Cut And Paste
I probably quote my own words more than anyone you read. I'm not really sure why I do it so much. I guess I'm just writing about my journey as a fan, and this is my journal, so I often want to go back and read previous entries to see how we're progressing. That's what this post will be.
As I was driving home last night, I remembered a "month by month" section that I wrote in my football preview back in August. I was looking at this as a 24 game season, not a 12 game season (combine 2017 and 2018 because they're basically the same players), so I wrote the following month-by-month breakdown:
September 2017: Hand me my program, Mildred, because I don't know any of these players.
October 2017: Avert your eyes -- there's a Big Ten program on the field but it's not us.
November 2017: You know, if you squint, you can see what this team is supposed to be.
September 2018: See, now this is how a Big Ten team should roll through a non-conference schedule.
October 2018: Wait, are we sure this is going somewhere? Big Ten football is hard.
November 2018: It took some time, but THIS is what a Big Ten program looks like.
After that, we roll into 2019 with a blossoming program, and on October 12, 2019, we make our return to the grand stage (a home game, which must be at night, against Michigan). There's no guarantee it's completely rebuilt by then - Lovie's first recruiting class will only be third-year juniors and redshirt sophomores by then - but that's where my eyes are focused.
Is it a guarantee that it will work? Of course not. But my broken record stance over the last decade is one thing: stop changing things every other season, hoping that the next thing will be the thing that works. Hire one coach, install one offense and one defense, recruit to it for four years, and see where you're at that fifth season. Just try it once in my lifetime. If it doesn't work, fine, go back to "it's the offensive coordinator - we need to get a new one in here". But just once, give me a full-on, five-year, no-changes build.
So on my chart above, this was September. Actually, it was a little more October. Last night was "there's a Big Ten program on the field, but it's not us". Why aren't we a Big Ten program yet? Let's go back to the preview.
Yes, I think it might be 17. SEVENTEEN. We've played 28 true freshmen over the last five full seasons and this year alone we might play SEVENTEEN.
Which 17? In my opinion...
Locks to play immediately: Ricky Smalling, Carmoni Green, Mike Epstein, Kendrick Green, Larry Boyd, Alex Palczewski, Bobby Roundtree, Owen Carney, Tony Adams, Bennett Williams, Blake Hayes
Probably won't redshirt: Kendall Smith, Louis Dorsey, Dawson DeGroot, Ra'Von Bonner, James Knight, Jamal Woods
Probably will redshirt but seriously they might not: Cameron Thomas, Vederian Lowe, Isaiah Gay, Deon Pate, Lere Oladipo, Marc Mondesir, Nate Hobbs
OK, fine, it might only be 14 freshmen (still an insane number). But I could honestly see 20. It doesn't make me hesitate at all to say that of the +/- 55 lettermen (players who are on the field, not the sideline), 20 might be true freshmen.
I often get to "I'm not sure I can find the words to emphasize this point" moments when writing, but this might top them all. I cannot get over how many true freshmen I saw in the regular rotation at training camp. I've covered nine straight training camps for the blog, and I thought 2013 was young (go back in the archive and you can find me saying things like, "I think eight of these freshmen play this fall -- EIGHT!") and this year will likely double that.
Now, maybe this is just a camp curveball. Maybe Lovie is playing these freshmen with the first and second string at camp to get them ready, but once the season gets here, he'll lean on the older guys. Perhaps this is a camp overreaction.
But even if he doesn't lean on 17 true freshman, Illinois will still be the youngest team in the country. Not just of the Power Five conferences, but of all 130 FBS schools. If you go with the scholarship numbers (excluding the walk-ons), here are the roster numbers:
Juniors: 14 (22 upperclassmen TOTAL)
Freshmen (true and redshirt freshmen): 35
8-14-19-35. Just take those numbers to any college coach in the country and watch his reaction. Nine open scholarships (nine!), 22 upperclassmen (twenty two!), 54 underclassmen (FIFTY. FOUR.). And -- AND -- it appears that they're looking at that roster and saying, "The freshmen are more talented -- we're running with them."
