two injured QB's dropped the team down to their third-string freshman QB, etc etc), but really, in the end, I saw it more as the final chapter of Beckman/Cubit than the first chapter of Lovie. What was being built wasn't much.

That's similar to Purdue (what was being built wasn't much), but Jeff Brohm will get two Cubit-like seasons to find out. I could see Purdue being decent (not bowl-decent, but maybe 4-8/5-7 decent) for two seasons before Brohm has to start his full-on rebuild. For Lovie, the full-on rebuild begins right now.

Purdue wasn't just 5-7 decent - they went 6-6 and won a bowl game. Brohm took over and turned Hazell's 3-9 into 7-6. And then they went 6-6 again in 2018, this time with a bowl loss. Then, the rebuild began in earnest, and Purdue won 4 games in 2019 and 2 games in 2020.

That's similar to what Bret Bielema is inheriting here. It's not two years of a "crest", it's just one, but it is a wildly experienced team. Yes, every college program is wildly experienced this year - last year Illinois had 78% Returning Production and that was 12th-best nationally; this year Illinois has 83% returning production and that ranks 42nd - but I think this goes a bit beyond that. 21 fifth and sixth-year seniors. Transfer help from Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame, and Michigan State. Third-best rushing attack in the Big Ten last year returning everyone except one offensive lineman.

To an extent, I too am a bit confused why no one has pointed to any of those things. I get it - the trump card of "yeah, but it's Illinois" can destroy any argument, so no one will take a risk and say "guys, call me crazy, but Illinois might have a decent season this year" - but I did think maybe one or two national folks (or maybe a betting guy?) would sneak in a "Illinois might be decent?" article somewhere.

Still, it feels like 1 & 2 above make it really hard to argue 3. In the end, until something changes...

We're Illinois football and we can't be trusted.


IlliniJoe81 on July 21, 2021 @ 04:30 PM

That 2-6 was COVID-assisted. There's got to be some kind of metric that can capture the actual quality of last year's team.

It seems like there is also a hard floor of 2 wins with the schedule and a very soft ceiling.

Finally, I don't see anything that was good about last year's team being torn down just for the sake of change.

Lovie left a ship that was sinking because of a few major holes, not a dumpster fire. There is some quality construction still standing in that ship and with some patching, some quick fixes, and a lot of old-fashioned hard work I can see a bowl team being stitched together this season.

illinizeeman on July 21, 2021 @ 06:20 PM

I think 5.5 is my o/u. All things being the same, simple situational awareness, and not allowing the defense to be on the field for 33+ minutes will help. If they only pass 20-25 times a game, good.

orangejulius on July 21, 2021 @ 07:43 PM

Agree. How many times with Lovie would you sit there and say what, did we seriously just punt in that situation? How many times was he asleep when the clock waa running down. Just having a coach who knows how to do basic game management and who pays attention will be a huge plus.

Brave Illini on July 21, 2021 @ 07:08 PM

Of the three factors, only 2 and 3 will affect the team's performance this season. Number one is just a perception by those outside the institution. Number 2 is complicated - the changes extend far beyond the head coach. That makes me question how comparable the coaching change here is to the other ones you described, albeit I don't know, for example, what else changed at Alabama in Saban's first year there. So much seems to have changed for the better in our football program coinciding with Bielema's hire. Our team should exceed (national) expectations this year. Thanks for the post.

MuckFichigan92 on July 21, 2021 @ 07:13 PM

scUM behind IU in football. What a world? Before the history lesson, I had hoped for a veteran miracle with this crew.

orangejulius on July 21, 2021 @ 07:34 PM

I am hanging my hat on Bielema's ball control offense being able to sustain drives and keep our depth challenged defense off the field, and helping to avoid the devastating number of injuries we had last season. Our top end talent is competitive if it can stay healthy. Just having a competent head coach will give us a great chance at a 6 win season. This is the best all around coach we have had since John Mackovic and I dont see it as particularly close.

Illiniboat on July 21, 2021 @ 08:36 PM

77-148. And yet, every fall, I'm back to "You know what? There's 6 wins on this schedule, maybe 8."

firet92 on July 22, 2021 @ 08:40 AM

Really good post, Robert. The first-year new coach drop off has me worried, but I have way more faith in whatever these new schemes will be and the qualifications of the coordinators. I just don't see how we aren't successful with the depth at running back and quality of OL. A week 0 win cannot be understated.

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