Sep 11, 2021

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When Mike Thomas took over as Athletic Director, college football scheduling was changing. The Big Ten had added a directive to their schools: you must play a major conference opponent every year. I say "major conference" because at the time, the Big East was still a thing and "Power Five" didn't really exist yet. I won't go too deep into the details, but exceptions were made for former "major conference" teams (like UConn and South Florida) to count for that "major conference opponent" directive.

There was already a home-and-home on the books with Washington (scheduled by Ron Guenther in an attempt to create a 50th Anniversary of the 1963 Rose Bowl by playing our 1963 Rose Bowl opponent). We played the game (in Chicago) but did not do the 50th Anniversary celebration (at least I don't remember said celebration). Doesn't matter. Let's get back to the timeline.

Mike Thomas is hired as Athletic Director in 2011. He inherits two home-and-home series' scheduled by Ron Guenther: Arizona State in 2011 and 2012 and then Washington in 2013 and 2014. Neither of those were "required", and many Big Ten teams were avoiding those series' at the time (which is why Jim Delany put in the rule), but Guenther had kind of an "any TEAM any WHERE" scheduling philosophy. So that's where our tale begins. Arizona State in 2011 and 2012 and then Washington in 2013 and 2014.

Mike Thomas and Jason Lener then added the following: North Carolina in 2015 and 2016, South Florida in 2017 and 2018, UConn in 2019 and 2020, Virginia in 2021 and 2022, Kansas in 2023 and 2024, and Duke in 2025 and 2026. Thomas and Lener scheduled it out for 12 years, attempting to find the 12 easiest games they could. Had to be Power Five (USF and UConn were allowed under "they used to be in a power conference"), basically had to be a home-and-home, so they went hunting for easy games. Virginia looked like a good pick at the time (they were floundering under Mike London), Duke looked like a bad pick at the time (when we scheduled that series in 2015, Duke was coming off 27 wins the previous three seasons), but now that's looking better. Don't worry, I'm not going in the "how unlucky are we?" direction.

The point is that with the Big Ten moving to nine conference games - five home games one year, four the next - and the Big Ten mandating at least one game against a Power Five opponent, the schedule fell into place. There will be a home-and-home every year, and that game will be at home during the year with four home conference games and on the road during the opposite year with five home conference games. Josh Whitman has already scheduled Missouri for 2026 through 2029 (and yes, we play both Missouri and Duke in 2026), and then another four games against Missouri from 2032 to 2035. So really, there's one home-and-home to schedule (2030 and 2031), and once that's set, we have our non-conference P5 opponent set until I turn 63 years old in 2035.


Starting with the road game at Arizona State in 2012 through today, here's the results of that road game in the Power Five home-and-home:

2019: Illinois 31, UConn 23

2012: Arizona State 45, Illinois 14
2014: Washington 44, Illinois 19
2015: North Carolina 48, Illinois 14
2017: South Florida 47, Illinois 23
2021: Virginia 42, Illinois 14

Are you kidding me? We've gone on the road five times for these home-and-homes. And in those games we've given up 48, 47, 45, 44, and 42 points. And we scored 23, 19, 14, 14, and 14 points.

Something something "doing the same thing over an over and expecting different results".

It's just unbelievable consistency. Four head coaches (mostly Beckman and Smith, but some Cubit and Bielema) and nearly the exact same result. We did win at UConn, but that's mostly because UConn left their conference in order to improve their basketball prospects and hung the football program out to dry. Other than that, 4-something to 1-something, over and over and over.

None of this is Bret Bielema's fault, of course. He inherited "same old same old" and is attempting to make all things new. If today proved anything, it's that there's a long road ahead between old and new. He gets a nice long contract to overhaul everything.

But I can't get over how we can be this consistent in our failure. 45-14, 44-19, 48-14, 47-23, 42-14. HOWWWW??

+ This is why I put those mental sticky-notes on my mental bathroom mirror.

I'm going to cut-and-paste the entire season prediction portion of the night-before-the-season SOC right here. If you already read it, you can skip it, but I feel like I need to bring the whole thing over here just to talk about it.

I made myself promise. This was one of the biggest "put a mental sticky note on my mental bathroom mirror" scenarios of my life. After 2012 and 2016, I made myself promise that I would view the first year of every new coach differently.

