What's To Come
Regardless of whether you've been to see the doctor in the last 72 hours, I think it's safe to say that your August Syndrome is clearing up. You received all the medicine you needed on Friday night.
It's not a bad thing, of course. You simply drank a Bert Kreischer amount of Kool-Aid in August and by September 1 you found yourself saying "I can clearly see 9-3 at this point and if I squint I can see 10-2." August, when every new player is 100% ready and "might even be better than the guy he's replacing" is for dreaming. September is grounded in reality.
So now that your August Syndrome has cleared up and you can see this roster clearly, I'm going to give you a different way to view the next 10 (hopefully 11) games. You've accepted the interconnectedness of defensive positions by now. That a defensive line might not look like the same defensive line if you don't have a cheat code secondary. You understand that the truth not being presented in every preseason Josh Gesky article is that when a player is playing his first snaps ever there's going to be a huge learning curve (which says nothing about the player or his potential and everything about college football). Kansas was #1 nationally in returning production and looked like a connected team. Illinois was 83rd in returning production and looked like a disconnected team. I'm assuming you fully realize all of this after Friday night.
So what comes next? You immediate reaction is one of fear, I'm sure. Is this 2008 all over again? Worse yet, is it 2009? I have the same fears, of course, but as I said on Friday night, the comeback in the 2nd half (plus the fact that we lost to Indiana last year in the final 30 seconds) probably means that this sluggish start isn't the same as those sluggish starts. This was not the 2012 Arizona State game or the 2020 Wisconsin game. This was... a rough loss on the road.
Which makes me think of... 2021? Last year, even with the one Indiana speed bump, got exciting very quickly. We didn't allow a touchdown at home until OCTOBER 15TH. We knew from the jump that the defense was outstanding and once we proved it against a "real" opponent (Wisconsin), we were off. This year, the start kind of feels like 2021. Toledo felt like UTSA (although we won this time), and Kansas felt like Virginia (although in this one we cut it to 11 at the end), so now we come back home without much trust in either side of the ball. Everything still looks... jumbled.
But this brings me to my point. We're fearful of this season staying at this same level of play. Or, given our experience the last 30 years, getting worse. Let me just make a quick list of what might be triggering us:
- 2008 wasn't at all like 2007 and it got worse as the season went on. There was a slight blip when we beat Iowa on a last-second FG but then we lost our final three (including the Western Michigan game in Detroit) to finish 5-7.
- 2013 was actually encouraging in September but then we only won one Big Ten game (at 1-11 Purdue, by four) so "we hung with #19 Washington in Chicago so maybe we can hang with everyone?" in September couldn't be believed.
- 2015 was a near mirror image of 2013. By October and especially November we were saying "where did the September team go?"
- 2018 had this encouraging win over Minnesota at home on November 3rd where we thought maybe a corner turn was being attempted. But then we gave up 54 to Nebraska and 63 to Iowa in the next two games.
- Hell, even last year started 7-1 but then November was 1-3. I'd argue that this was different than the Novembers listed above (lose on a last-second FG to #3 Michigan plus an 8-point loss to Michigan State and a 7-point loss to Purdue), but still, it was a 1-3 November. Opposing offenses had figured out our defense a little bit (not much, but a little bit), and our offense couldn't make up the difference.
(I hesitate to include 2022 there because it wasn't a similar November collapse. Losing the Big Ten West to Purdue wasn't the same as losing to Western Michigan in Detroit. The 23-15 loss in a wind game against Michigan State wasn't the same as the 63-0 loss to Iowa. But still, I felt like I needed to acknowledge that Illini fans might have the 1-3 November fresh on their minds.)
What I'm getting at here, and the reason I sat down to write this article, is that I'm excited to see what's to come. And that's rare, at least for me. We've seen what eventually-fired coaching staffs do after a start like this one. I'm excited to see what this coaching staff does.
We saw two steps of improvement in the 2021 season. The defense figured it out starting with the Maryland game and the whole team came together at Penn State (the 9OT game). So now I want to see what happens with this team. Which basically me saying that the whole "these new starters will need 6-12 games of seasoning" thing needs to come in closer to the 6 end and not the 12 end.
If you read all of my stuff, you know where I stand with this season from reading the season preview and the SOC before the Toledo game. To me, this is the exact set-up for another 5-7 Illini season after a January bowl (we did it in 2000, and in 2002, and in 2008), but I think this staff can get this team to 6-6 and keep the recruiting momentum moving forward. I was hoping to be wrong - the Big Ten West is a complete mess and I'd love to win it - but the NERDstats have course-corrected quickly these first two weeks, making that less likely. Let's maybe go through that real quick using the SP+.
First off, remember that this SP+ number is still heavily influenced by preseason numbers at this point. Those were based on projections - "teams that have been this good recently and have this much returning production usually do something like this; teams that haven't been good or lose a lot (or both) generally do something like this" - but as each game of actual data comes in, the numbers move.
