One Question Mailbag - Roster Strength
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OK, so this one question mailbag just got interesting because the tweet I was using got deleted. I go to preview the post and the Twitter embed isn't working and I go to see why it isn't working and I find that the tweet was deleted. So now I'll have to try to remember what it said.
Doesn't matter, I guess. My paraphrase:
Why make this complicated? We're seeing the results of recruiting and nothing more. The last two recruiting classes ranked 73 and 88. That's why we're not competitive against an ACC team. Full stop.
OK so not really a question but it's something I want to discuss. Illini Twitter made a massive shift in this direction the last 10 days. After Nebraska, we were riding high as a fanbase. After UTSA and (especially) Virginia, we're back to "no talent - it's gonna take a long time".
For the most part, yes, that's true. Lovie was fired because Lovie had five years, did a full tear-down rebuild, and by the time he had overhauled the roster... we were still probably last in the Big Ten West teams in terms of talent. This is always a wildly complicated subject, so promise you'll stay with me until I've written it all out.
First off, there's paper talent and actual talent. Just because a player is a four-star, it's not some guarantee he'll be a college star. Just because a player is a two-star, it's not some guarantee he belongs in the MAC and not the Big Ten. You have to be able to bring in actual talent.
The recruiting rankings are ridiculously good at predicting that, though. Sure, you can point to a 2-star who was drafted and a 5-star who was a bust, but for the most part, Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson have the best recruiting classes and then Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson win the most games. As long as your lower-ranked surprises equal your highly-ranked busts, you can keep the train rolling.
There are also some schools who far exceed their recruiting level. You'll find three of them in the Big Ten West: Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern. They recruit enough talent, and they recruit the right type of talent (to fit their very specific schemes), and once the machine is running all they have to do is add some grease every now and then. Those schools are out-recruited by Nebraska every single year and yet Nebraska can't get the machine re-started while everyone else just keeps winning with less "paper" talent.
So it's really complicated. And it's easy to manipulate. Your team fails with highly ranked recruits? "Recruiting rankings don't matter if the coaches don't know what they're doing." If your team fails under new leadership and you like the new coach? "The previous coach left the cupboard completely bare." If your team fails under new leadership and you don't like the new coach? "There's enough talent to win right away - this new coach is just a different version of the old coach." You can point to whatever you want to point to when your team is losing.
In this scenario - in the scenario that plays out in my mentions and my DM's - I feel like it's too "roster sucks" right now. There's this really quick "there's just no talent here" reaction the last two Sundays, and while that's partly true, I don't think it's as dire as its being made out to be. I should just tell you what I think.
You know where I'll start. No, those two recruiting classes did not "rank" 73rd and 88th. They did, but that's only because the 247 Composite does not consider transfers recruits. So when Illinois adds nine transfers instead of nine high school recruits, the class is only listed as having 14 players and ranks 88th, one spot ahead of Liberty. But that's because the Illinois had 14 players averaging 84.90 and Liberty had 28 players averaging 80.82. As I've written about two dozen times the last four years, as the overall rankings continue to ignore the transfer portal, they get further and further from reality.
Which is why (and you knew this was coming as well), I mostly ignore individual class rankings and just go with the "Team Talent Composite" rankings. Those rankings include all of the transfers and remove the players who have left your program. Really, it's the only logical way to do it. Who cares if your 2018 class ranked 13th nationally if 70% of those players left? What good is that? All that matters is the Composite rankings of the players still on your roster.
Now, those rankings are imperfect (just like anything ranked on the Internet ever). Jafar Armstrong still counts as the high three-star recruit he was when he went to Notre Dame. He transferred "down" to Illinois, and now we're getting "credit" for a player that maybe should have been ranked as a mid-three star. (Still, Ohio State is getting "credit" for the 5-star bust on their roster, so every roster is going to have a lot of noise.) The bottom line: recruit more guys who were highly ranked in high school and you odds of having high-end talent capable of winning your conference are increased.
Where does Illinois stand on the Team Talent Composite? This will be fun:
Anybody notice #55 down there? Or, you know, 53? Or for that matter, 57?
An entire bulleted list of "no, this does not mean..." items:
- No, this does not mean that Illinois had more talent than Virginia. Far from it. We saw our DB's try to cover their wide receivers. We saw our defensive line try to get a push against their offensive line. We had absolute proof in front of our eyes that we were less talented than Virginia. The gap is what I'm discussing here.
- No, this does not mean "Bielema has enough talent to win and this game was Bronco Mendenhall coaching circles around Bielema's staff".
