Quick Look At 2022
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We interrupt this basketball season to bring you a live report from my home office where I've been sitting here going over the newly-released Returning Production and SP+ numbers from Bill Connelly. If you've seen these lists and are wondering why Illinois is A) so low in Returning Production and B) dropped so far in the SP+ rankings, well, do I have an article for you.
First, an overview. Of both Returning Production and SP+. I'll try not to get too deep with this - I've written about these projections for at least five years so you probably don't need me to really get in there - but I'll at least give the basics.
His Returning Production number is not "returning starters" or anything similar to Phil Steele's lists. It's simply what it says: returning production. He studied what helps a team improve and what sees a team make a big drop (historically). And he settled on a formula (which he tweaks every year). The basic principle: not all positions are the same. A really good running back: somewhat easy to replace after he graduates. A really good wide receiver or tight end: very, very difficult to replace after he graduates.
A lot of this follows conventional college football wisdom. Offensive line? It's very hard to replace a really good line, especially when it's multiple starters who have played next to each other for a few years. The next set of linemen, no matter their talent level, are going to need 6 or 12 or 18 games before they're playing at the same level as the experienced linemen who just left. On the defensive line, however, besides maybe a really good pass rusher at defensive end, it's much easier to plug and play and stay at the same level. The reasoning for that (at least in my mind): defensive lines are reacting to what's happening. Offensive lines are trying to learn tiny little intricacies that can turn a 2-yard run into a 33 yard run. It just takes time to get it rolling.
The most valuable thing for an offense (as I've always seen it): fantastic chemistry between a quarterback and a receiver. Jeff George and Mike Bellamy. Kurt Kittner and Brandon Lloyd. The best Illini offense of the last 10 years - 2013, somehow - is maybe the best example of that. They moved Steve Hull from safety to wide receiver because he and his freshman roommate, Nathan Scheelhaase, had this "I always know where he's going to be" thing going on. That connection boosted Scheelhaase to more than 3,000 passing yards and saw STEVEHULL catch 59 passes for 993 yards.
So that's how Connelly builds those numbers. Returning rushing yards? 6% of your offensive returning production number. Returning receiving yards from wide receivers and tight ends? 37% of your number. Historically, whether you're playing with LSU-level talent or whether you're playing with Akron-level talent, teams that have to replace their top two tailbacks do much better than the teams who have to replace their top two wide receivers.
It's the same on defense. If you have an eraser on defense (a linebacker or maybe a strong safety) who cleans up every single mess on the field, it's really hard to immediately replace him after he leaves. Much harder than, say, a defensive tackle. So Connelly weights his defensive returning production numbers accordingly.
And then he plugs that into his SP+ ratings. This explanation can be one paragraph. It's what kind of team you've had recently + how well you've recruited the last four years + your returning production. He combines all of that together and builds a preseason rating. And then that preseason rating is adjusted by what actually happens on the actual field all fall until he comes up with a final SP+ rating after the season. And then he does it all over again.
That final rating in 2021? A 4.3 (which landed us 64th nationally). 4.3, for Illinois football, is a really good number. Using the chart from collegefootballdata.com, here's the Illini SP+ since 1970:
If we just carry that straight across and go back to the year I graduated (1996, so 26 seasons), here's the 12 seasons that had a positive SP+:
1. 1999 (surprising, right?)
4. 2008 (what a missed opportunity)
So onward and upward, right? If the Bielema starting point was "8th-best Illini team of the last 26 years", dawn is breaking, right? Well, SP+ (specifically, Returning Production) suggests there might be a dip before a surge. Let's dig into it.
On the returning production chart, no two ways about it, the numbers are ugly. Again, this is just "every team, regardless of talent, scored on how much of their production is returning, weighted by these important positions over here and these less-important positions over here." The ranking for Illinois: 122nd out of 130 teams. 14th in the Big Ten.
The reason? On offense the big three categories are offensive line starts, QB production, and WR/TE production. We lose Brandon Peters, three starting offensive linemen, and Daniel Barker. So that's a decent-sized hit.
On defense, it's similar. Biggest number is tackles returning, and when going by tackles per game last year, we lost six of our top ten tacklers (Hansen, Tolson, Carney, Gay, Adams, and Joseph). That's a big bite out of any defense. The other big hit is from passes defended. We do return Sydney Brown, Quan Martin, and Devon Withespoon, but losing Tony Adams and Kerby Joseph is a hit.
Add it all up and our number is 51%. Ohio State is tops in the Big Ten with 76% returning (25th nationally) which is downright frightening. They might have some kind of 2019 LSU kind of season next year. The simple takeaway from all of this: "Illinois lost more than any other Big Ten team."