There were seniors in 2012, and the new coach could maybe use those seniors to jump-start the program before the real rebuild began in 2013, but it all crashed and burned to the tune of 2-10.

There were seniors in 2016, and the new coach could maybe use those seniors to jump-start the program before the real rebuild begins in 2017, but it all crashed and burned to the tune of 3-9.

I predicted 6-6 for the record in 2012. We were coming off a 6-6 season, and I felt like there was enough talent on the roster to maintain the same level in 2012. The rebuild can begin in 2013.

I predicted 7-5 for the record in 2016. We were coming off a 5-7 season under Bill Cubit (I predicted 5-7, but the way that season played out, it would have been 7-5 with any offensive anything whatsoever). So I thought the new staff could coax two more wins and then the rebuild could begin in 2017.

I've done the "preduct the season record in the first SOC the night before the first game" for 11 years now, and those are the two seasons where I completely blew it. In fact, before last year, every year other than 2012 and 2016 I was within one win of the final tally. Last year I predicted 4-5 and we went 2-6, but we would have so very obviously beaten Ohio State had they not canceled the game, so I'm gonna say I was one win off again (no I wasn't).

But I feel like I did have a good handle on most every season. The two whiffs: 2012 and 2016. I saw returning talent but overlooked "sometimes, when I new coach takes over, it's a mess for a while". So I promised myself - PROMISED MYSELF - that the next time I'd be writing one of these and we'd have a first-year coach I wouldn't fall for the old "plenty of seniors to put together one nice season before the rebuild begins" again. Sight unseen I'd preduct 2-10 or 3-9 based only on my "new coach at Illinois after previous coach was fired" rule which was now in place.

Now, when I put in that rule, I didn't expect 42 seniors. There are 22 "super seniors" due to the Covid waiver and there are 20 "regular" seniors (all listed as juniors on the roster because they could, in fact, come back for one more year based on the same Covid waiver. 42 seniors is a "win simply because of age and experience" kind of number. As I wrote in the preview, Bret Bielema basically takes over the exact same team as last season and if he improves on two Big Ten wins he can very directly claim that Lovie coached those guys to two wins but he coached the same guys to five wins.

Which means I do see a lot of the same things I saw with 2012 and 2016. The 2011 defense was top-25 nationally, so even if it dropped off a bit in 2012, it could still lead the team to a bowl game on defensive play alone. Wrong. 2-10.

In 2015, the defense was once again top-25 nationally. So with a lot of those players returning for 2016, even if it dropped off a bit, that kind of D could still lead the team to a bowl game based on defensive play alone. Wrong. 3-9.

The obvious response to all of this is "but that was a bad coach in 2012 and a bad coach in 2016 so no wonder both teams were bad." True, but both of those coaches then climbed the 2-4-6 win ladder and got to a bowl game. Neither rebuild went anywhere, but 2-4-6 in both cases reinforces the fact that sometimes it just takes time to rebuild it.

You know what stats I'll turn to next. Perhaps I can speed this up so I don't waste any of your time saying the same thing over and over. Pat Fitzgerald took over a 7-win team and won 4 games his first year. Barry Alvarez and Kirk Ferentz took over programs that had won 2 and 3 games the year before and they both won only one game their first season. Nick Saban takes over a 6-6 Alabama program and goes 6-6. Even for great coaches, it sometimes just takes time.

So I have to stick with the sticky notes. I wrote them for a reason. I need to ignore "42 seniors could mean a big surprise" and just stick with what I told myself after I made the same mistake twice: when there's a new coach, and he's changing the schemes, it takes a lot of time. There's a reason Vegas set the over-under at 3.5. I cannot let myself wander into 6-6 or 7-5 land, as much as I want to. The sticky notes are the sticky notes.

2021 Season Prediction: 4-8

This is why. This is why this is why this is why. I think I switch from a mental sticky note to a tattoo.

I mean, we even have another example right here in front of me. Mike London won four games at Virginia in 2015 and was fired. Bronco Mendenhall took over and won 2 games in 2016. When a new coach takes over, it often looks bad-to-awful. And that doesn't really tell you if he's a good coach or a bad coach. It's just bad-to-awful for a while.

+ I think the most disappointing thing is the line play. Boil the game down to one thing and it's this: Virginia got to Sitkowski; Armstrong had all day to throw. Yes, yards were 556 to 337 and at one point I remember seeing something like 510-190, but we're boiling this down to one thing here, and it's "Armstrong had all day". We had no pass rush, and when we'd blitz, they'd complete the pass.

