Every year, during the bye week, I take a look at next year's depth chart. I still plan to do that, but given my broken state after the Eastern Michigan loss, I can barely lift my hands to the keyboard. The sadness I wrote about immediately after the EMU loss hasn't departed. I covered it up with some great family moments in Idaho (and that's not really "covering up", because peace of mind comes from that stuff, not football), but whenever I think about/talk about/write about Illini football, since the EMU loss, there's a knot in my stomach. It's so, so depressing that this isn't working.
As I said in the preview, it's almost impossible to go four years in P5 football and not go to a bowl. I studied every single coach hired at every single P5 program (even the punchlines, like Joker Phillips, Derek Dooley, Randy Edsall, Tim Beckman), and if they got four years, only five coaches didn't bowl - David Cutcliffe at Duke, Paul Wolff at Wazzu, Darrell Hazell at Purdue, Kevin Wilson at Indiana, and David Beatty at Kansas. Wolff, Hazell, and Beatty were all fired. Cutcliffe and Wilson got a fifth year (and both went to bowls that fifth year).
So when you saw me predict "we will win 18 of the next 31 games" after the Wisconsin game last year, that's why. Even the bad coaches do that. Mike MacIntyre started 10-27 at Colorado, then he went 13-4 his next 17 games. It didn't mean he was a "good coach" (just like, as I've said several times, 18 of 31 wouldn't mean Lovie is a good coach, just someone who assembled a bunch of seniors), and MacIntyre certainly wasn't a program builder (it all fell apart after One Great Team) - it's simply a way to rebuild a football program. And what you do after that needs to be Alvarez and not MacIntyre.
Alvarez wins: 1, 5, 5, 10, 8, 4, 8, and on up from there.
MacIntylre wins: 4, 2, 4, 10, 5, 5, fired.
A dip is OK after your breakout, but you have to then go back up. It's why I took that #stance on Lovie after he played 22 true freshmen in 2017: the next five teams will likely be awful, bad, good, great, bad (in 2021 after the 30 seniors graduate). And then what he does in 2022 tells us everything. Good program builders go up from there, bad coaches only built one good team.
But again, it's so, so easy to build at least one good team. It's why I did all that research for the opener of the preview. Maybe I should walk you through that thought process.
On July 10th, I wrote this post about where this thing is headed. In that post I wrote this:
Does that mean it's "over"? Not at all. In fact, I still think I'd bet on a bowl in 2019 and a bowl in 2020. We'll have the single-most experienced team in the country in 2020, and it would take monumentally inept coaching for a team with that much experience in this system to not make a bowl. Even this season, they should be able to do this with their eyes closed.
No, that's not a set-up. I'm not putting "it would take monumentally inept coaching" on a tee for you to whack. It's how I see college football. Pretty much 90% of all coaches could play 22 true freshmen in 2017 and then go to a bowl in 2020. Even with four marginal recruiting classes. Just keep the systems in place and it's a near-lock. I mean, 61 of the 65 Power Five teams have been to a bowl since 2015. It's so incredibly easy to do.
Let's look at the four teams that haven't been to bowls since then. There's Kansas and their two year firing program. Turner Gill fired after two years, Charlie Weis fired four games into his third season, and when David Beatty takes over they have 39 scholarship players (Weis had tried to K-State his way to wins with junior college players). That's a minimum four year hole, in my estimation.
Rutgers had Kyle Flood getting fired for off the field stuff (player arrests + Flood had gone to a faculty member to try to change a player's class grade), Oregon State had the weird Gary Andersen thing (he resigned and didn't ask for the $12 million buyout of his contract without ever saying why - he just walked away), and Illinois had Cvijanovic/Beckman/Cubit. My takeaway: most any coach can get back to a bowl in three years by just implementing new schemes. It usually takes something off the field (leading to excessive roster turnover) for it to take longer than that.
Which is why I tossed out "18 of the next 31" and why I'm sticking with it (even though it now means we have to go 17-9 the next two seasons). The program might not go anywhere, and it might sink right back down like Zook or Turner, but the next two seasons should be solid. "Experience" almost always points to wins.
The concern? That we're in that "10% of coaches would actually fail to get an experienced team to a bowl" category I listed above. Why? Zero improvement over three years.
Because I just made up those stats (90% / 10%), I figured I'd do some research to back it up. That's what led to the intro of the preview, looking at every coach hired at every P5 program since 2006. And that led me to that number: 89 of the 97 coaches had won six games at least once (one of them left for a better job after only two years, so tossing that one out, it's 89 of 96 coaches that were able to get their team to a bowl when they rebuilt their programs). So, 90% was a little low. I'll amend my statement from above:
The concern? That we're in that "7.29% of coaches would actually fail to get an experienced team to a bowl" category.
That's why I can't believe what I'm seeing. That's why the Eastern Michigan loss still haunts me. That's why, in the back of my mind, I still expect this season to turn around. I just cannot believe that a head coach who took a team to a Super Bowl could be in the 7.29%. I get that the NFL is a completely different animal, but I'm not asking Lovie to win the Big Ten here. Just go .500 one time in four seasons. Then we can set the bar at "middle of the pack Big Ten West team". THEN we can talk about maybe winning the Big Ten West.
I went to a friend's wedding once where there was a 90% chance of rain. And it was an outdoor wedding. It was held on the grounds of this historic mansion, and there was no room inside to hold a ceremony, so the backup plan was moving all the tables in the reception tent and holding the ceremony there. It was in May, and an all-day rain was on it's way, with storms stretching from Texas to the Dakotas.
And then the storm split into two right around St. Louis and it didn't rain. The ceremony went off without a hitch. It rained from Alton, IL all the way up to Minnesota, and it rained from Farmington, MO all the way down to Mississippi, but the rain missed St. Louis. The tiny chance of that happening is why the forecaster put it at 90% and not 100%, and somehow, the 10% hit.
Writing these posts about "18 of 31" and such, that's how confident I felt. The same confidence with which I would have told the groom "hey man, sorry, but it's absolutely going to rain tomorrow - just look at how big this storm is". And then it didn't rain. And we lost to Eastern Michigan and now must win four Big Ten games to go to a bowl. Oh, and we've only won four Big Ten games twice since 2003.
Which means, I guess, that October 12, 2019 looms even larger than before. We likely lose to Minnesota next week, meaning we'll be 2-3 and going nowhere. And we're not beating Wisconsin, so 2-5 is staring us straight in the face. So October 12, 2019 against a not-as-good-as-they-should-be Michigan team is our chance to turn it around.
See? I had it right all along. When I put October 12, 2019 in my Twitter bio 3.5 years ago, I knew that Lovie would be 11-30 before and would then go 14-6 after (the numbers that would be required to get us that 18 of 31). Look out, world! Illini football comin'!
Oh. Right. The world never really has to look out for us. We're Illinois football and we can't be trusted.