That's like... I don't know what that's like. I'm struggling to find an analogy. It's like rehabbing the downstairs of a house while living upstairs, but then deciding, "You know what? Let's just rehab the whole thing but still live here," so you're showering in the "bathroom" which consists of a hose on the wall with wooden floors and a drain in the floor that's not connected to anything. Normally, for a college football rebuild, you rely on the other guy's upperclassmen while you bring your underclassmen along. But this feels like we're taking the youngest roster in the country and choosing to make it younger.
How did I do with my freshman predictions? I guessed that 17 would play (19 have played now), and the only real miss was thinking that Kendrick Green would play (and he still might) and that Hobbs (who had mono and missed camp) and Gay (who was 207 lbs at camp) would redshirt.
But the part I want to focus on is the numbers. I feel like they're the reason why my Twitter mentions are ablaze while I'm mostly calm. Those numbers:
- Nine open scholarships. I'm guessing 76 is the smallest scholarship roster in the country? USC and Penn State have climbed back to 85 after their sanctions, I think North Carolina got back to 85 a few years ago - maybe UAB, who is re-starting their program - has less than 85? Maybe Coastal Carolina as they transition to FBS? 76 scholarships is pretty much a probation year.
- 22 upperclassmen. Again, probably the smallest number in the country. Looking at the participation chart from last night, we put 61 players on the field: 7 seniors, 13 juniors, 15 sophomores, and 26 freshmen. When you only put 20 upperclassmen on the field (Nebraska played 40 upperclassmen), I'm not sure anything will ever go smoothly. Actually, I should say that another way. When you put 41 underclassmen on the field, nothing will ever go smoothly.
So I watch a game like this - Nebraska's players are two-thirds upperclassmen, Illinois' players are two-thirds underclassmen - and I see Nebraska sustain drives while Illinois stalls, and I chalk it up to all of the numbers above. And then my Twitter mentions light up with MCGEE IS NOT THE ANSWER and BLOOM IS OFF THE LOVIE ROSE and I'm not sure how to respond other than to point back to these numbers.
As I mentioned in the FTS, my Twitter was alive with "USC now playing a true freshman left tackle and a true freshman left guard and Darnold has no protection" and I can't help but think "uh, we're doing that all season". And USC is probably plugging in two four-star future NFL linemen. It's just that freshmen are rarely ready.
But, we have to run with our freshmen. I believe it is the right choice in rebuilding this program. So we're going to take our lumps. As I said last night, those were lumps.
The biggest thing tweeted @ me is Chayce Crouch angst. So let's go back to that section of the preview from August:
Crouch is in an interesting spot as far as the fans are concerned. I think most Illini fans expect very little from him. Not a highly-ranked recruit, has only started one game, and, perhaps most importantly, did not look good in the Rutgers game. I remember when he threw that interception against Rutgers (it was a BAD interception in the red zone) my Twitter lit up with, "Well, your boy Crouch isn't the guy."
No one knew he had ripped up his throwing shoulder three plays before (he didn't even know), and as he made some fluttering throws the rest of that game, the volume of, "Crouch isn't the guy, we're in trouble for the future" grew. That's fairly silly, given the injury, but we're Illini fans, and we've been waiting for the next Kittner for 15 years, so we've always been quick to "NEXT!" our QBs.
But Crouch might also be... overrated this August? I interact with fans a lot, and there seems to be a, "We can FINALLY see what this offense is supposed to be with a dual-threat QB" this month. Yes, that's true, and I just spent a few paragraphs on it above, but this is still a guy starting his second game ever on September 2. Why are there so many "bad team beats good team" September upsets (compared to less of those as the season goes on)? Many times, it's because the good team is breaking in a new QB and the game is still too fast for him.
I think it's likely that Crouch has that kind of September. I think it's likely that fans will be calling for Jeff George Jr. before the month is out. (When we last saw JGjr he was throwing four interceptions in one half against Wisconsin, but Backup Quarterback Syndrome demands that heads roll). Perhaps we'll see some, "Pull the redshirt off Cam Thomas and play him" call-outs (I don't hate the idea).
My point: Crouch is both underrated (he can do some very athletic things and was really good in his first real action against Purdue last year) and overrated (he's not the savior and will need at least four games to settle in). What does that mean for this season? Well, I go back to "24 games." In game one, it will be rough. By game 24 next year, I think he can be a really good Big Ten quarterback and lead this team to a solid 2018 season.