That's not something we can change in the next few months. That's going to be with us all year. I thought that Carney, Gay, and Coleman would be able to get to the QB, and I thought that Perry, Newton, and Woods would be able to get a surge, but it just hasn't happened. So it feels like at least six of the remaining nine games are already over.

So disappointing.

+ I was going to wait several weeks to start talking about this but after 423 passing yards, I guess we should probably start talking about it. At some point, will we start playing more Coleman and less Gay, more Pearl and less (pick a senior), more Nicholson and less Adams? It pains me to even type those words. But at some point here, just like 2016, it might be a sudden flip from the seniors to the freshmen.

We saw that some with Josh McCray getting a lot of carries. We saw that with DJ Johnson playing a ton in the second half. Those are the two freshmen that Bret Bielema added in January. Might he start doing the same with other freshmen?

It's too early to talk about this. I don't want to talk about this.

+ The loss of composure in the second half was, for me, the most concerning moment of the Bielema era. Not only are we getting destroyed, we're adding 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalties. Four of them this game, I think?

I get that there are frustration points. And I get that Virginia was quite vocal as the score pushed out of reach and it's hard to just sit there and take it. But it's still only September 11th, and that series with penalty after penalty after penalty was really tough to watch.

Just got the tap on the shoulder. Pressbox closing. I have to stop. Last guy out once again.



uilaw71 on September 11, 2021 @ 09:50 PM

Your observations are as always spot on Robert. Sad to say, many of your subscribers (and the vast majority on Loyalty) are already into dissing the staff and players.

Altgeld88 on September 11, 2021 @ 10:10 PM

It will obviously take time for BB to build a team. He needs bodies and talent. We have a smattering now. We need much more. Turning a D-1 football program around involves a lot of bodies and overcoming a lot of inertia. In the past 30 years we've had no consistent winning. It's sad and frustrating. We have no choice but to bear it and hope that BB is the man who will turn it around keep it on course.

IlliniHimey on September 11, 2021 @ 10:19 PM


KJKobs on September 11, 2021 @ 10:25 PM

I know it was omitted from your list but at least we had fun that home win under the lights vs a ranked Arizona State team in 2011

iluvrt on September 11, 2021 @ 10:35 PM

I was wrong this team is horrible. Super Seniors - who are we kidding?

Boneyard Surfer on September 11, 2021 @ 11:05 PM

As I said in a reply to a previous thread, our super experienced guys just aren’t very good at football.

College football is a zero sum game. There are an equal and same number of wins and losses available every season. For Illinois to get more wins, other teams have to get more losses. How is that going to happen?

Bear8287 on September 12, 2021 @ 12:38 AM

Hang in there Robert. I was drinking the orange Kool-Aid too before the season and thinking how could Vegas have the Illini at a 3.5 over/under this season? Then I read through your analysis and what you posted (and have posted again above) and thought, good on you for staying objective.

I gave you a lot of grief about sticking with Groce and making excuses, but will point out again that you did write the Eight Games Where We'll Learn Something piece and your only error? You didn't stick with your original analysis which actually was spot on.

While rooting for a team that goes 4-8 on the season doesn't sound very appealing, if it's wins against say Charlotte, Rutgers and then winning the last game of the season in Champaign against Northwestern? I'm good. Maybe a win against Purdue and a loss to Northwestern? So be it.

The program is in better shape than the dumpster fire Lovie Smith took over, but let's not kid ourselves that there's still a lot of work to do.

(300 yards of punting?! Really? How close is that to an Illini record?)

raleighIllini25 on September 12, 2021 @ 02:05 AM

I was at the game today. We have no pass rush. None. Nada. I understand the future plans for the QB. But how could Williams hurt the team more than our current QB/WRs? One thing that would have helped was putting the fear of God in UVA that Williams would put up 150 on the ground. Our receivers are not getting the ball, dropping the ones that hit their hands and the QB is staring down his first read like it’s a stripper. The most electric guy on our side touches the ball 5 times a time. This year it needs to be every snap. Next year we can find someone who can find # 2 or (God forbid) # 3 on the depth chart. This year, if the first guy is not open scramble.

