Returning Production - 2023
I'm already anxious because I know that Bill Connelly is going to release his way-too-early SP+ rankings for 2023 this week, and I don't want him to release those until I've written this Returning Production article. I want to do a little bit of speculating about where we might land first.
Why? Because I write this article every year and I never get to speculate in a fun way. It's always "the numbers won't catch up to us until we consistently do something well." For 2023, it's possible some of the numbers will be catching up to us. In a good way.
If you don't know what I'm babbling about, we'll just call it college football analytics. Connelly's preseason rankings are not "rankings" as much as they're just a laptop viewing college football. I'm paraphrasing here (like I always do), but he basically looks at three things:
- How good were you last year and how much of that production returns?
- How well have you recruited?
- What has your program been like over the previous 3-4 seasons?
Because of the third one, I never get to have any fun on Preseason SP+ Numbers Day. We've only ever had occasional blips on the radar (individual 6-6 seasons which, in the end, didn't mean much). That's why, when tracking our SP+ rating year by year, our trend line has looked like this:
See that spike at the end there? That's why I can't wait for these SP+ projections to come out. Our number is going to drop - we just lost a lot of players, which we'll get to in a moment - but for the first time since I've been writing these articles, there's hope that our preseason numbers will be encouraging. This chart goes back to 1970 (before I was born), and the 2022 numbers are the fourth-best. Per his laptop, the fourth-best Illini football season of the last 50 years.
We finished the 2022 season 21st in SP+. Meaning, throw out the records, the eye test, the human polls, and just go by Connelly's formula and you'll find that the University of Illinois Fighting Illini put up the 21st-best college football numbers last season. Real, actual, sustainable football. Purdue: 56th (very, very lucky to win eight games). Illinois: 21st (real, actual, sustainable football).
I had always worried that when we'd have an 8-win season like this, it would be of the 2022 Purdue variety. Another one of those famous Illinois 6-6 seasons where we somehow go 8-4 but I'd have to write "statistically, this really wasn't much different from 2014." Instead, statistically, this was a 9-3 or 10-2 season that ended 8-4. You might take that as some kind of "can't win when it counts" thing, but I don't. Nothing was more encouraging last season than going toe to toe with a playoff team and losing on a field goal with nine seconds left. Even though it sucked out loud.
OK, on to the analysis. I've been studying what we have coming back in the little football series I've been writing. But how does that compare to the rest of college football? That's what we're discussing today.
First off, you need to understand how these numbers work. This will all be a paraphrase of Connelly, but I'll try to condense it down into a few paragraphs (like I do every year).
He approaches "production" in a "not all positions are created equal" way. Bringing an experienced QB back is more important than bringing an experienced defensive end back. And he doesn't just assume those differences. He's studied them.
Teams that bring back five offensive linemen - whether that's Alabama returning five future NFL linemen or Yale returning five future investment bankers - tend to improve. Everyone always allows recruiting to bleed into their thinking here - "sure, Georgia lost some offensive linemen, but they'll be fine" - but this is independent of that. The talent you've brought in will boost your numbers elsewhere in his formula. For returning production, it's a simple "no matter if you're a college football super power or the bottom of the MAC, returning a bunch of experienced offensive linemen is a boost for next season and starting a bunch of newcomers is, historically, a struggle you must overcome."
On defense, over the years, he's found that tacklers are the hardest thing to replace. Mostly linebackers and guys in the secondary. Lose your three leading tacklers and the next season it might be a bit rough as you get the new guys up to speed. Ohio U with three new 2-star linebackers will take a step back and Ohio State with three new 5-star linebackers will take a step back. Learning curve enters the picture.
Every year, when he releases his numbers, fans who are used to "returning starters" numbers will argue with him online. "We're bringing back our entire defensive line - there's no way we're 84th in defensive returning production." And every year he points to his (always updated) formula. Historically, defensive linemen are fairly easy to replace. Productive linebackers and safeties are much harder to replace.
