I've written about the 1994 season so many times. It was my first senior year (you know, the one before my second senior year), and I was there for nearly every painstaking moment. I was in Soldier Field on that Thursday night to watch us miss a 54-yard FG for the win. I sat in the east balcony by myself for at least 20 minutes after the loss to #2 Penn State, stunned that we actually blew that 21-0 lead. I even drove up to Madison for the Wisconsin game only to watch us lose by less than a touchdown yet again. So very close to a historic season but... 6-5.
You've also heard me say that 1994, statistically, was our best season of the last 50 years. It makes some people angry to hear that - Rose Bowl in 1983? Sugar Bowl in 2001? Rose Bowl in 2007? - but NERDstatically, 1994 was superior to them all. 1994 was the "oh man, so very close to glory" year.
This year was similar to 1994. There's still one more game of data to add, but as you'll see in a bit, this season was up there in the NERDstat stratosphere. (Say that five times fast. Nerdstat stratosphere nerdstat stratosphere...)
The difference: I don't have any "oh man, we came up short" feelings. I was reeling there for a bit with the three losses, especially Purdue. But now that the season is over and I can see the entire landscape, I don't have an ounce of disappointment. I didn't expect to feel like this, but it started at the end of the Northwestern game and hasn't stopped since.
I guess I probably would have been there if we had lost the Northwestern game. Perhaps finishing 7-5 after starting 7-1 would have felt like a huge disappointment regardless of whether we were only supposed to win four games this season. But when I compare my feelings in 1994 to my feelings now, 1994 felt like "I'm pretty sure this is as high as we can climb before turning back" and 2022 feels like "we're halfway up and not even out of breath, can you imagine how much further we can climb?"
Let me back up before I start that hike. Let me give you the NERDstats first.
I've linked this chart at least two dozen times over the years. Honestly, I've linked it so much that I've been a $10-per-month Patreon subscriber at CollegeFootballData.com for more than three years just because I feel like I owe that guy at least $120 per year for all the charts I use.
And this is the best chart I've ever linked:
Boioioioingggg. The STONKS meme come to life. Bret Bielema's program, NERDstatitcally, has taken off for the stars.
A quick walkthrough of that chart:
- It's a chart of the overall SP+ score for every Illini season since 1970. The years before 2007 are approximated (based on older, less-complete data, although the numbers are probably close). The scores over the last 15 years come from very firm data points.
- SP+ tracks a bunch of factors which historically have led to winning football: defenses that create havoc plays in the backfield, offenses that are efficient and explosive, etc.
- The top-5 in SP+ right now: Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Tennessee. That's not a "ranking" of teams. It's not a formula saying which four teams should be in the playoff. It doesn't really even look at wins and losses. It says "which teams consistently do the things that winning football teams do?" And it just so happens that the top two teams in the country are the top two teams in SP+ right now.
- For Illinois, in 2022, after the regular season, it has us with a SP+ score of 15.9. That's the highest score since 1999. Yes, higher than 2001 or 2007. (And yes, by those numbers, 1999 was higher than 2001 or 2007 as well.)
- This will still adjust after the bowl game (up or down), but as of right now, statistically, the top four Illini football seasons of the last 50 years are not the ones you think about. The top 4 as of today: 1989, 1994, 1999, and 2022.
Yes, "and then you play the games" exists. Baseball has that "expected winning percentage" stat (I'll shorten to EWP here), but that doesn't determine who goes to the playoffs. In 2021, the Blue Jays had an EWP of .620 and they missed the playoffs. The Yankees had an EWP of .530 and they made the playoffs. What that means: the Blue Jays had the statistics of a team that would typically go 100-62 but they went 91-71. The Yankees had the statistics of an 86-76 team but they went 92-70 and clipped the Blue Jays by one game. We can say "should" all day long, but at the end of the day, the Yankees won the games and the Blue Jays didn't so the Yankees go to the playoffs.
So I'm not using these stats to say Illinois should be in the Big Ten Championship Game, not Purdue. Purdue 31, Illinois 24. That says it all. I am going to tell you that Illinois was significantly better than Purdue this year. Just like the 2021 Blue Jays were better than the Yankees. Those numbers:
SP+ Ranking and Rating
Illinois 17th (15.9)
Purdue 47th (7.7)
Yes, both teams finished 8-4. And Purdue beat Illinois head-to-head, so Purdue goes to the conference championship game. But if we're talking about this season and what these results might mean for the future, the arrow for Illinois is pointing much higher. 15.9 is a ridiculously big number.
So let's talk about it. And discuss it alongside our 1994 season.
First, SP+ didn't exist in 1994 (as I said above, those numbers were re-created later from what data was available), but had their been a preseason SP+ at the time, I'm guessing the 1994 preseason SP+ would have been somewhere around +12 or so. Illinois had averaged a rating of 8.9 over the previous five seasons. And the 1993 team finished on a roll, winning at Michigan and putting up a 5-3 Big Ten record. With nearly all of the most productive players returning, the preseason SP+ would have been very high.
