Oct 20, 2022

It's easily the Question Of October. How is this happening? We would have all been overjoyed at a 6-6 season this year and yet here we are at #18 with only one ranked team on the remaining schedule. How are we this good? Please allow me to use around 3,000 words to figure it out.

We'll start with just a list of where we stand as of October 20, 2022:

+ We're 18th in the polls. Oregon and UCLA play this weekend and the loser will drop below us, K-State and TCU play this weekend and the loser will drop below us, Syracuse will lose at Clemson and drop below us, so I'm guessing we're 15th when the next poll comes out on Sunday. Maybe 14th with an upset or two?

+ We're tied for first place in the Big Ten West with Purdue (both teams are 3-1 in the Big Ten). And Purdue has to come to Champaign on November 12th.

+ We control our destiny for winning the Big Ten West. And there's a... 70%(?) chance that we could wrap up the division on November 12th with two games still left to play (meaning that if we were 6-1 in the Big Ten at that point we could lose to Michigan and Northwestern and still go to Indy if we take care of business on October 29th and November 5th). All that would need to happen for that to be a possibility would be for us to beat Nebraska and Michigan State, for Purdue to lose one of their next two (Wisconsin or Iowa), Iowa to lose once (they play at Ohio State this weekend), Minnesota to lose once (they play at Penn State this weekend), and Northwestern to lose twice (a near guarantee). With that we'd have one Big Ten loss, everyone else would have three (and Northwestern would have four), and we'd have tiebreakers over Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Purdue.

Please note that that's not "how we win the Big Ten West". We could lose the next two and still win the Big Ten West. That's me answering the question "is it possible to wrap up the division on November 12th against Purdue?". The answer is yes, it's possible. I'd even go as far as saying that it's "likely" those other things will all happen (one loss from Purdue, Iowa, and Minnesota and two losses from Northwestern before November 12th). So as long as we take care of business, that game will be for the Cannon AND the division. (And we could still win the division if we lost.)

Let me say that a different way: while we're relaxing during our bye week on Saturday, we want these results: Minnesota loses at Penn State, Iowa loses at Ohio State, Purdue loses at Wisconsin, and Northwestern loses at Maryland (again, Northwestern doesn't really matter - we just need them to get their fourth conference loss before November 12th so they're mathematically eliminated).

If all of that happens this weekend, here's where we will stand: as long as Northwestern loses one additional game (at Iowa 10/29 or home against Ohio State 11/5 lol), and if we beat Nebraska and beat Michigan State, we'll have the opportunity clinch the Big Ten West by beating Purdue on November 12th. In that scenario, we could then lose to Michigan and lose to Northwestern and still go to Indy.

+ I just looked up five bowl projections. Those five had us in the Citrus Bowl, ReliaQuest Bowl (in Tampa, formerly Outback), the Citrus Bowl, the Music City Bowl, and the ReliaQuest Bowl. Four New Years Day bowls (actually on January 2 this year because of the NFL Sunday) and one on New Years Eve in Nashville. Clear your calendars.

+ I looked through several projections for how the CFP Committee will have the top-25 when the first one is released on November 1st. Most had Illinois in the range of 14th to 16th. And several teams will lose between now and then. So as long as we beat Nebraska (and I'm not counting that as a win by any means), we might be... 13th in the first CFP rankings? 12th?

These are heady times. And I'm not afraid of them. You might have winced a couple times above and said things like "yeah, but if we lose to Nebraska and Michigan State then all of this goes away", but that's just the scar tissue talking. Step out into the light. It's so very warm.

OK, so all of that was just to establish "where". Let's get to "how?". Many people have asked me this (in person, on Twitter, on Slack). I'll combine all of their questions into one big sentence. And then I'll take 2,000 words attempting to answer it.

Illinois was 5-7 last year but Vegas put the over/under at 4.5. Three starting offensive linemen graduated, the quarterback graduated, we lost seven key defenders (Carney, Gay, Perry, Hansen, Tolson, Adams, and Joseph), and most everyone expected a rebuilding year. The record had a chance to be better given a much easier schedule, but there were probably going to be some growing pains. 6-6 seemed like a dream season. So how in the hell did we get from there to here?


Lovie's Recruiting Was Better Than You Or I Realized

We have to start there, right? We have to start there. It's the thing that's quite uncomfortable to talk about given that a Family Feud episode with the question "Why did Lovie Smith fail at Illinois?" would have "he was an NFL coach who didn't know how to recruit" as the number one answer (with 62 points). Over time, that's changing to "he didn't know how to assemble a staff to develop the talent he found". Because, uh, he found talent. Here's the evidence.

I wrote a Slapdash newsletter in January of 2021 looking at NFL Combine invites. Kendrick Green had gotten an invite to the Combine, and he was the first Illini player in four years to get an invite. So I researched how many different schools had a player get a combine invite over those three years. Care to guess? There are 130 FBS programs. Want to guess how many college football programs had at least one player invited to the Combine in those three years?

