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Hard to believe that it's still technically summer and the football season only has eight games remaining. But yes, with a Week 0 game, we've now played 4 of the 12 games on our schedule. So let's take a quick trip through our stats to see how things are going.
I'll use Bill Connelly's SP+ for this (as per usual). His system slowly drops the preseason ranking and adds more of the actual results as the weeks go by. The full preseason numbers (based on roster strength, returning production, and recent team history) won't drop off fully until later in the season, but with four weeks down, we can begin to see the trends from the actual results.
After four games, here's our trends:
Offense - Preseason 77, now 79
Defense - Preseason 83, now 100
Overall: Preseason 81, now 93
(Note: Ten minutes after I published, Connelly updated his numbers. He had noted yesterday that a few recent games hadn't been put into the system yet, but now all Week 3 games have been added. So I've updated all of the numbers here to reflect those changes. The only thing that changed above: our offense went from 78th to 79th. I've also updated the team rankings below.)
So, uh, that's not good. After four weeks of results, with a baseline of "81st-best team, ranked between Marshall and Fresno State", we've dropped to 93rd. The offense has more or less been what was expected based on past results, talent, and returning production. The defense has not.
Before we get into what that might mean, let's look at the rest of the Big Ten. I'll just use the overall SP+ for this. Preseason ranking and then the ranking after this past weekend:
Ohio State - Preseason 4th, now 4th
Michigan - Preseason 17th, now 6th
Penn State - Preseason 10th, now 7th
Wisconsin - Preseason 6th, now 10th
Iowa - Preseason 16th, still 16th
Maryland - Preseason 38th, now 29th
Minnesota - Preseason 24th, now 30th
Nebraska - Preseason 32nd, now 39th
Michigan St - Preseason 51st, now 40th
Indiana - Preseason 28th, now 51st
Purdue - Preseason 52nd, now 54th
Rutgers - Preseason 83rd, now 59th
Northwestern - Preseason 76th, now 85th
Illinois - Preseason 81st, now 93rd
Maybe the best way to look at that would be to check the movement for each team. From best to worst so far:
Michigan State: +11
Penn State: +3
Ohio State: E
Keep in mind that it's early. And keep in mind what went into the preseason rankings. In the "recent history" column for, say, Rutgers, their ranking was being held down by the disastrous end to the Chris Ash era and the nearly year-long interim tag for Nunzio Campanile (Ash was fired in September of 2019). So it's a little easier to beat preseason projections when the preseason projections include "2018 and 2019 were complete disasters and a competent coach in Year Two should out-perform the mean".
And yes, I get that my plus/minus thing above is a bit janky. Ohio State starts as the #4 team, so it's not like they could gain Michigan's 11 spots. Still, I'm not trying to evaluate the strength of each Big Ten team. I'm trying to look at where each team stands when compared to their preseason expectations. Rutgers, Michigan, and Michigan State are the surprise teams so far. Northwestern, Illinois, and Indiana are the disappointing teams.
For Illinois and Northwestern, it's the defense so far. Northwestern's defensive ranking has dropped 15 spots after three games; Illinois' defensive ranking has dropped 17 spots. For Indiana, it's their offense. They've dropped 29 spots from their preseason ranking. (Their defense has dropped two spots as well, and now they have two road games followed by home for Michigan State and Ohio State and then on the road at Maryland and Michigan so... best of luck, Hoosiers.)
What does all of this mean for Illinois? Very little in the big picture, I think. Those numbers should be a bit scary for Indiana fans after handing Tom Allen a seven-year extension. Yes, they've had to play Iowa and Cincinnati, but they've been so far from their expected results that the warning lights should be flashing. If it tumbles to something like 4-8 or 3-9 (in year five for Allen), that's pretty frightening for Indiana fans.
For Illinois, this is one-third of the first season for Bret Bielema. It's disappointing that the defense is significantly worse so far, but that's somewhat expected given the scheme overhaul. I always use Matt Rhule as the shining example here. He took over a Baylor team that had the #27 offense and the #40 defense the year before he got the job. His first season, the offense fell to 78th and the defense 77th in the SP+. His second season? The offense jumped up to 39th but the defense fell to 85th. His third season? Offense 28th, defense 18th, Baylor goes 11-3, and Rhule gets the Carolina Panthers job.
The offense dropping from 27th to 78th and the defense dropping from 40th to 77th didn't mean a thing his first season. He was simply changing everything, and when you do that, it takes a while. The speed of the build from that point was quite impressive. Illinois and Baylor were the two youngest teams in college football in 2017. Rhule went 1 win in 2017 but then 6 wins in 2018 and 11 wins in 2019. Lovie went 2 wins, 4 wins, 6 wins.
So I don't think these numbers tell us much about Bret Bielema (or Tony Petersen, or Ryan Walters). We had all hoped for something better with all of the on-field experience and 22 super seniors, but we just haven't seen it so far. I still think this is a team that can go 4-8 (Charlotte, Northwestern, and one more), but that gets a lot harder after you lose to UTSA and then collapse with five minutes left against Maryland.
The bad news (warning: there is no "good news" paragraph after this): next year is an overhaul year. With this new rule that is supposed to come online allowing 32 players in the next class, we're going to get roster turnover like you've never seen. There are 54 fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-year scholarship players on this roster right now; 22 will have to leave after this season because their eligibility will be exhausted. The coaches will meet with the other 32 players to discuss their future (they'll have received the four years of their scholarship and can only return if the staff asks them to come back).
So we might see 22 super seniors depart AND 20 of those 32 fourth- and fifth-year guys with eligibility remaining depart, and then next year's roster is something like this:
- 12 fourth- and fifth-year guys asked to come back
- 41 returning first-, second-, and third-year players from this season (will be second-, third-, and fourth-year players next year).
- 20 incoming freshmen
- 12 incoming transfers
That's one way to get to 85. There are other ways. But all of the ways include "40-some players leave the program". That's an overhaul.
But that's for another post. Right now, we're one-third of the way through the season. The numbers, especially the defensive numbers, aren't good. We're performing at a level lower than our low expectations. Statistically, we're now below Rutgers in the Big Ten and we occupy the basement apartment by ourselves.
Does it mean anything? No. Where we go from here is what matters.
Does it feel good as a fan? Absolutely not.