May 23, 2019

I think this is post number nine in May. My record (for fewest posts during this month where I unplug my brain from Illini athletics as best I can) is 11 I think. So I don't think I'll break the record. I think I'll just do a slapdash post to rid my brain of the things its thinking about.


Just saw a tweet come across saying "100 days until Illini football". Normally this tweet fills me with anticipation each year. Right now it just fills me with dread.

Mostly because this season means something. There was no dread the past few years because the team had very little chance of winning. I was in "learn" mode where I wouldn't really watch the games to watch the games - I wanted to learn if we had capable backup cornerbacks for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. It's a lame way to sports - "I totally don't care if we win or not" - but that's been my mode since we started playing the freshmen midway through 2016. This is a full-fledged rebuild, we're the youngest team in the country, Vegas thinks we'll win three games, I'm gonna watch the backup corners.

This year, well, this year (and next year) are why we rebuilt the way we rebuilt. You play Tymir Oliver and Stanley Green before their ready in 2016 so that they're anchors to your defense in 2019. You play 22 of the true freshmen from your very first recruiting class in 2017 so that in 2019, you have 22 juniors with more experience than 90% of the juniors in the Big Ten. The whole point was to kick-start the program with experienced players running the same system year after year.

And so as each bad thing happens - the starting QB transfers, the best player on the team is in the hospital with a "several spinal injury", the players transferring in decide to not transfer in - I'm filled with more and more dread. This is a season that means something and here we are watching everything go wrong. And I'm not just talking "bad news". This is the offseason where the head coach hired his son and our best recruiter left for Temple.

So it's weird for me to be so filled with dread when Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, and Shammond Cooper arrive on campus in a few weeks. Remember the summer of 2007? We were coming of a maddening 2-10 season (the Ohio loss that October just about broke me), but we were pretty excited with Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson arriving on campus. Nobody expected nine wins, but I think most people went into that season with some "maybe if everything comes together we can win six!" summertime optimism.

The biggest difference between that and this, of course: the November before the 2007 season, we surprised everyone by hanging with top-ranked Ohio State, losing 17-10. The November before the 2019 season, we surprised no one by losing to 6-4 Iowa 63-0. A 2-10 finish (and those awful back-to-back losses to Ohio and Indiana in October) didn't leave the fans feeling positive going into 2007 -- even though 93% of all Illini fans will now tell you they could see 2007 coming, trust me, they couldn't -- but there wasn't a 63-0 hanging over the program. That, combined with Rejus and Tez, allowed for the typical "maybe this is the year" spring/summer optimism.

I haven't felt any of that this spring. Maybe once the talent is on the field in August I'll see it. Maybe seeing Beason, Williams, and Cooper (plus transfers like Sydney and Betiku) will put me in the mood. I mean, I'm me - one long run each from Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein at camp and I'll be right out there with "first ever dual 1,000 yard rushers on the Illini??".

But for now, unfortunately, it's mostly dread. What else is going to go wrong? Writing the big football preview last summer, I would have told you that on May 23rd, coming off a 4-8 season (I predicted a 4-8 season), I would be crazy excited to write the 2019 preview. 63-0, Jeff Thomas, Miles Smith, Bobby Roundtree, and MJ Rivers transfer later, I'm just not there.

Which is probably good? Illini football rebounds happen when we don't expect it. And right now, I just don't expect it.

Braggin' Rights

Shoutout to the women's golf team for their 9th place finish at the NCAA's, one spot out of 8th and a berth in the match play portion. This was their first-ever trip to the NCAA Championships, so to finish 9th out of 24 teams, that's an incredible accomplishment. It's worth noting that they did this with one senior, one junior, and three freshmen. So it's quite possible that with four of the five back, they can be right back there next year.

This was the hope, of course. That the dominance of the men's program the last ten seasons, leading to the Demirjian Indoor Facility and the Lauritsen/Wohlers Outdoor Facility, would help boost recruiting for the women's program as well. That certainly appears to be happening.

And with the men's tournament starting tomorrow in Arkansas, it's quite possible that it might be a long summer for the men's team at the Lauritsen/Wohlers facility. They need to do better than 9th this weekend (and as the 24th-ranked team, it's a longshot) or the ladies will have the honor on the teebox all summer.

Which is great. I already covered why this was always going to be a down year for men's golf (short version: too young and inexperienced), so having the ladies finish higher (if they do finish higher) could make for a fun offseason. And if the men's team want to try to prevent it, well, gotta go out and make the Match Play on Tuesday.

The best news: both might be top-10 programs next year. The women's team loses one senior, the men's team loses none. So next May could possibly see twin Match Play appearances. And given that both tennis teams return a lot and should be top-15 programs next year, well, Country Club U rolls on.