I still believe that. I'm stubborn like that. I thought we'd see a rough September from Crouch and we have. I'm now hoping for some improvement in October and then maybe a breakout game in September. We let him run a little more last night, and here's hoping we can get that going even more in the next few weeks.
(I also don't hate the idea of two QB's? If JGjr can cut down on the interceptions - and remember, in camp, I saw him throw five in one scrimmage so the coaches have reason to be concerned - then maybe we can go passing QB/running QB? That's a thought for another post.)
For now, I remain in Crouch's corner. I think the offense will work best if we can get him going (because of his legs). He's had his rough September. Now it's time to snap out of it.
OK, one more cut and paste from the preview. Several people mentioned Mike Leach on Twitter last night, and I looked at Leach's Wazzu rebuild when I wrote the preview (along with several other moribund programs who were rebuilt). Here's that section from the preview:
Wisconsin is probably the best example of where we currently sit in the college football landscape. 1963 to 1992 for Wisconsin is very, very similar to Illinois from 1992 to 2016. Actually, our current program is in better shape than Wisconsin was when Alvarez took over, if you can believe it. At the time, they were on a run of three bowls in 30 years (seven winning seasons, 23 losing seasons -- yes, at Wisconsin). And then Alvarez slowly and deliberately built the program you still see today.
So here are those rebuilds, season by season:
*Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin) *
1990: 1-10 (0-8)
1991: 5-6 (2-6)
1992: 5-6 (3-5)
1993: 10-1-1 (6-1-1)
1994: 7-4-1 (4-3-1)
David Cutcliffe (Duke)
2008: 4-8 (1-7)
2009: 5-7 (3-5)
2010: 3-9 (1-7)
2011: 3-9 (1-7)
2012: 6-6 (3-5)
2013: 10-2 (6-2)
*Kevin Wilson (Indiana) *
2011: 1-11 (0-8)
2012: 4-8 (2-6)
2013: 5-7 (3-5)
2014: 4-8 (1-7)
2015: 6-6 (2-6)
2016: 6-6 (4-5)
*Mike Leach (Washington State) *
2012: 3-9 (1-8)
2013: 6-6 (4-5)
2014: 3-9 (2-7)
2015: 8-4 (6-3)
2016: 8-4 (7-2)
*Mike MacIntyre (Colorado) *
2013: 4-8 (1-8)
2014: 2-10 (0-9)
2015: 4-9 (1-8)
2016: 10-2 (8-1)
What can we learn from these five? Let's start with average wins per season:
Year 1: 2.6 wins
Year 2: 4.4
Year 3: 4.0
Year 4: 7.0
Year 5: 6.8 (doesn't include MacIntyre who is entering his fifth season this year)
You know what? Let's add Art Briles to this because he is proof that you can take an absolute nobody program and turn it around quickly (as gross as mentioning him may be). And Jerry Kill at Minnesota should probably be in here, too (took a bad program and scratched to 6-6 his second year). The new numbers:
Year 1: 2.8 wins
Year 2: 4.3
Year 3: 4.6
Year 4: 7.4
Year 5: 6.5
After writing that a friend pointed out that I should add Harbaugh at Stanford and Mullen at Mississippi State to the list of "moribund programs brought back to life". Both of those were examples of a program being brought back to life immediately. So after adding those numbers, here's the progression:
Year 1: 3.2 wins
Year 2: 4.7
Year 3: 5.1
Year 4: 7.9
Year 5: 6.4
It's so interesting that year five is a step back nearly across the board (and then another step forward in year six).
Anyway, that's the target, I think. I believe Lovie is hamstrung by a few things (he took over in the spring so this season is maybe year 1.5; the Beckman scandal and fallout, including the not ideal two-year interim thing, left a crater because Illinois football recruiting was more or less dead for 11 months), but I think this is a chart we can generally hold to. 3 wins is the average for the first year, 4-5 is the general expectation the second year (I don't think we'll get there, but with 76 scholarship players and a team running 2/3rds underclassmen, I think that's OK for now), bowl or on the edge of a bowl in year three, and then a jump (a consistent leap across the board - nearly every program got significantly better) in year four.
That's still where I sit. Would love to get to four wins this year, but three seems likely (and two still scares me). Next year, a big improvement over that with more or less the entire team returning. And then on October 12, 2019......