Early SP+ For 2022

May 23, 2022

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2021, by every measure, was wildly successful. Using Bill Connelly's SP+ ratings, the final rating for 2021 Illini football: 4.3. That's the highest rating since 2011. So yes, even the NERDstats say that 2021 was our best season in 10 years.

I feel like I've written about SP+ more than two dozen times, and each time I try to start with a few paragraphs explaining what it is. Maybe I don't need to do that anymore? Maybe I do.

Connelly always mentions the five factors that go into SP+: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers. It's hard to project turnovers season to season (they come and go based on what the oblong ball wants to do once it's fumbled or tipped), so the first four factors carry the day. Each team gets a rating which is projected before the season and then adjusted once the game results come in. By the end of the year, the rating tells you where you stand against the average college football team.

In 2021, Illinois was +4.3. That means Illinois was 4.3 points better than the average college football team. Northwestern was -11.1. They were somehow 11.1 points worse than the average college football team (and 43.1 points worse than Georgia).

Here's a season-by-season for Illinois in the SP+. As you can see, that spike in 2021 is very, very encouraging:

Yes, per SP+, the best Illini team of the last 50 years was 1994. 21.7 points better than the average college football team. The two Rose Bowl teams - 1983 and 2007 - were actually, per this stat, the fifth and sixth-best (in the last 50 years). Sometimes you win every close game right at the end (2001) and sometimes you don't (1994). Replay those seasons fifty times and 1994 will have the better season way more than 2001. But Ken Dilger was stopped at the one against Purdue and Bret Scheuplein missed the 54-yard FG against Wazzu and Brian Milne scored for #2 Penn State with 30 seconds left and 1994 finished 7-5. 2001? Brandon Lloyd made the catch against Wisconsin and Rocky Harvey scored when he hopped over the Penn State linebacker with a minute left (and we somehow held on to beat NIU 17-12) and 2001 finished 10-2.

That's kind of the point here. Iowa State, statistically, was 14.3 points better than the average college football team last year. They went 7-6. Michigan State was 11.2 points better than the average college football team. And they went 11-2. It's college football. You'll usually win around 50% of your close games, but sometimes you have that season where you win all of them (Michigan State) and sometimes you have that season where you win none of them (Iowa State).

Yes, that sometimes comes down to one coaching decision. You've probably seen that Nebraska stat this offseason: "Nebraska was eleven plays from 12-0; instead, they went 3-9". The most common response: "Scott Frost's coaching staff chokes when the game is on the line." Perhaps. It's an ugly trend so far. But the stats say that Nebraska has the efficiency and the explosiveness to be 9.3 points better than the average college football team. That's the exact same as Purdue (9.3). Purdue went 9-4. Nebraska went 3-9.

That's for the season-ending SP+, though. Connelly also does projections for the next season. He takes your recent SP+ history (our 4.3 really helps here), applies your average recruiting classes the last few years (ouch), and your returning production (double ouch) and gives a preseason number. He updated his preseason numbers this morning. Illinois? -3.2, good for 82nd nationally.

Your question: "We get a new coach, he immediately goes 5-7, beating #7 and #20 on the road, and then in the preseason projections we drop from a team that's 4.3 points better than the average college football team to 3.2 points worse than the average college football team?" My answers:

First, I want to say that yes, 4-5 in the Big Ten in 2021 is a very important data point. When recent Illinois coaches won their fourth conference game:

Ron Turner: Conference game #22
Ron Zook: Conference game #19
Tim Beckman: Conference game #24
Lovie Smith: Conference game #24
Bret Bielema: Conference game #9

This is a very significant thing. As this stat works its way into the SP+ (in the "how good have you been of late?" portion of the preseason projections), it will really start to do some damage. But for now, it's one year of data fighting against a lot of bad history.

And it's also fighting recruiting rankings and returning production. Let's go through both.

For recruiting rankings, I believe Connelly uses the 247 Composite. And he weights the numbers. The most recent class counts for a fair bit and three-classes-back counts less (mostly because those players are already showing up in the actual stats by then). He's just trying to get an idea of any instant impact players coming in. I believe he uses average player rating for this and not class ranking, although I can't find where he said that. Here's our average player ranking the last few years:

2020: 84.90
2021: 84.19
2022: 85.09

All are between 50th-best and 70th-best average player rating, so this number really won't help our preseason projection at all. Yes, Illinois had the "46th-best class" according to the 247 Composite, but that's because there were 26 players total. Wisconsin was one spot ahead in 45th but their average player rating was 87.33 (16 players). Compare that to Arizona - they brought a class that ranked #22, but their average player rating was 86.94. I can already feel myself wanting to rant about how Arizona's class is #22 and Wisconsin's class is #45 just based on number of players brought in when Wisconsin has more talent coming in, but I won't. My point with these recruiting rankings: they won't help us in the SP+ projections.

So then it's returning production. This isn't just "contributors returning", it's contributors returning at the positions where it matters most like experienced offensive linemen and defensive backs who have a lot of passes defended (interceptions and PBU's). This is another stat I've described two dozen times so I won't go down that road.

Here's where Illinois ranks:

Ouch, baby. 115th nationally, dead last in the Big Ten. Again, that number isn't "51% of the players are returning", it's a weighted number that emphasizes positions which are difficult to replace (wide receiver) and positions not as difficult to replace (running back).

