Pick My Post - 4-0 Start
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I have something going on in about 45 minutes so this one will follow the old Pick My Post rules. I have 45 minutes (in this case, 41) to research and write an entire post. It started as a way to show off my writing chops -- you could see the timestamp of the tweet requesting an article on that topic and then the timestamp of the article and you'd text your friend "can you believe Robert wrote all of that in 45 minutes?" -- but then it just became this thing where I'd do a Pick My Post when I only had 45 minutes of free time.
Speaking of which, I'm down to 39. To the next question:
deep dive into how we get to Oct. 1 (at Wisc) with a 4-0 record— Vader Johan (@jobin_theman) August 2, 2022
For starters, it would take something like 2015 to get there. The thing that separates the good teams from the bad teams in college football is consistency. The four teams that make the playoff are always the four teams who survive their bad games and emerge at the end with no losses (or one loss). Everyone plays bad games - the good teams survive them.
Everyone always expects football to be linear, but it's not. Illinois losing to Eastern Michigan doesn't preclude Illinois from beating Wisconsin. Illinois losing to UTSA doesn't preclude Illinois from winning at Penn State. Some games you're good and some games you're bad. The better the team, the more you can survive "bad."
The reason I'm saying that: 4-0 is very difficult. Even when you have an easy schedule. We started 4-0 in 2011, beating #22 Arizona State in the third game, but in the fourth game we squeaked one out over a bad Western Michigan team 23-20. We started 4-1 in 2015 (with one awful loss at North Carolina) but we needed Middle Tennessee State to miss the game-winning 40-yard field goal as time expired. And then, the following week, we needed Nebraska to inexplicably throw on third down with a minute left when we were out of timeouts. Nebraska could have run the clock down to maybe 15 seconds before punting it out of the endzone, but instead they gave us the ball with just under a minute and we scored the winning TD. All because they wasted what would have been 40 seconds of running clock by throwing an incompletion. What should have been a 2-3 start was somehow 4-1.
So that's my first thought on this topic. When someone says "4-0", before I think "well, what's the schedule like?", I think "do you know how hard it is to win four games in a row?". Even great teams struggle to win four games in a row. There will be several teams this fall that go 8-4 on the season but won't ever win four in a row. It's football, and bad things always happen, and only good teams can overcome the bad things.
With that out of the way, let's look at the schedule. In Bill Connelly's preseason SP+, he has Illinois 82nd. Here's where he has our first four opponents:
Wyoming - 104
Indiana - 72
Virginia - 55
Chattanooga - (FCS - no ranking provided)
Making it really simple, that's 2-2. Just take the names off and go with the numbers. 82nd-best team in college football opens up at home against #104 - that's a win. Then they go on the road at #72 - that's a loss. Home game with #55 might be close, but that's probably another loss. And then a home game with an FCS team that was 6-5 last season - that better be a win.
Vegas will have us favored in the Wyoming and Chattanooga games and as underdogs against Indiana and Virginia. So 2-2 is the expected start. Now let's get to the "how do we get to the Wisconsin game 4-0?" part.
Two things that stick out in the "here's hoping" department:
- Here's hoping that Indiana's 2020 hangover lasts one more game. They've recruited much better than us the last five years, and they added a lot of portal talent this offseason, and yes, 2021 was an "everything goes wrong" season which immediately followed their "everything went right" season (a season that found them ranked in the top-10). But that was a very long tumble last year, and hopefully they're still shaken.
- Here's hoping that Virginia's new schemes are still wildly confusing come September 10th. They return a quarterback who threw for 405 yards and 5 touchdowns against us last season. And it would have been 450 yards and six touchdowns had Kerby not ripped the ball out of the receivers hands at the goal line on that one play. But Virginia changed head coaches, and Virginia changed schemes, and hopefully they're still in the "wait, how does this work?" stage once they come to Champaign.
The scary part. Indiana should be much improved (their returning production per Connelly's stat: 67%, 53rd nationally; our returning production: 51%, 115th nationally). And Virginia has Keytaon Thompson who had his way with us last year (5 catches for 68 yards, 4 rushes for 24 yards and a TD). Thompson ended up with 1,000 receiving yards, so if we're not careful, Armstrong-to-Thompson could be one of those 200-yard receiving games.
But this is supposed to be "how do we get to 4-0?", and I have five minutes left, so let me make a really fast list.
- Don't stub your toe against Wyoming. They lost a ton to the portal, so they're in scramble mode after a solid season, but we can't stumble out of the gate.
- Find a way to hang around in that Indiana game and then strike at the end. I think we've learned by now that our first road game will be a disaster (it has been for, like, 20 seasons), but Indiana was 2-10 last year and will be playing their first game with their new schemes (and all their transfers). Find a way to keep it close and then win it at winning time.
- Win an emotion game against Virginia. They'll have a home game (against Richmond) the week before to work out the kinks of their new offensive scheme. But that's their first road game as well, and as we've seen before (Arizona State 2011, Cincinnati 2013, etc), when teams go on the road in early September for their first game, it's sometimes a bit of a disaster. Should be a decent crowd - ride the emotion to a win.
- If you're somehow 3-0 after those three games, then every Illini fan on earth is going to think the same thing: "oh God - are we going to start 3-0 and have all this momentum and then lose on a Thursday night to an FCS team?". If we're 3-0, I guarantee that every single one of us will expect the most Illinois thing that could possibly happen to happen - a loss at home to Chattanooga. So this fourth bullet point is easy. Start 3-0 and then avoid doing the most Illinois thing possible.
Time's up. Gotta go. Go Illini. Start 4-0.