And that answers the "why did Illinois drop so far in the SP+ projections?" question. End of 2021: 64th. Projections for 2022: 83rd. Second-lowest preseason ranking in the Big Ten, just ahead of Northwestern (89th). It's fairly easy math. You start at 64th, you're 122nd in Returning Production, your recruiting is bottom of the conference so there's no boost there, and your preseason number lands you 83rd.
"Bottom of the conference" isn't some big insult here. It will be a slow build on the talent side. As I noted this fall, I'm using On3's composite rankings now instead of 247's (247 weights their composite score so that the 247 individual score counts more; On3 now has a list that is 25% Rivals' ranking, 25% 247's ranking, 25% ESPN's ranking, and 25% On3's ranking). And for the four recruiting classes that go into Connelly's number, here's our On3 Consensus recruiting class ranking out of 14 Big Ten teams:
So we're not going to get any kind of boost from recruiting. Which means that if we want to climb in the SP+ rankings, we need to A) have a solid season on the field (we just did) and B) have a lot of returning production coming back (we're dead last in the B1G).
All of that combines together to say "2022 will likely be a step back from 2021". Some very impactful players are leaving. Four of them will be at the NFL Combine (Jake Hansen, Vederian Lowe, Kerby Joseph, and Blake Hayes) which means that many of these are "wow, he's going to be very hard to replace" guys. And when you take the entire list of players departing and apply them to Connelly's "it's harder to replace OL than DL" statistics, it's even rougher.
Which is totally fine. It's Year Two. Year One was wildly successful for a Year One. A step back at this point really isn't that big of a deal.
How much of a step back? Well, let's just take that projection and apply it to other seasons on that image above. Connelly's projections say that we'll drop from an SP+ of 4.3 (highest since 2011) to an SP+ score of -2.2. The closest seasons in the last 40 years to that number: 2006 and 2013. Heh. That's Zook's Year Two and Beckman's Year Two. Didn't plan for that.
2006 finished 2-10 but that was the 2nd Order Wins season of all Illini 2nd Order Wins seasons. That's the stat where you take all of the statistics from a season and say "if you have a team like this putting up stats like this, historically they've won 4.2 games." You then compare that to your actual win total and you get 2nd Order Wins. Well, in 2006, that team went 2-10 with a 2nd Order Wins of 5.5. Should have been a 5-7 or 6-6 team... finished 2-10.
2013 was referenced above. Final record: 4-8. Surprisingly good offense (38th per SP+), very bad defense (102nd). The projections in this current 2022 SP+ for our offense and defense: offense 106th, defense 49th.
So I think that makes the story of this season fairly simple. The defense will likely take a step back with Carney, Gay, Perry, Hansen, Tolson, Adams, and Joseph gone. I would lock in that projection right there (49th-best defense) today if I could. And then you turn to Barry Lunney Jr. (we're gonna go with BLJ, right?) and ask him to build an offense better than 106th. It will be difficult with this much turnover on the offensive line, but getting Palcho back helps. Find something there that can get Chase Brown to 1,000 yards again and then find a QB who can get Isaiah Williams the ball and you might be on to something. Something better than 106th, anyway.
Right now I'd say, without looking at the schedule and finding out what each individual team has coming back, that 4-8 sounds about right. Slight step back from last year's 5-7. And then look to 2023 as the year you make a push to get back to a bowl.
What's that? You do want me to look at the schedule? Fine. I'll just put the SP+ projection for all of our opponents and put Illinois in there as well.
at Michigan (4)
at Wisconsin (10)
Michigan State (17)
at Nebraska (34)
at Indiana (78)
(Illinois - 83)
at Northwestern (89)
Chattanooga (6-5 FCS team last year)
So yeah, I'd say 4-8 looks just about right from this 1000-foot view? Those first seven opponents are all top-35 in these projections. The formula is a simple "how have you performed + how have you recruited + who do you have coming back and at what positions", and using that formula, there are seven top-35 opponents who will all be very difficult to beat.
Then there's a big gap before five very winnable games: Virginia, at Indiana, Wyoming, Chattanooga, and at Northwestern. Go 0-fer in the top seven games but go 4-1 in these five to finish 4-8? From this view, that sounds about right?
Lots to learn between now and then, though. Maybe Tommy DeVito looks like a superstar during spring ball and I move my prediction to 7-5. Maybe the defense is a mess at fall camp because those seven departed players were the heart and soul of everything we did and I move my prediction to 2-10. There's a reason I don't predict the season record until the night before the season.
Which is now only 198 days away.