P. S. The flyover was the best part of the game.

Chief4ever on September 12, 2021 @ 06:33 AM

YES!!! YES. What's wrong with Deuce at QB with IW at receiver?? Couldn't be worse.

O&B4life on September 13, 2021 @ 01:07 AM

I've thought the same thing about Deuce at QB

NC_OrangeKrush on September 12, 2021 @ 01:48 PM

Staring down receivers like they are a stripper.. So spot on.... Assume it would have shown up in film the last 2 weeks.... Maybe BP ready to be better...

However they do it.. Need more touches by playmakers.

But the Pass Rush... Yikes.. Was hopeful year 5 and 6 would make up for talent... I still can't believe it does not... Sill hopeful.. But less today.

andy on September 12, 2021 @ 03:03 AM

Line play was disappointing to me too. I’ve had this nagging concern that our experienced players are just overmatched. Both lines have looked underwhelming the last few weeks. The O- Line has been better than the D- Line, but I expected them to be dominant in these early games and they’re just ok.

HiggsBoson on September 12, 2021 @ 11:54 AM

Robert, you lost me when you mentioned Mike Thomas and didn't immediately follow it with an ancient Gypsy curse that involved spitting.

San Joaquin on September 12, 2021 @ 03:13 PM

I still see reason for comparative optimism, and inside 4 years for once. Bielema is a proven winner. He knows what to do, and without relying on top recruiting classes. The transfer market will also help expedite things I think. Not a ton of them hit, but those that do make a big difference. Boy does CJ Hart look good right now.

Joe Edge on September 12, 2021 @ 09:49 PM

I for one don't think that the scheduling situation is all that bad, and the criticism surrounding that is more likely a reflection of how bad a team WE are, rather than how badly the schedule was put together. If we had a much better team/program very few would be complaining...

Frankly Robert, If those P5 losses you point to had been wins (or more evenly split) the complaints wouldn't be so loud... and since I'm on the west coast (PNW), I would love to see a U-Dub v. Illinois game, as that stadium is just 20 minutes away in traffic.

No, I didn't like Guenther and certainly NOT Thomas. But they are just the tip of the iceberg of the bad hires we've made - Valek, Moeller, Tepper, Turner, Zook, Beckman, Cubit, L.Smith... Come on ! ! ! THIS is the problem...

Until we can have a coach who we will be patient enough with to allow them to build a true program, and who is good enough to build that true program, then we will just be that team that everyone wants on their schedule for THEIR homecoming... I hate it. But that's the reality !

NOTE: Bret Bielema is the 15th head coach since Ray Eliot retired in 1959... Only Mike White, and John Mackovic had winning records...

Bear8287 on September 12, 2021 @ 11:01 PM

Kirk Ferentz has been the head coach at Iowa since 1999. During that time the Illini have had, Turner, Zook, Beckman, Cubit, L. Smith and Bielema as head coaches (and interim head coaches Koenning, R. Smith). Not too hard to guess which program has had more success so far this millennia.

(On a side note, Fontana's restaurant closed. Hope you're enjoying the PNW.)

Joe Edge on September 14, 2021 @ 10:48 PM

La Fontana Siciliana is still open... ? ? ?

Goorblue on September 12, 2021 @ 10:42 PM

Goorblue on September 12, 2021 @ 10:46 PM

Arkansas destroyed Texas last night. Arkansas was ranked 120 in the FBS for sacks allowed last year. Is it about the Jimmies and the Joe's or the X's and the O's..... Or is it just damn hard to implement a new system regardless of scheme, talent and experience.

Bear8287 on September 12, 2021 @ 11:03 PM

Year 1: Lose big
Year 2: Lose close
Year 3: Win close
Year 4: Win?

BriCrozier on September 13, 2021 @ 12:56 AM

Illinois Football is more like:

Year 1 - Lose big Year 2 - Lose by just a little less Year 3 - Win one or two games we shouldn't, but still lose more than you win Year 4 - Lose by a lot, have the head coach's firing be announced on the Sunday morning after the Northwestern game, then repeat

thumpasaurus on September 13, 2021 @ 02:08 PM

Well, if it’s time to hibernate, we have a great test in front of us in 2023.

We hired Bielema just before they lost a coach and AD due to scandal and hired Lance Leipold. We are building from a more advantageous position than they are on the exact same timeline.

If Kansas is better than us by then, we can pack it up on this one.

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