What Do The Numbers Look Like Now?
I'm never moving again. Seriously - never again. I'm 50 years old, I can now hear the Memorial Stadium fireworks from my house, and that will work for me until I'm no longer roaming the earth. Moving is the absolute worst, so... I'm not leavin'.
(Our mover was awesome, though. If you ever need a recommendation for a mover in Central Illinois, email me or DM me. This guy cares about moving people like I care about Illini football. So that part of it was great.)
Saying the words "which box is that in?" every hour... is not great. Just packing for this trip to Minnesota was impossible because half the stuff I needed to pack was packed. You stack everything in the garage because then you can just go through it later... and then you need something from the bottom box in the back row. So glad we were able to align our move with the bye week. There's no chance I could have done this any other way.
I had intended to publish this on Tuesday (my weekly "WHAT" article), but then the number change thing came up at the Monday press conference and I spent the next two days putting together that video. So Friday it is. Let's talk about WHAT the numbers look like after eight games.
To recap the last eight weeks of this "What..." series, the numbers have looked better than the results. We haven't been Indiana, floundering around unable to gain yards. This hasn't been 2017 where we all looked at the offensive struggles and said "yeah, we're pretty much never going to score." This has been an average team that shoots itself in the foot with penalties, turnovers, and poor field position. If you want to know just how bad we've been at those three things, well, just go through the Story Archive above and click on any article that begins with the word "what."
Let's start there. We're an "average" football team. How average? Right smack dab in the middle. Here's a set of composite rankings maintained by Nate Manzo (@cfbNate on Twitter). It's like the I-N-I but he also adds two other rankings. Where do we land? Right on the number zero:
Most of those rankings (all analytics, no polls) follow some method of determining if you're perhaps 2 points per game better than the average team or 9 points per game worse than the average team. We are... the average team.
And keep in mind, many of these are opponent adjusted. So yes, our difficult schedule has been factored in. Given the schedule we've played, through eight games, we're 1000% average.
I should probably define "difficult schedule" here. Given that Toledo is 8-1 (their only loss was to us) and given that Kansas is 6-2 and ranked 22nd, just how difficult has it been? I saw this tweet from Phil Steele yesterday so... here you go:
Here are my toughest schedule ratings for games player year to date— Phil Steele (@philsteele042) November 2, 2023
1 South Carolina
12 Florida St
14 Wash St
16 Texas A&M
18 Iowa St
There's our foundation. 9th-most difficult schedule (according to that metric), right on the zero line in those composite rankings. Not great, not awful, just... average.
But we all acknowledge that we should be better than that. Schedule or not, we shouldn't be the 10th-best team in the Big Ten. So what is holding us back?
Now we can get to the part of this article I assembled last week. I'm sure these charts have changed a bit after last weekend's games, but since we had a bye, our numbers haven't changed. Here's the best way I can tell our story: Success Rate + Eckel. I've covered both in previous "What..." articles, but here's a quick recap.
Success Rate removes everything from the equation besides moving the ball up and down the field (and preventing the ball from being moved up and down the field). There's a bar to clear for first, second, third, and fourth down and it charts every play to see if you were "successful" or not. There are other factors that will determine wins and losses (turnovers, field position, explosive plays, etc), but this just looks for "can you move/stop the ball." That's the sustainable side of football. You can count on that being repeated. You can't count on the other stuff as much.
Eckel is something that Parker Fleming (@statsowar) came up with. Think of it as a double redzone. It simply charts drives that get inside the 40 (and yes, he includes a 65-yard touchdown as having reached "inside the 40"). Are you getting into scoring position (and is your defense preventing people from getting into scoring position)?
I talked about this stat after the Nebraska game. A kickoff recovered at the 25, a flubbed punt handing the other team the ball inside our own 30, a fumble in our end - all of those are Eckel death. The other team's Eckel rate skyrockets because they're starting their drive inside our 40.
So Eckel isn't just looking at offense vs. defense there. Meaning, another team getting inside the 40 might not be your defense's fault. If the offense is starting from the 20, getting a holding penalty back to the 10, throwing three incompletions, and punting from the endzone, the other team is probably going to take over needing 5-10 yards to get inside your 40. You can't blame the defense for that one.