This year, his defensive formula looks like this:
Here's the approximate layout:
Percent of returning tackles: 70%
Percent of returning passes defensed: 14%
Percent of returning tackles for loss: 12%
Percent of returning sacks: 4%
Perhaps surprisingly, turnover in the back of the defense causes far more of a shift in a team's SP+ rating from year to year than turnover up front. By position, defensive backs make up about 46% of the defensive formula, while linebackers are at 40% and the defensive line is at 14%.
(Remember: This is not based on my personal opinion of positional importance -- it's all about what impacts the numbers the most. On average, teams can evidently overcome turnover upfront more easily than turnover in the back.)
I always hope that people pause at words like "evidently" when he writes things like that. Everyone always, always, always thinks he's offering his opinion on what positions are important. He's simply looking at the results of each season and seeing that a bunch of teams that lost all of their defensive backs struggled compared to the previous season while teams that lost all of their defensive linemen seemed to hold it together. Evidently, these are the things that are important when evaluating returning production.
Which is also why I was so anxious to see the updated numbers for 2023. We are losing a lot in the defensive backfield. It's likely we will have three defensive backs drafted this spring (Spoon, Syd, and Quan). When "defensive backs make up about 46% of the defensive formula" and we are losing three guys to the draft (plus Kendall Smith), I'm suddenly quite concerned. Add to that us losing our quarterback and Doak-Walker-finalist tailback and I was nervous nervous.
So I guess I was pleasantly surprised when our Returning Production numbers landed nearly smack dab in the middle:
133 FBS teams now, we're 71st in Returning Production. And not only are we 71st overall, we're 71st on offense and 70th on defense. Even Steven.
A note before you say something: 19% of you just thought "71st? After finishing 2022 21st?" No. This is returning production only. Connelly will release the overall preseason rating some time this week.
Another note: I'm not saying that 71st is wildly encouraging. There are only three Big Ten teams below us there: Minnesota (87th), Iowa (94th), and Northwestern (96th). Michigan is 5th. Wisconsin is 27th. There are a lot of teams in the Big Ten returning a lot.
I'm saying that I was fearing the numbers would put us down there in the 100's, so 71st is fine. We still have a decent number of tackles returning because we bring back Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph, Tarique Barnes, and Calvin Hart. Replacing the secondary will be a massive task, but that doesn't come as a surprise. And on offense, yes, we lose the QB and RB, but having a lot of WR yards returning (and four of the top six offensive linemen) is a plus.
All in all, our losses are slightly worse than average. Not great - 11th out of 14 Big Ten teams - but not devastating. Devastating losses would be something like TCU (118th overall; 130th on offense, 40th on defense). And if you want to know why Sean Lewis would leave the Kent State head coaching job to become the offensive coordinator at Colorado, the team he was bringing back at Kent State was 133rd out of 133 teams in returning production. He knew 2-10 was coming, and he got out ASAP.
The least-fun part of looking at this list? The returning production of our non-conference opponents. Ready?
Toledo - 11th
Kansas - 2nd
FAU - 3rd
LOL. After last year I thought our non-conference schedule luck had suddenly flipped in our favor, but nope. We might play Toledo, Kansas, and FAU during their Season Of The Decade years. Just like we've done for 15+ years.
(I'm exaggerating. I have no idea if Toledo and FAU have any talent. I just like to complain about our non-conference schedule luck where Arkansas State will go 4-8 and 3-9 for several seasons and then 10-2 the one year we play them.)
Overall, this isn't good news, but it isn't as bad as I was fearing it would be. Yes, the laptop says that returning production will hurt us, but it will hurt 62 teams more than us and 70 teams less than us. This will be a year where a lot of Big Ten teams have a lot returning (especially in the East), so that hurts a bit I guess. But here's a positive note to end on.
This will likely be the final year of the Big Ten West, and here's the seven teams in order of returning production:
- Wisconsin (new coach)
- Nebraska (new coach)
- Purdue (new coach)
Three teams ahead of us, all learning new schemes. Three teams behind us, all replacing a lot.
Hell, let's go 8-4 again.