The red and green here reflect the teams who have moved significantly since the last time he put together these numbers in February. And since he tracks the portal now, the red numbers reflect that all of Wyoming's important players left via the portal (that's good for us on August 27th) and Miami added a ton of experienced players from the portal. He's been tinkering with the portal stuff - should a player's production at Utah State equal "returning" production when he transfers to Utah? - and I'm guessing this stat will keep evolving based on that. But for now, in 2022, Illinois is 115th.

And that makes sense, right? 17 seniors plus 19 players left via the portal. That's a fair bit going out the door. Perhaps more importantly, a lot of the most statistically-important players went off to the NFL. Three were three draft picks, plus seven other players signed as undrafted free agents. I know that's tied with the 2016 draft for the most Illini draft picks since 2013. And I can't remember any year in the last decade that saw seven free agent signings immediately after the draft. So big picture here... that's a lot going out the door. We knew that -- in this space we've been talking about it for at least four years -- but now this ranking of 115th is statistical representation of the dreaded roster cliff.

(You can feel it coming, right? I can feel it coming. It's time for the "which is fine!" paragraph.)

Which is fine! This is no reflection on the current staff at all. When Bret Bielema said that he only had 2017 and 2018 offensive linemen in the two-deep, with no 2019, 2020, or 2021 linemen on the first or second strings, this is what he was pointing to. Any time there's a gap in recruiting -- let's use Tim Beckman relying on jucos who all graduated in 2015 and 2016 - there's going to be a 2017 season where the roster turnover is massive. I don't think 2022 = 2017 (yet), but that ranking right there reflects the reliance on the 2017 and 2018 recruits for the last five rosters.

And the result of {waves hands around} all of this? Big Ten preseason rankings that look like this going into 2022:

The hope? That this staff pushes this next roster well beyond expectations. A quick review of the last few years:

2020 SP+ ranking (Lovie fired at the end of the season): 89th
2021 preseason (42nd in returning production boosts the number): Up to 81st
2021 season (Bielema's first season, 5-7 record): Climbed from 81st preseason to 64th in the final rankings
2022 preseason (returning production damages any hope of a good preseason ranking): Down to 82nd

Bret Bielema inherited a team ranked 89th (but with a lot of seniors) and coached them up 25 spots. Now he inherits a team projected to finish in the 80's again, this time because all the seniors graduated, two players left early for the NFL, offensive contributors like Barker, Navarro, and Spann transferred out, and 16 other players left, replaced by mostly true freshmen. What can he do with this roster? Can he have those freshmen ready soon? Can he take the other players he inherited (who mostly didn't play last season) and coach them up 25 spots again?

We shall see. This task is a lot more difficult. This season feels like 2018 to me (transfer quarterback, tons of turnover on defense, offensive line rebuild). Can he produce something better than 2018?

After such an encouraging season last year, I'm so ready to find out.


IlliniJoe81 on May 23, 2022 @ 12:17 PM

Does any of this capture the massive upgrade at OC? Also, isn’t our schedule pretty favorable this year? I’m a basketball guy but it seems like we’re set up to win a few games this year despite the rebuild. I also think BB’s scheme really works well for winning 5+ games even without amazing talent. The strong finish and firing the OC really won me over to BB. The guy seems to have a vision for how to succeed at Illinois that actually relates to reality. Haven’t really seen that in the last 20 years. It shows in the player development. Round pegs in round holes and a positive culture. All that stuff matters a lot.

Robert on May 23, 2022 @ 03:22 PM

The formula is mostly blind to coordinators, I think (except for the coordinators who have been somewhere a while and are part of the "good teams continue to be good/bad teams continue to be bad" thing). And I agree with that. That's not really something that carries through year to year. At least not as much as talent and experience. When Mike Locksley left Alabama to take the Maryland job he had the #2 offense in the country. Average offensive ranking (SP+) in his three years at Maryland: 55.

Coordinators are mostly a function of talent and experience (in my view, at least). Yes, a coordinator can move you up or down the rankings - I think last year's defense would have only risen to somewhere around 55th under Lovie and we moved to #32 under Walters - but I don't really believe in such a thing as "massive upgrade at coordinator". I'm more of a "moderate upgrade" guy. Tony Petersen, with Alabama's 2018 offensive roster, would have had, like, the 6th-best offense in the country.

The example I always use when I make this point: everyone thought Joe Brady was the greatest coordinator on earth at LSU in 2019. No, he had Joe Burrow throwing to Jamar Chase and Justin Jefferson and handing it off to Clyde Edwards-Helaire. He went to the Carolina Panthers, had two bad offenses, and was fired in less than two years.

So I look at it like this: if the Illinois offense improves from 98th to 40th, most will say "wow, Barry Lunney is something else" and I'll probably say "wow, Tommy DeVito is something else." Not that Lunney wouldn't move the needle and provide an upgrade over Petersen. Just that to move the needle that much, in my book, it would take a massive QB upgrade.

GilThorpe on May 24, 2022 @ 06:20 PM

in other words , its not the X's & O's, its the Jimmy's & the Joe's

ktal on May 24, 2022 @ 11:10 AM

Great stuff Robert.

Alaskan Illini on May 25, 2022 @ 01:55 PM

So in other words, we're looking at yet another typical Illinois football season . . . (sigh)


jfinsocal on May 28, 2022 @ 07:44 PM

The historical chart reinforces the fact that the Moeller years were so bad.

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