With those two stats I think I can tell the story of the season so far. Parker Fleming has been experimenting with a vertical chart to graph these two statistics, and I think these two charts tell the entire story of our season.
Success Rate so far:
And Eckel rate so far:
Scroll up to the first chart (Net Success Rate) and note that our logo is right on top of NC State. In terms of moving the ball/stopping the ball, we're NC State.
Now scroll down to the second chart (Eckel Ratio) and note that NC State is in nearly the exact same spot while we are........ the second-worst nationally. Only better than the worst team in college football (and maybe one of the worst teams the last 10 years), Kent State. I honestly should just drop the mic here and walk off stage. I just gave you the entire season right there.
If I had more time I would make some kind of video presentation here. And I'd present it like Kevin Costner in JFK where I just flip back and forth between images saying "back, and to the left - back, and to the left". We're NC State when it comes to moving the ball and stopping the ball. We're Kent State when it comes to getting inside the 40/preventing teams from getting inside the 40.
That's all of it. You only need these two stats. WHAT do the numbers look like? They look like NC State if they were horrific at everything pertaining to field position.
NC State isn't some great team this season. They're 5-3 with losses to Notre Dame, Louisville, and Duke. Several of their wins haven't exactly been impressive (by 10 over UConn, by 3 over Virginia, and 48-41 in a shootout over Marshall), but they've gotten the job done and they're 5-3.
That could be us but we playin'.
Maybe we should flip this around and talk about Kent State. Playing against defenses perhaps 3 times worse than the defenses we've faced, they average only 269 yards per game. Their defense, again, playing a much easier schedule, has given up 33 points per game. If they played Florida Atlantic tomorrow, they would be a 20-point underdog. They're universally the worst team in college football in 2023. Their head coach left to be the offensive coordinator at Colorado this past offseason because he knew what was coming.
And yet we're nearly the same as Kent State when it comes to drives getting to (prevented from getting to) the 40 yard line. If your Net Success Rate numbers are right at zero, your field position numbers would need to be catastrophic in order to match Kent State when it comes to Eckel rate. Ours are.
I don't want to talk about that side of things anymore. Let's get back to our Success Rate twin. We're NC State when it comes to moving the ball and stopping the ball but...
- They're 36th in turnover margin, we're 103rd.
- They're 77th in 3rd down conversion percentage, we're 107th.
- They're 13th in 3rd down conversion percentage defense, we're 117th.
- They're 70th in penalty yards per game, we're 112th.
I'm not giving you an example of some great college team here. I'm not arguing that we should be Georgia or Ohio State. I'm saying that we have the offense and defense of NC State. And we're 3-5 because of all the. small things.
Go look at those charts again. Go see how your success rate should probably match your Eckel rate. Generally, the same teams are at the top and the same teams are at the bottom. If you can move (stop) the ball you're going to get inside (prevent getting inside) the 40. The only way you wouldn't is if your field position numbers are so incredibly poor that you're giving your opponent the ball at the 50 and starting your own drives inside the 10 (because of turnovers, failed 4th down conversions, the inability to get off the field on third down, etc).
And that's what we're doing. And that's our season. And that's quite frustrating.
We have one month to fix it. We play four flawed teams. We've been gaining the yards but don't have the points to show for it, so it's time to put up the points. We still are putting up our best offensive success rate since 2013 (yes, really - we're still a tiny percentage ahead of the 2018 offense). We should be saying "this is the best Illini offense in a decade" but we're not because we've made sure that the yards remain meaningless.
Fix that, and we can have a great month. Fix that, and we can still bowl. We're 119th in Yards Per Point, and if we could just move that to something simple like 94th nationally, we could go bowling.
I cannot stress enough how easy this is to fix compared to "we need to gain a ton more yards and stop giving up 500+ per game." We just need to replace a few switches while the 2017 team needed to re-wire the entire house. It is all right there for the taking.
Will we take it?