And just as a quick aside in case you're questioning that, when John Mackovic left and Lou Tepper took over in 1992, the program was in fantastic shape. Easily the third-most talent in the conference behind Michigan and Ohio State. Possibly... dead even with Ohio State at the time? We beat Ohio State five consecutive times from 1988 to 1992 and only lost 20-12 in 1993 to snap the winning streak. So with that 5-3 conference record and a ton of players returning, the preseason SP+ numbers for 1994 would have been really high. My guess of 12 is probably too low. Everything was there to win and win big.
Preseason SP+ for 2022? Well, we know that one. After the roster losses last season, we were 79th preseason with a SP+ score of -2.4. That's a negative number. Minus 2.4.
Preseason SP+ looks at your returning production, your recruiting the last few years (Lovie's recruiting classes), and your recent success coaching those players up (these numbers would have one year of Bielema and three years of Lovie), and, for the 2022 Illini, says "yeah, a team like that generally finishes as... the 79th-best team in college football." If it was looking at the 1994 Illini, well, let's see if we can get close to an actual number.
I took a guess above that the score would have been 12. But our average SP+ score the five seasons before 1994 was 8.9 and we had a ton coming back (returning production would have easily been top-10 that year). Maybe the best way to re-create it would be to take our preseason ranking that year and see what that score would be on a recent preseason SP+. We were ranked 22nd in the AP Poll going into the 1994 season (and then dropped out after losing to Washington State at Soldier Field). So if we look at the team at 22 in the preseason SP+ this year (Texas), their projected SP+ rating was 14.4. So let's use that.
OK, we have our framework for me to A) compare this season to 1994 and B) tell you just how good of a season we just watched. Let's get into it.
For 1994, that team that would have been 22nd preseason and then would have climbed to 9th in the SP+ (yes, the 1994 NERDstats had us as the 9th-best team in the country after that season - 9th-best stats and we finished 6-5). If Connelly's 2nd Order Wins stat went back that far, I'm guessing it would have been something crazy like "9.2 expected wins - won 6 games" after the regular season.
So that gives us how much the SP+ advanced during the 1994 season. Our SP+ score climbed from (somewhere around) 14.4 preseason to 21.7. A jump of 7.3 after being #22 preseason but the wins came up short.
Let's compare that to 2022. In the preseason SP+ numbers linked above, we were 79th with a score of -2.4. As of today (one bowl game to go), we're currently 17th with a score of 15.9. 79th preseason, 17th now. -2.4 to +15.9, so a gain of +18.3. Absolutely insane coach-up job when you look at what was expected.
Yes, as I wrote a few times during the season, this tells us that Lovie's recruiting was better than it was ranked. That -2.4 was based on low recruiting rankings (the shift in the last 5-6 years to recruits being ranked by the program they choose, not film and offers, is another topic entirely but not for today), and those recruiting classes have proven to have much more talent than first thought. We're going to see a lot of players in the NFL over the next few years and almost all of them were recruited by Lovie (but developed by this staff). If there were accurate recruiting rankings fed into that preseason formula, we would have been higher than -2.4.
Still, even if the projections were low for the talent on the roster, going from "this looks like a team that will be the 79th-best team in the country" before the season and ending up at "this is the 17th-best team in the country" after the season is an INSANE glow-up. It's what separates this from 1994 (in my mind). I'm kinda talking about two different things here so let me see if I can sort it out.
I've been talking all season about Postgame Win Expectancy (PGWE) and 2nd Order Wins. It's a good way to track whether you're legitimately good or whether you're just fortunate-good. You've heard me use Bill Connelly's description for PGWE a dozen times. Take all the stats from a game, toss them up in the air, and, when compared to other games in the past with similar statistics, your team wins a game with those statistics XX out of 100 times. Add up all of those percentages and you have your 2nd Order Wins.
Where it gets fuzzy is where every battle between statistics and advanced statistics gets fuzzy. That team which had three losses by a total of 8 points: were they unlucky, or do they just not know how to close out games? That team that has won nine of their last ten one-score games. Are they extremely fortunate to be 9-1 in those games and not 5-5 or are they just a team of clutch players with clutch coaches who clutch up at the end of the game and find clutch ways to win? If a quarterback is going to complete 22 of 32 passes in a game, does that fact that he was 1-5 on the final drive mean he's a choker or does it mean that he's going to randomly throw 10 bad passes and 4 of those 10 bad passes just happened to be in the last five throws?
I'm not here to settle that debate. But I am dancing around both sides of it here. If I'm going to tell you that I don't see this season like I see the 1994 season, then am playing it a little fast and loose with "clutch" and "unlucky"? I don't think I am, and here's my attempt to explain why.
First off, 2nd Order Wins. After 12 games, the Illini's 2nd Order Win Total is 9.3. This was a 9-win football team that won eight games. Makes sense logically, I think. Lost the Indiana game on a touchdown with 23 seconds remaining. Lost the Michigan game on a field goal with 9 seconds remaining. When you go toe-to-toe with the (now) #2 team in the country, yes, 8-4 probably came up short of where you should have been. When you look at Michigan State finishing 5-7, yeah, you absolutely should have won that game. This team did have its failures.