We saw this last year. The whole month of September I was writing "the preseason numbers are still holding us back but these NERDstats are very encouraging" articles. This year, the preseason numbers are probably helping a bit (because we were so good last year) but the numbers have dropped. Well, I shouldn't say it that way. The defensive numbers have dropped. The offensive numbers are climbing a bit.
Here's the three numbers for each category in the SP+. First number is preseason, second number is our ranking after the Toledo game, third number is our ranking after the Kansas game:
Offense: 82nd ~> 78th ~> 75th
Defense: 7th ~> 19th ~> 28th
Overall: 43rd ~> 52nd ~> 52nd
That leveling-off at 52 (after a loss) was interesting to me. It made me go look up the Post-Game Win Expectancy for the Kansas game and for Illinois the number was 19.7%. Play that game 100 times with the same stats (yes, even with Kansas outgaining Illinois 539-341) and Illinois wins that game 20 times while Kansas wins that game 80 times. Expected margin of victory for Kansas given those stats: 6.3. Actual margin: 11.
I've been writing about that stat forever, so I can remember a ton of 0% losses. In fact, maybe that's a good way to frame this season as compared to 2021. I already said that these two games felt like UTSA-Virginia, so let's go to the PGWE:
at Virginia: 0.0%
at Kansas: 19.7%
So yeah, maybe not the best comp. We should have 1.03 wins at these two games. We should have had 0.13 wins in 2021. Yeah, the records match what should have happened. This start isn't exactly 2021.
Continuing that thought, though, you can see when the 2021 season flipped. Ignore the actual record for a minute and just look at the "with these stats, here's the chances we win that game" for the entire 2021 season:
Nebraska - 59.2%
UTSA - 12.7%
Virginia - 0.0%
Maryland - 3.3%
Purdue - 17.4%
Charlotte - 37.4%
Wisconsin - 0.0%
Penn State - 86.6%
Rutgers - 54.1%
Minnesota - 74.9%
Iowa - 28.6%
Northwestern - 100%
As I wrote at the time, it had been so long since we finished a season where we kept getting better. We were honestly fortunate to not be 1-6 or 0-7 going into the bye week but then had a chance to win all five games after that. The "no chance" games ended and the "gave ourselves a chance" games began.
Last year we were rolling out of the gate (PGWE-wise). Of the first eight games, only the Iowa game was less than 75% (we won a game we had a 64.1% chance of winning) and that includes the Indiana loss (play that game with the same stats 100 times, Illinois wins 76 times and Indiana wins 24 - that just happened to be one of the 24). The 7-1 start was no fluke at all, and honestly, the 1-3 finish was competitive across the board. 22% chance to beat Michigan State when we play like that (loss), 35% chance against Purdue (loss), 64% chance against Michigan (yes, really), and then another 100% against Northwestern.
This year, 83.6% and 19.7% in the first two games. The Kansas game was bad, but it wasn't the 0% of Virginia 2021. It was more like the Michigan State game last year where we did this to ourselves.
And that has me excited to see what's to come. Yes, excited. To address all of those "oh my God I think we might go 3-9" tweets on Friday night, yes, you might be right. I can't predict the future. It happened before (2009), and it could certainly happen again.
But even though I fear it, I don't have the 2009 vibes so far this season. Nor 2002 or 2008 or 2020 or any of the other seasons we've discussed. So far, I'm at "I'm very curious to see where this goes." I haven't had a coaching staff I trust in a long time, so I'm curious to see if they can put all the pieces together and have this team rolling come November. We've seen it before at Iowa (bad in September, great in November). I learned my lesson with Jerry Kill at Minnesota that even though they might look awful in September, they might just keep getting better game to game, month to month. And Wisconsin, yes, including Wisconsin under Bret Bielema, has 30 years of "better in November."
Yes, we're the fanbase of "welp - season's over" in early October, but we don't have to be. I know Twitter was set ablaze when Kansas scored their 4th touchdown just before halftime on Friday night. But given the nine Big Ten wins the last two seasons, I remain very interested in seeing where this goes. Defensive issues? You bet. Offensive inconsistency? Absolutely. The #7 team in the country coming to town? Yikes.
But just peek with me, if you will, at the current SP+ of the remaining schedule after we play SP+ #4 Penn State this weekend:
FAU - 82
at Purdue - 61
Nebraska - 72
at Maryland - 34
Wisconsin - 29
at Minnesota - 42
Indiana - 79
at Iowa - 32
Northwestern - 81
We're #52 for the second week in a row. After Penn State, there's two tiers of opponents.
at Iowa (32)
at Maryland (34)
at Minnesota (42)
We land right here at #52. And then the second tier is...
at Purdue (61)
I get excited typing that out. I hope you get excited as well. I want to get to another bowl, and if we can hold serve in those final four games listed there (all at home), then I'm hunting for one win somewhere between Penn State (4) and Purdue (61).
Next year? Good Lord next year we have trips to Ohio State and USC plus Michigan at home. This year? If Iowa falters, Penn State is probably the only ranked team on the schedule.
Rough start? Absolutely. Throw the remote when you saw Kansas 28, Illinois 7? I get it.
But still a chance to get better game to game, month to month? You bet.