You guys will be proud of me. I now regularly check two nerdstat sites, not just one. I check KenPom and I check T-Rank (Bart Torvik). I still don't know what any of the categories mean (adjusted tempo? what?), but I like the methodology. Here's what has separated the good teams from the bad teams in the past, here's where the teams stand today based on those metrics, discuss.

Also, projections. I love projections. With most of the NBA decisions settled, here's the projections for the Big Ten next year (national ranking in parentheses).

Michigan State (1)
Purdue (4)
Maryland (12)
Illinois (17)
Ohio State (19)
Wisconsin (21)
Penn State (24)
Rutgers (36)
Michigan (38)
Minnesota (41)
Iowa (47)
Nebraska (55)
Indiana (58)
Northwestern (141)

Yes, his projections for 2020 have Illinois 17th in the nation and fourth in the Big Ten. That would be, like, a five-seed.

What goes into these numbers? Good question. He explains the methodology here. This is my TL;DR for that:

You take the players returning (Michigan fell a bunch because they don't have many stat-producers returning), project their stats for next season, look at "momentum" of the program, look at the history of that coach and the length of time at this program (he has some modifier for coaches in their first three years), and presto, the numbers spit out a ranking. I totally butchered that.

Why is Illinois so high? So much production returning, I'd imagine. Here's his projected stats for Illinois next season (points - rebounds - assists):

Ayo Dosunmu 16.1 - 4.5 - 3.9
Trent Frazier 14.7 - 3.0 - 2.9
Giorgi Bezhanishvili 11.4 - 6.2 - 1.2
Andres Feliz 9.5 - 3.3 - 2.5
Da'Monte Williams 5.3 - 3.8 - 1.4
Kipper Nichols 6.6 - 3.5 - 1.4
Kofi Cockburn 4.9 - 4.0 - 0.5
Tevian Jones 4.5 - 3.1 - 0.6
Alan Griffin 3.4 - 1.7 - 0.8
Bernard Kouma 2.3 - 1.4 - 0.0

I can get down with that. He added Kouma instead of Samba, but whatever - that's probably somewhere close to what the 10th-man (a big) will provide.

Add it all up, add all of the other teams up, put it all into the giant nerdstat computer, whizz, whirrr, bangg - it spits out Illinois, 17th-best team in the country. Is that too high? Probably. As a man desperate for something, anything, to cheer about, I don't care. The Big Three lead us to a five seed? I can get down with that.

So yeah, maybe there are... expectations next season?



AHSIllini32 on May 24 @ 10:15 AM CDT

I don't think Thad Ward was our best recruiter.

uofi08 on May 24 @ 12:38 PM CDT

I think you're underselling the optimism going into 2007. That was Zook's 3rd year. There was clear progress from 05 to 06. The defense was clearly improved. The majority of the team returned: upperclassmen linemen, Juice an experienced soph, Mendenhall a junior. And a top 25 recruiting class. Were people expecting 9 wins and a Rose Bowl? No, but I'd say most expected a winning record and decent bowl.

illiniranger on May 25 @ 12:21 PM CDT

2006 team was close to a bowl and played Wiscy, PSU, OSU close and should’ve beaten PU, IU, Ohio. Very different feel than 2018 despite a worse record.

accy88 on May 26 @ 04:37 PM CDT

Your obsession with the 63-0 loss is so over the top you can not make any rational assessments. I really am considering canceling my subscription because I can't even read another one of your football articles.

MuckFichigan92 on May 27 @ 01:04 AM CDT

Not one, no rational assessments whatsoever? Before searching for a 100% rate of assessment, what positives did you glean from the Iowa loss?

illiniranger on May 27 @ 11:25 AM CDT

The way I look at that 63-0 loss is close to Roberts view and here is why. When you look at comparable programs or coaches that are trying to do a rebuild... you don’t see 63-0 losses in their 35th game. Even the slow grinding rebuilds like Cutcliffe at Duke or Leach at Wazzu you don’t see that kind of totally lifeless performance.

Then you factor in that Lovie has lost something like 19 of 36 games by 21 points or more... that is pretty much unprecedented for coaches that went on to be successful and turn a program around.

There are times where we have looked almost unbelievably bad under Lovie Smith. The defensive performance against Maryland last year was probably the worst in school history, and Maryland went 5-7. There are a lot of really ugly data points that you just don’t see in successful rebuilds, of which the Iowa game is maybe the most notable.

Bear8287 on May 27 @ 03:34 PM CDT

The inconsistency is definitely disconcerting. We'll see if it's just a hangup of Robert's or if it's really foretelling more dismal seasons. The optimists look at it more in terms of year 1 was a "throw-away" and that was then followed by two years of youngest teams in Div 1 FB. Still an open question which hopefully doesn't see 8 losses this season.

