A Different Kind Of Year One
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I'll just start by quickly going through the Year Ones for the last four Illini coaches - Ron Turner, Ron Zook, Tim Beckman, and Lovie Smith. Lou Tepper was a different scenario entirely because he was handed a program coming off four straight winning seasons. When you take over a program that was 30-16-1 the previous four seasons, it's a slightly different situation than taking over a program that was 129-209-2 the last 30 years.
So here's the last four restarts:
1997 Ron Turner
Previous season: 2-9
1997 record: 0-11 (pushed the losing streak to 17 games)
Big Ten record: 0-8
Best win: none
Worst losses: 48-3 to #22 Purdue at home, 41-6 at #4 Ohio State, 41-6 vs #2 Penn State
2005 Ron Zook
Previous season: 3-8
2005 record: 2-9
Big Ten record: 0-8
Best win: 33-30 over 7-5 Rutgers in OT
Worst losses: 61-14 at #17 Michigan State, 63-10 to #12 Penn State at home, 40-2 at #12 Ohio State
2012 Tim Beckman
Previous season: 7-6
2012 record: 2-10
Big Ten record: 0-8
Best win: 24-7 over Bill Cubit's Western Michigan Broncos
Worst losses: 45-14 at Arizona State, 52-24 to Louisiana Tech, 45-0 at #25 Michigan
2016 Lovie Smith
Previous season: 5-7
2016 record: 3-9
Big Ten record: 2-7
Best win: 31-27 over 3-9 Michigan State
Worst losses: 48-3 at #7 Wisconsin, 41-8 at #3 Michigan, 34-10 to Western Michigan
I realize that there are four games remaining, and I'm risking the whole thing where the "worst three losses" column is filled by three of the next four games, but here's the 2021 season so far:
2021 Bret Bielema
Previous season: 2-6
2021 record: 3-5 through eight games
Big Ten record: 2-3 through five games
Best win: 20-18 at #7 Penn State
Worst losses: 37-30 to #23 UTSA, 24-0 to Wisconsin, 42-14 at Virginia
Remaining games: 3-4 Rutgers, at 5-2 Minnesota, at 6-1 Iowa, 3-4 Northwestern
Let me take a quick peek at the expected wins for these last four opponents (using SP+) because I know a lot of them have tough games remaining. Northwestern, for example, has Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue, and then Illinois. Here's the expected wins using Bill Connelly's formula:
3-4 Rutgers: 4.7 wins
5-2 Minnesota: 8.0 wins
6-1 Iowa: 8.9 wins
3-4 Northwestern: 4.5 wins
So not exactly murderer's row. One ranked opponent (Iowa) and two opponents who will likely finish the season with losing records. I have a lot to say about that, but I should pause here and do a bunch of disclaimers.
First off, we need to acknowledge the set-up here. I wrote about this in the season preview. The whole "first chance to make a second impression" thing.
Turner and Zook both inherited programs that had bottomed out. Turner got a program seven games into what would eventually be an 18 game losing streak, he built it all the way up to a Big Ten Championship in 2001, and then it fell right back down to where it started (going 4-19 his final two seasons). Beckman and Lovie inherited programs that had been 7-6 and 5-7 the previous seasons but both those seasons ended poorly (2011 with a six game losing streak; 2015 losing six of the last seven). They both had one year with some seniors before the full-on rebuild began. They went 2-10 and 3-9, respectively.
Bret Bielema inherited a second chance at what was supposed to be the Lovie Smith capstone season. Lovie was trying to go 2 wins, 4 wins, 6 wins, 8 wins and he went 2 wins, 4 wins, 6 wins, 2 wins (in only eight total games, to be fair). Bret Bielema takes over and, with a Covid year, all of those 2020 seniors can return again in 2021. So Disclaimer #1: he probably has more to work with in year one than any of the previous four head coaches.
Disclaimer #2: it's October 26th. Lose to Rutgers at home on Saturday and it's going to be "we're not beating Minnesota or Iowa so now we'll have to beat Northwestern to avoid 3-9." It's probably too early to write this article.
None of the teams listed above had anything anywhere close to Illinois 20, #7 Penn State 18 on the road. And none of them had one-score games in other Big Ten contests, either. Let's just compile average Big Ten scores for each season. One more time: the average score in Big Ten games only:
1997: 35.4 - 9.5
2005: 43.9 - 11.8
2012: 35.1 - 11.8
2016: 33.1 - 16.8
2021: 19.4 - 15.2
That is what one would call "significant".
Another way to look at this is to search through some NERDstats. I use SP+ all the time, but I saw that Brian Fremeau updated his FEI ratings this morning (and I tweeted them as a jab at Missouri since they're currently 91st in his ratings). Here's how the Big Ten currently shakes out using his formula:
3. Ohio St.
15. Penn St.
26. Michigan St.
(Missouri is #91.)
Clearly two tiers there. Nine Big Ten teams in the top-36. And then five Big Ten teams from 72 to 90. But hey, look at the team on top of B-Flight. I mean, I still wear a golf polo that I won because my team won B-flight at a golf tournament in like 2006 or so. B-Flight wins are still wins in my book. A B-Flight win would be a fantastic Year One.
Remaining on the schedule: #77 Rutgers and #86 Northwestern at home plus #36 Minnesota and #10 Iowa on the road. After the Penn State win, a split seems possible, but our QB issues suggest that 1-3 is probably the most likely outcome. Just a little more offense and 3-1 is on the table, but the offense is second-to-last in the Big Ten at this point and will probably finish there. A run game can only take you so far.
So maybe we should look at the specific matchups for the last four games using FEI offense and defense ratings:
Illinois vs. Rutgers
Illinois' #96 offense faces Rutgers' #41 defense
Rutgers' #113 offense faces Illinois' #60 defense
Illinois at Minnesota
Illinois' #96 offense faces Minnesota's #39 defense
Minnesota's #38 offense faces Illinois' #60 defense
Illinois at Iowa
Illinois' #96 offense faces Iowa's #3 defense
Iowa's #72 offense faces Illinois' #60 defense
Illinois vs. Northwestern
Illinois' #96 offense faces Northwestern's #63 defense
Northwestern's #95 offense faces Illinois' #60 defense
Just going by that, Illinois-Northwestern is a straight-up pick 'em (with a bump for Illinois because the game is in Champaign). Defenses are 60 and 63; offenses are 95 and 96. Rutgers is trickier. Rutgers' D is 55 spots ahead of the Illinois offense. Illinois' D is 53 spots ahead of Rutgers' offense. So that feels like a pick 'em as well.
And then in the other two games, the only matchup that leans Illinois is the #72 Iowa offense vs. the #60 Illinois defense. Everything else seems to be a mismatch. (Of course, Penn State's D is #6 nationally and they just gave up 357 rushing yards to Brown and McCray, so...).
One last thing there. Fremeau also has a "special teams and field position" ranking. Here's how those five teams shake out:
Iowa - 4
Rutgers - 40
Illinois - 45
Minnesota - 52
Northwestern - 119
So if those two "pick 'em" games above are the kind that will come down to a single possession, Rutgers and Illinois are fairly even there and Illinois holds a big advantage over Northwestern.
But all of that is kind of taking me away from my point. I'll close by listing the point differential on that list above. Point differential in Big Ten games only for the last five Year Ones:
But there's still four games to go.
Don't make me look silly for writing this too soon, boys.