If you're curious about 1994, we don't have a 2nd Order Win total for the 1994 team (those stats don't go back that far), but I've always assumed that it was close to 9 (or 10 after the bowl). To be 7-5 after winning the Liberty Bowl and end up 9th on the SP+ (with all of the other teams in that range having 9, 10, 11, or 12 wins), it would have had to have been a 2021 Nebraska-like "should have won 3-4 more games than they did." Hung with everyone but lost close.
So for 2nd Order Wins, I think I'm good with saying it was somewhere around 9 for 1994 after the regular season. Should have 9 wins, but after the five losses by 22 points, ended up 6-5. For this season we know the number: 9.3 2nd Order Wins. We were a 9.3-2.7 team that went 8-4. (And Purdue was a 6.9-5.1 team that went 8-4.)
Believe it or not, all of that was the build-up. Now we can finally talk about what I came here to talk about (don't worry, you're 75% of your way through this article). I simply wanted to land here: how this season was wildly encouraging in a way that 1994 was not. Three reasons:
The Starting Point
This one I mentioned above. If this was a comparison of 2002 Wisconsin vs. 2022 Wisconsin then we could compare two seasons without any weighting because both seasons were "strong program, strong roster, time to produce wins." But we can't really do that for these two Illinois seasons. Sure we can do a straight-up comparison. We can look at our 1994 season and our 2022 season and say "1994 had a rating of 21.7 and 2022 had a rating of 15.9 - 1994 was better." I think that's true. Simeon Rice and Dana Howard could probably beat Johnny Newton and Devon Witherspoon (although I'd love to watch that 10-9 game).
But the starting point matters. 1994, as I suggested above, turned out to be a "this is about as high as we can climb" season. Is that the same takeaway from this season? I don't think so. Mostly because of that starting point. The numbers from above:
1994 preseason to postseason (conservative estimate): +7.3 in SP+ from one season to the next
Yeah, even if next year drops back a bit, this still feels like "halfway up the mountain and not even out of breath." If this staff can take a -2.4 and turn it into a +15.9, imagine what they might do when +14.4 is the starting point.
I've always made this point when people ask why the numbers say that the 1999 team was probably better than the 2001 team: two different years, two different Big Tens.
The 2001 Illini won the Big Ten in a year where only two B1G teams finished better than 7-5 on the year (Michigan, ranked #20, finished the season 8-4 while Illinois, ranked #12, finished 10-2). 1999? Seven Big Ten teams were ranked in the final top-25 (Wisconsin 4, Michigan 5, Michigan State 7, Penn State 11, Minnesota 18, Illinois 24, and Purdue 25).
So in that sense, 8-4 in 1999 was maybe more impressive than 10-2 in 2001. You non-Seventeeners understand this. The 2009-10 Illini finished 10-8 in the Big Ten and went to the NIT with an RPI of 67. The 2012-13 Illini finished 8-10 in the Big Ten and got a 7-seed with an RPI of 38.
When faced with a "yeah, but the 2001 team went to the Sugar Bowl" response to that debate, a formula like SP+ is quite helpful. It runs independent of wins and losses. As Connelly says all the time, "it is simply a measure of the most sustainable and predictable aspects of football." The games were played and yes, the 2001 team went to the Sugar Bowl. But it's possible, maybe even probable, that 1999 was a better team.
Because the numbers are so "independent" like that, I'm wildly encouraged by this 15.9. Using the same formula applied across the statistics for every Illini team of the last 52 years, this one was the fourth-best. And those numbers, increasing as the season went along, actually got better after playing #3 Michigan. Which brings me to...
That 15.9? The fourth-highest SP+ rating in my lifetime? The highest number since I started blogging in 2009 meaning this was the best "footballing" our team has done since we've all been discussing this team and its lack of footballing? That number happened...
- In the second year of a new coach
- Who was taking over for a coach who went 17-29
- In a season with an SP+ preseason projection of 4.4 wins and 7.6 losses
- For a program that has had 22 losing seasons the last 27 years
It's absolute insanity. Beyond our wildest dreams. And yet I still see yeah-buts everywhere. So I'll close, uh, with a response.
I don't care what you think about the end of the Michigan game and I don't care that you've been texting your friend about the "offensive line's regression from October to November." I don't want to hear your theories on whether these redzone failures are a warning light for the future and don't you dare say something like "yeah but the Northwestern game would have been close without the five interceptions". Take your analysis which should be reserved for only Alabama, Ohio State, and Georgia fans and shove it where the Quan don't shine.
We're back. I don't care if you think we're not back, we're back. "Back" to a Wisconsin fan means getting back to at least nine wins every year and "back" to a Michigan fan didn't happen until Saturday but for an Illinois fan? You don't even have to pause over the question. We. Are. Back.
This part of that chart?