Stream Of Consciousness - Nebraska 2021
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I made myself promise. This was one of the biggest "put a mental sticky note on my mental bathroom mirror" scenarios of my life. After 2012 and 2016, I made myself promise that I would view the first year of every new coach differently.
There were seniors in 2012, and the new coach could maybe use those seniors to jump-start the program before the real rebuild began in 2013, but it all crashed and burned to the tune of 2-10.
There were seniors in 2016, and the new coach could maybe use those seniors to jump-start the program before the real rebuild begins in 2017, but it all crashed and burned to the tune of 3-9.
I predicted 6-6 for the record in 2012. We were coming off a 6-6 season, and I felt like there was enough talent on the roster to maintain the same level in 2012. The rebuild can begin in 2013.
I predicted 7-5 for the record in 2016. We were coming off a 5-7 season under Bill Cubit (I predicted 5-7, but the way that season played out, it would have been 7-5 with any offensive anything whatsoever). So I thought the new staff could coax two more wins and then the rebuild could begin in 2017.
I've done the "preduct the season record in the first SOC the night before the first game" for 11 years now, and those are the two seasons where I completely blew it. In fact, before last year, every year other than 2012 and 2016 I was within one win of the final tally. Last year I predicted 4-5 and we went 2-6, but we would have so very obviously beaten Ohio State had they not canceled the game, so I'm gonna say I was one win off again (no I wasn't).
But I feel like I did have a good handle on most every season. The two whiffs: 2012 and 2016. I saw returning talent but overlooked "sometimes, when I new coach takes over, it's a mess for a while". So I promised myself - PROMISED MYSELF - that the next time I'd be writing one of these and we'd have a first-year coach I wouldn't fall for the old "plenty of seniors to put together one nice season before the rebuild begins" again. Sight unseen I'd preduct 2-10 or 3-9 based only on my "new coach at Illinois after previous coach was fired" rule which was now in place.
Now, when I put in that rule, I didn't expect 42 seniors. There are 22 "super seniors" due to the Covid waiver and there are 20 "regular" seniors (all listed as juniors on the roster because they could, in fact, come back for one more year based on the same Covid waiver. 42 seniors is a "win simply because of age and experience" kind of number. As I wrote in the preview, Bret Bielema basically takes over the exact same team as last season and if he improves on two Big Ten wins he can very directly claim that Lovie coached those guys to two wins but he coached the same guys to five wins.
Which means I do see a lot of the same things I saw with 2012 and 2016. The 2011 defense was top-25 nationally, so even if it dropped off a bit in 2012, it could still lead the team to a bowl game on defensive play alone. Wrong. 2-10.
In 2015, the defense was once again top-25 nationally. So with a lot of those players returning for 2016, even if it dropped off a bit, that kind of D could still lead the team to a bowl game based on defensive play alone. Wrong. 3-9.
The obvious response to all of this is "but that was a bad coach in 2012 and a bad coach in 2016 so no wonder both teams were bad." True, but both of those coaches then climbed the 2-4-6 win ladder and got to a bowl game. Neither rebuild went anywhere, but 2-4-6 in both cases reinforces the fact that sometimes it just takes time to rebuild it.
You know what stats I'll turn to next. Perhaps I can speed this up so I don't waste any of your time saying the same thing over and over. Pat Fitzgerald took over a 7-win team and won 4 games his first year. Barry Alvarez and Kirk Ferentz took over programs that had won 2 and 3 games the year before and they both won only one game their first season. Nick Saban takes over a 6-6 Alabama program and goes 6-6. Even for great coaches, it sometimes just takes time.
So I have to stick with the sticky notes. I wrote them for a reason. I need to ignore "42 seniors could mean a big surprise" and just stick with what I told myself after I made the same mistake twice: when there's a new coach, and he's changing the schemes, it takes a lot of time. There's a reason Vegas set the over-under at 3.5. I cannot let myself wander into 6-6 or 7-5 land, as much as I want to. The sticky notes are the sticky notes.
2021 Season Prediction: 4-8
I mean, you didn't think I was going to predict the under, did you?
As for the game tomorrow, all I can think about is the heat. It's gonna be so freaking hot on that field (and in the stands). Fans in the east main stands will be up under the overhang by the second quarter (I fear each and every TV shot of the stands). Fans in the east balcony will either go back to the tailgate at halftime or move over to the shade they see on the west side. I was kind of upset that masks would be required in the pressbox, but I'll take being inside tomorrow over being outside. Some offensive lineman is going to lose 14 lbs of sweat during the game.
With heat like that, my mind turns to the team controlling the clock. We've seen defenses get tired in the fourth quarter before, but this is going to be next-level tired, I think. Both teams will have to be very liberal with their defensive rotations to avoid fourth quarter exhaustion. I see this one as a "wear down your opponent" game.
To me, that favors Nebraska. I just think they're deeper. Yes, Illinois has something like 93 scholarship players, but Nebraska has a large number as well and rankings-wise, they're much more talented.
I look at it like this. Nebraska is in Year Four of their rebuild. This is when the breakout should be happening. Sure, it might not happen, and that means Frost is so very gone, but remember that chart I put together a few years ago? The one where I looked at every P5 coaching hire over a period of ten years and 89 of 96 coaches made it to a bowl by their fourth season? That's the simplistic view I take towards Nebraska this year. Every program can be rebuilt in four years, so if you're looking at a fourth year team who hasn't bowled yet, expect significant improvements. Almost everyone eventually gets there. They don't always stay there, but they do eventually get there.
So I think Nebraska gets there this season. It might only be a 7-win season, but Scott Frost has overhauled the roster and now will have his best team in his fourth year.
Which means I think Nebraska wins tomorrow. I think we'll be competitive, and I think we'll pull an upset or two later in the season once everything settles in, but for tomorrow, I think it's Nebraska. Simple as "year four beats year one".
Nebraska 31, Illinois 20