Since this article also mixes in basketball, where was the complaint about the Illini loss to New Mexico St.? ;-D (Now, there's one that I've yet to figure out why Robert has mentioned it multiple times.)

And while we're on the topic of blow out indicators, after numerous seasons with JG fielding teams that were regularly getting beaten by 20+ and 30+ points per game, this year's Illini Men's Basketball Team only lost 2 games by 20 or more points, both to Iowa (71-95 & 62-83). My expectations are definitely higher for basketball than football in the upcoming season. Going into season #4 without a QB is definitely not a positive indicator.

thumpasaurus on May 28 @ 01:35 PM CDT

Tell you what though, you don't have to look at successful coaches to see where something like losing 63-0 to an 8-4 team in game 35 is unprecedented.

Mike London got bodied pretty hard by top 10 teams in year 4 (Oregon and Clemson) but actually made a bowl in year 2.

It's somewhat comparable to Paul Wulff's 42-0 drubbing at 6-6 Arizona State (two FCS wins made them ineligible for a bowl) at the end of October Year 3 at Washington State.

Dan Hawkins lost 58-0 at Mizzou in late October Year 3 (this was 2008 at Colorado).

Paul Rhoads, after having a hell of a Year 3, eventually went to Year 6 at Iowa State in 2014. Despite a 2-10 season with a loss to Kansas ending with a 55-3 drubbing at the hands of TCU, he was brought back for Year 7. This was his last year.

Maybe just maybe 2009 NC State's Tom O'Brien getting rolled 52-20 by BC counts?

I don't know, these were just some coaches that got fired that I thought up off the top of my head.

illiniranger on May 28 @ 02:56 PM CDT

Cutcliffe got beat bad a couple times in Year 3, but that was by #1 Alabama returning a Heisman Trophy RB and by VaTech. Cutcliffe had a pretty bad record after four seasons, but he was more or less in most of the games Duke was playing, he only loses by 21+ once or twice a year.

i don't want to overemphasize a single performance. teams are kind of like the stock market, they take a random walk but over the long term their performance is going to track their underlying fundamentals. that's why i look at the long term trends under Lovie Smith, and they are really, really bad. There is probably not a single coach that has successfully rebuilt a program and lost over half of his first 36 games by 21+ points. Lovie's average margin of defeat in 23 B1G losses is 25.22 points. He has only lost 3x B1G games by 8 points or less ('16 PU, '17 MN, '18 NW). Conversely he has lost 5x B1G games by 5 TDs or more.

Those are really, really bad trends. I understood he started in a very difficult place, but we are talking historically bad performance. I cannot think of another coach that achieved long term success (we'll put that bar pretty low and define that as going to bowl games more often than not after year 3) after such a disastrous start. Other coaches have bad records after their first 3 years and pull it out, but they don't look this uncompetitive in conference play.

i'd also add that if we are putting the bar at "be David Cutcliffe at Duke," then that bar is really, really low. We can get that type of performance for about 1/2 to 2/3rd of what we are paying Lovie Smith.

thumpasaurus on May 28 @ 03:29 PM CDT

So baseball-reference has a thing where you can look at a player and it’ll tell you the players with the most similar careers to date. I wonder what the list would look like for Lovie’s tenure at Illinois...what is the most similar first 3 years, statistically, a coach has had at a program?

I suspect most Illini fans would not want to see that list.

Douglascountyillinifan on May 27 @ 06:40 AM CDT

Although I'm not ready to go the drama queen route and threaten to cancel my script, I too have wondered why the Iowa score appears to in no way be mitigated by the Minnesota score. We were up 48-17 in that one b4 Lovie called off the dogs. Robert has always been my optimistic spirit animal, so this change is disconcerting.

thumpasaurus on May 28 @ 01:12 PM CDT

I'm glad you said this because I've been in the same boat for a good chunk of this offseason (I think it really did start when it became clear that we weren't breaking the bank to bring in some big time assistant coaches).

The reason I'm glad you nailed how I was feeling is because I was beginning to worry that I'd become jaded beyond hope and there's no coming back from this, like it was more of a function of my age (seven years out of college and it's time to stop being a 20something) than actual tangible reasons for dread (63-0 and all the roster anxiety, along with every other team in our division making tangible improvements WITHOUT steps backwards to accompany them).

I'm wondering if there will be any event as decisive as 63-0 this fall. Not like a game with that score, but an event that unambiguous, whether it be the win that cements this regime as legitimate or a loss devastating enough to say "this isn't gonna happen"

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