One hundred sixty one.

161 college football programs from FBS, FCS, Division II, and Division III had at least one player receive a Combine invite. Illinois had zero. There's no more damning a statistic relating to the talent in the 2014, 2015, and 2016 classes than zero invites (we're not even talking "drafted" or "make an NFL roster" - just Combine invites) in 2018, 2019, and 2020. Illinois State had three invites in three years. Boston College had 7 invites in 2019 alone. LSU had sixteen players invited to the 2020 combine. Illinois in 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined: zero.

Here's how I ended that newsletter:

If there's a goose egg from 2022 through 2024, Bret Bielema has a long road ahead. If there's a few cornerstone guys in there, maybe the rebuild can be quicker. I'm allowing 10% for "coach 'em up" in my percentages above, so maybe this coaching staff can give the highly-ranked guys (like Ford and Avery and Brown) the boost they need to get on the NFL radar. If 70% is "God-given talent", well, Verdis Brown has it. Now someone not named Bob McClain can try to turn him into a monster.

This is normally where I'd write the "in conclusion" bit, but I don't really have one. The conclusion for the list of Combine invites would be "Kansas had four, Illinois had zero." The conclusion for the "did Lovie improve it at all?" section is "after 2020 and the lack of 2017 class development it sure doesn't feel like it, but in actuality, only 4% of precincts are reporting".

So maybe I'll just close with draft picks. Leaving transfers out of it (Juco transfers like Jihad Ward and small-school transfers like Clayton Fejedelem), Illinois recruited exactly three high school players in the 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 classes who were chosen in the NFL Draft: Ted Karras (6th round), Duwuane Smoot (3rd round), and Nick Allegretti (7th round). That's the same number as South Dakota State across the same seven recruiting classes.

Beyond any "Garrick McGee sucks" and "Bill Cubit and Lovie Smith both hired their sons", that's the core reason we were one of the five worst P5 college football programs on the planet this past decade. You can find NFL guys by landing 4-stars and you can find NFL guys by landing 2-stars, and we just haven't been able to do it. We don't have difference-makers, and so we don't win games.

Here's hoping Bielema's staff has a much better eye. (And here's hoping Lovie's staff did, too, because Bielema is stuck with Lovie players for the next few years.)

"If there's a few cornerstone guys there, maybe the rebuild can be quicker." Yes, there were cornerstone guys there. And the rebuild has been quicker. It's not the entire reason we're 6-1 -- there are more subheads below -- but I feel like we need to start with the talent on campus.

Since I switched to the NFL Draft there at the end of that newsletter, let's go with draft picks over the years. After the last of the Zook Boys were drafted in 2013 (which shows us very clearly that Zook's recruiting came to a screeching halt after the 3-9 disaster in 2009), here's what it looked like over the years:

No draft picks in 2014, 2015, 2018, or 2020. And 2014 & 2015 was the first time we went back-to-back years without a draft pick in our lifetimes. 2014 draft through 2020 draft, five total draft picks, with three of the five in the 2016 draft. It's the single worst period for Illinois football and the NFL Draft ever. EH-VER.

Those five draft picks from 2014 through 2020 (seven classes spanning Zook's last two years and all of Beckman and Cubit) were already matched by Lovie's first two classes with five draft picks the last two years. And then we need to discuss who might be drafted in the future. I won't say what year (mostly because I want guys like Newton and Spoon to return for one more season), but here's how I see future draft picks from the Lovie Smith recruits:

Certain to be drafted:

Devon Witherspoon
Johnny Newton
Chase Brown
Quan Martin
Sydney Brown

Likely to be drafted:

Alex Palczewski
Keith Randolph
Pat Bryant

Chance that they're drafted:

Calvin Avery
Seth Coleman
Isaiah Williams (size is the issue)

Please note that this is just a list of Lovie recruits. I think we already know Gabe Jacas is here for three years and then off to the NFL. I think I already know that Matt Bailey will eventually be drafted (just wait, y'all). Bret Bielema has already said that they think Zy Crisler is here for two years and then will put his name in the draft. I would put Isaiah Adams on the "chance that they're drafted" list above.

So this is where we have to start. Talent on this roster. We can debate forever why Lovie wasn't able to develop this talent (2020: Kerby Joseph moved to WR and then back to S midseason, doesn't start; 2021: Kerby Joseph 1st Team All Big Ten and 3rd-round draft pick), but as you know, I'm a "maybe he's born with it" guy, not a "maybe it's Maybelline" guy, and Lovie's staff found some born-with-it guys.

Why is Illinois 6-1? Bullet point #1 is simple:

Lovie Smith inherited two NFL draft picks from Tim Beckman (Dawuane Smoot for one year and Nick Allegretti for three years). Bret Bielema inherited somewhere between 10-13 NFL draft picks from Lovie Smith. Add Kendrick Green and Nate Hobbs to that list and it's possible Lovie found 15 NFL guys in his five years.