- No, this does not mean that Lovie was recruiting well enough to win. This is just "on paper" talent, and so far, it appears that Lovie's "busts" out-weigh his "finds".
- No, this does not mean that Iowa State and Illinois have similar rosters. Iowa State has a top-5 running back and a top-5 tight end in college football. Their scouting far exceeded their paper ranking.
What it does mean - I should say that the main thing that it means - is that 247 using their Composite rankings to rank the last five Illinois classes 46th, 54th, 53rd, 88th, and 73rd (average: 63rd) and then use those same rankings to say that Illinois is 51st in talent should set off alarm bells across 247 HQ. The longer recruiting classes are ranked without transfers, the further we get from an actual glimpse of the talent on each roster.
When you look at the 2016 Team Talent Composite, you see that the roster Lovie inherited was 64th nationally. The roster that Bret Bielema inherited is 51st. That ranking spiked all the way up to 37th in 2019 mostly due to the influx of 4-star transfers like Josh Imatorbhebhe, Trevon Sidney, and Wole Betiku (who was actually a five-star) and then settled back down at 51 once those transfers left and these 2020 and 2021 classes came in. It's a better roster than 2016 (and I think we saw that with Kendrick Green and Nate Hobbs getting drafted from the first recruiting class), but it's probably not a "make a push for the top half of the Big Ten West" roster.
Which brings me to the "we're seeing the results of recruiting and nothing more" quoted above. I disagree. I think we're simply seeing the results of two new schemes being implemented and a program culture being overhauled. Bronco Mendenhall inherited a roster that was 42nd in Team Talent Composite. They went 2-10 that season. He's now in his sixth season, and that composite ranking has dropped to 55th, but they're significantly better across the board. They've found their players for their systems, they've established their culture, they went to the Orange Bowl in 2019, they survived a 5-5 season after that 2019 roster suffered a lot of graduation losses, and now they're looking to surge once again.
When Virginia finished 2-10 in 2016, I'm sure there were fans saying "this is the roster Mike London left and nothing more". And that might be true. Maybe those two 5-stars and five 4-stars that London left for Mendenhall were overrated and contained a bunch of bad evals by the old staff. As I said above, there's always a lot of noise in player rankings and you can twist the numbers to mean whatever you want them to mean. If you like the new coach, you say "the old staff obviously couldn't spot talent". If you don't like the new coach, you say "Team Talent Composite says we had more talent than Virginia, so how can we look that inept?".
You probably know where I always land on these things. Establish the culture and build from the ground floor. Let's just look at these two schools and basketball. Brad Underwood KenPom his first four seasons at Illinois: 102, 84, 30, 4. Tony Bennett KenPom his first five seasons at UVA: 76, 103, 33, 41, 4. Pick a target and build towards it. Might take a bit, though.
So I don't see this as much as "it's recruiting - full stop" as others do. Talent-wise, I think the program is in a bit of a better spot than 2016. Maybe that's just the hope talking, and maybe I just don't want to believe it will be 2024 before we could possibly go bowling again, and maybe next season is 2017 again and we get 87 starts from true freshmen. But for me "88th and 73rd" tells the wrong story. For me, it's this:
The offense hasn't had an identity since the 2010 and 2011 seasons. We knew what we were back then, but from Gonzales/Beatty to Cubit to McGee to Rod Smith, we just never seemed to have an offensive identity the last nine seasons. This spring and summer, I think I've seen the clearest identity since those days. We took the two best athletes in the QB room and moved them to receiver. We've put an emphasis on pocket passers at QB. We moved five players to tight end and are recruiting more in the next class. We don't know if it will work, but this seems to be the clearest "identity" since maybe the 2013 Scheelhaase/Hull season. I think I know what this is trying to be.
On defense I'm less sure, but that's mostly because of my confusion when it comes to the stand-up defensive ends/outside linebackers. How much of this scheme is in so far? Are Carney and Gay the kinds of athletes they want at OLB? We saw the kind of linebacker they want (for one game, at least) in Calvin Hart. Will we see similar players emerge at other defensive positions? To me, there's a lot of molding and shaping to do with this defense.
I'm basically saying that I don't see 1997 or 2005 this season. Those were seasons where the roster was wildly undersized and overmatched. Throw 2003 and 2017 in there as well. I'm not seeing that, at least not yet. I'm seeing a team getting out-executed (on a massive scale these last two games). I might eat these words, but I don't see "Penn State 56, Illinois 3 at halftime" on the horizon this season. I'm still holding to my 4-8 prediction, and I think we can be competitive in some of those losses. For whatever reason (coaching competence, roster is better than most think - align it with the stance you've chosen), I'm not at "wake me in mid-2023".