(I know that's not where you wanted me to start. But that's where I had to start because it's the #1 answer to "how??". Let's get to the other stuff.)

Unlocking Us

I only touched on it a bit in the last section but "develop talent" is obviously a big part of (what I'm projecting to be) 10-13 NFL draft picks. And as I mentioned there, Kerby is the best example. Lovie's staff said "yeah, he's not a defensive back - move him to WR" and one year later he's a first team All Big Ten safety in Ryan Walters' defense. Lovie may have found raw material, but he wasn't able to forge anything out of it (besides the second-half of 2019). Safety coach Ryan Walters took a player from the scrap pile and put him in the NFL in one year.

And I think it's more than just "develop talent". This staff has been able to unlock players. There's, like, a dial on Calvin Avery's back, and this staff twists it left until they hear a click, then they spin it right until they hear a click, then back to the left, and suddenly Calvin Avery is the Calvin Avery we always wanted to see.

Just think of how many players have been unlocked in the last 14 months. Kerby and Vederian last year, yes, but here's a list off the top of my head from this season:

Brian Hightower
Tommy DeVito
Julian Pearl
Seth Coleman
Calvin Avery
Kendall Smith

That's not a list of "these are the stars on the team". This staff played a huge part in transforming guys like Johnny Newton and Devon Witherspoon. But in terms of "there was an athlete there, but no one ever unlocked the football player within", this staff is better than any staff I've covered.

And it makes me crazy hopeful for the future. What if they unlock Alec Bryant? He had a crazy journey to get here (dropped by LSU, scrambled around and found a spot at Virginia Tech, got in trouble for breaking a dorm door and transferred to Illinois really needing somewhere stable to develop for 2-3 years), so what if the staff is able to figure him out and unlock him like they unlocked Owen Carney and Isaiah Gay last year?

What if they figure out the code for Raashaan Wilkins next year? What if they do for Verdis Brown next year what they did for Calvin Avery this year? What if Solo Turner just needed to find a coaching staff like this?

They're not going to unlock every player. We haven't seen anything from Shammond Cooper this year and Luke Ford has only six receptions in seven games. My point is not "bring me every failed 4-star from Texas A&M and this staff will have them in the draft next season".

My point is that this staff has a much higher hit rate on unlocking players than any staff I've covered. I can't wait to see what's next.

With A Little Luck We Can Help It Out We Can Make This Whole Damn Thing Work Out

We just need to acknowledge that we've been a little fortunate.

No, we haven't been fortunate in the world of 2nd Order Wins. That's not where I'm going here. We're a team that should have won 6.3 games that has won 6 games. We're 81st in "luck" on that list. We are who we think we are. Maybe even a little unlucky.

I'm saying luck in terms of the schedule. We've played so many seasons where our non-conference opponents are suddenly 11-1 when we play them. I can list them off the top of my head. A 10-2 Northern Illinois team. Louisiana Tech when they had those great receivers. 12-0 Western Michigan. UTSA the year they go 11-1. South Florida's two best seasons the last decade. I could go on and on.

So it's nice to be on the other side of that. Not only with our non-conference schedule (Virginia is BAD bad this year), but also with our conference schedule. To wit:

  • Last year Iowa won 10 games. This year they... won't.
  • There's still half a season to play, but this is probably Wisconsin's worst season since 2008.
  • Nebraska was supposed to be back and they're not.
  • Michigan State was #11 at the beginning of the year and they'll probably finish with a losing record.
  • Northwestern is at their lowest point in 20+ years.

This does not mean we're not good. Stats don't lie, and we're not just squeaking by in these games, we're winning big. Minnesota was supposed to be the favorite in the Big Ten West and then yards were 472 to 180. We're a very good football team.

I'm just pointing out that if we go 10-2 (and at this point, it's very possible), then part of the reason we're 10-2 is that we only played one ranked opponent all year (Michigan). Maybe Purdue wins these next two and they're ranked coming in, but if not, yeah, we're only going to play one ranked opponent all year. In 1993 I believe we played six ranked teams. Through the mid-2000's we always seemed to play five ranked teams. So yeah, this season has been a bit fortunate schedule-wise. (But I'm good with it, given, you know, the last two decades.)

And besides, ranked opponents are coming. We go to Michigan in a month. Then probably Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game.

And then who knows what ranked team we'll play in the playoff semifinal.

Ryan Walters

OK, NOW you can start talking about Ryan Walters.

I'm aware that comments aren't working on this article. As crazy as this sounds, I believe it's because I included a paragraph above that was just the number "161" with a period and that threw the whole thing into some kind of coding weirdness. It's not something I can fix at this point, and Brumby is on vacation, so... I'll just fill in all the comments for you.

Great article, Robert.


Good stuff, Robert.


This article was just OK.


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