I have a question for you Illinois fans: why is there so little interest in your football team? Illinois isn't a powerhouse, to be sure, but they've had their moments over the past few years. You went to the Rose Bowl in 2007! (undeserved, but still) You've won a bowl game the past two years running, which is the best current streak in the conference (side note: that's... so sad). There's some history, and good players have come through the program. So what gives? I don't quite get it, so enlighten me!
I think this image is required during any discussion of Illinois
All right, enough of that. On to the charts!
Zook-ing is an Art Form (Illinois Performance 2005-2011)
Figure 1: Illinois Yearly FBS Rank (2005-2011)
Figure 2: Illinois Yearly Adj Off, Def Rank (2005-2011)
Figure 3: Illinois Yearly Win % and Luck (2005-2011)
That is some nice fluctuation, Mr. Zook. Impressive. It's almost strange to think about now, but when I came to college in 2007, I viewed Illinois as a legitimate threat in football (and truth be told, they were pretty decent that year). I was worried when the Illinois game came around, and I viewed a win against them as something to be proud of. And yet, that feeling's completely gone now. I think this may be partly because of the public perception of Ron Zook (and probably hubris on my part), but it does underscore how wide of a range of performances Illinois gave under his coaching. They had a good offense in 2007 and 2008 (JUICE!), but that completely vanished over the last few years, giving way to a fairly decent defense. What's the trend? WHAT'S THE TREND? Combined with the new coach next year in Tim Beckman, I truthfully have no idea what to expect from the Illini next year.
What Happened to Nathan Scheelhaase? (Illinois 2011 Season)
Won Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl vs UCLA (20-14)
Okay, that's not completely true. 2011 saw a pretty dreadful offense by Illinois standards, and I'd expect that to improve. Ready for a chart? Here's the Illinois offensive and defensive performance by week for 2011:
(Rel Off in BLUE, Rel Def in RED)
Weeks 10, 14, 15 are BYE's, so ignore those.
Illinois followed pretty much the exact opposite trend of Minnesota. While the Gophers improved drastically following a pretty rough start, the Illini pretty steadily declined on both sides of the ball (a reminder that Rel Off > 1 = good, Rel Off < 1 = bad, Rel Def < 1 = good, Rel Def > 1 = bad). The offensive deficiencies were more pronounced (Weeks 7-9 - Ohio State, Purdue, Penn State - were especially poor), but the defense declined as well. They just set a high bar for themselves initially, so the defensive "poor" performances were still fairly stout (exception: Week 13 vs Minnesota. BAD). Hopefully, the loss of Whitney Mercilus won't affect that too much.
And while I'm here, I'm going to give some support to Nathan Scheelhaase. Yes, I know that his first half performance (10 TD, 3 INT) was miles ahead of his last half performance (3 TD, 5 INT). But he really wasn't that bad overall, and he really was the entire offense for most of the year (A.J. Jenkins needs someone to throw the ball to him). Let's just chalk 2011 up as a learning experience for the young lad. (Riley O'Toole was awful, I'm not going to consider him a serious replacement unless he shows something more than BLEAH).
Finally: Illinois won a bowl game. Against UCLA, but still: WOO GO ILLINI.
So We're Due for an Upswing, Right? (Illinois 2012 Preview and Projections)
NOTE: The numbers below each opponent indicate the projected score differential. Numbers in parentheses are negative (as indicated), other numbers are positive (as indicated)
Avg Opp Rank: 56.8 (Avg Non-Con: 56.5, Avg Conf: 56.9)
Final Record: 7-5 (4-4), Avg MOV: 2.4 pts, Bowl Prediction: Texas Bowl
Hey, look at that! 7-5 ain't bad (actually, I'd consider that a big success for the first year of Tim Beckman). As I've noted before, new coaches kind of throw a wrench into these projections, and that's leaving aside the issue of Ron Zook's Wild RideTM upon which these numbers are based. So more than most of these previews, this is going to be a crapshoot. Grains of salt and all that jazz.
Still, I would expect the offense to improve upon the disaster that was 2011, especially if they can get someone besides Nathan Scheelhaase to actually contribute to the rushing game (Donovonn Young, perhaps?). Yeah, they need to replace Jenkins at WR, but the point of these previews is to be positive, dammit! In all seriousness, Tim Beckman did a darn good job at Toledo forging a top offense (12th in 2011), and I'd expect at least some of that to rub off on the Illinois football team.
Furthermore, the schedule isn't too difficult (Avg Opp Rank of 56.8 is pretty high for BCS teams). Arizona State doesn't really strike fear into anyone, and they're installing a new coach and QB. Ohio State is almost certainly a loss, despite that relatively small scoring margin projection (the game is at Ohio Stadium, for one), but I'd actually wager that Illinois has a decent shot at beating Penn State. This is based almost completely on a personal conjecture that the Illinois offense will be better than the Penn State offense. Whether that comes across in actuality remains to be seen (I actually don't know who's projected better in my numbers, though it's probably pretty close.)
Best case for Illinois: The issue with these middle tier teams is that there're so many toss-up games. It's much easier for a team like Indiana, where most of the games are big losses. But here it goes. Leaving aside Ohio State for reasons stated above, I see these games as toss-ups: Western Michigan, Arizona State, Louisiana Tech (under-rated, IMO), Penn State, Purdue, and Northwestern. Whew, that's six. They're projected to go 4-2 in those games, which is pretty decent on its own. But, we'll say Tim Beckman starts out on fire, and Illinois wins them all. That's 9-3 (5-3)! I personally think that's exceedingly optimistic considering the new coach factor, but with replacing Ron Zook the new coach factor might actually be a benefit.
Worst case for Illinois: Unfortunately, as per custom, we must also lay out the rougher road. And with so many close games projected, that 4-2 record in those games can very easily fall to something much worse. I won't as far to predict a 0-6 record (Western Michigan and Louisiana Tech are both at home, and I think Western Michigan is more of a one year wonder than anything). But if Nathan Scheelhaase doesn't improve and instead continues his late season woes, Purdue and Northwestern build off of strong finishes last year, and the general first year coaching trials rear their head for Tim Beckman, I can see a 1-5 close game record. That's 4-8 (2-6) for the Illini, which would be a disappointment, to say the least.
In closing: fvck if I know. I do think the schedule is favorable enough for the Illini to have a strong season. They ain't going to the Rose Bowl without black magic, but Tim Beckman has the tools to be immediately successful. Now please Illinois fans: show some appreciation for that?
NOTE: This preview has gotten me a good handle for how to spell Scheelhaase. I'm very proud of myself.
Glossary and Explanation of Terms!
For a more thorough explanation, see my primer. Otherwise, the stuff below should be a quick reference guide.
For the purposes of this section, I will refer to Average State University (ASU). ASU scores 25 pts/game on offense, gives up 25 pts/game on defense, and has an Adj Off, Def of 1.00 and 1.00, respectively.
Adj Off - a measure of a team's scoring offense, adjusted for schedule. A team with an Adj Off of 2.00 would be expected to score 50 pts on ASU. A team with an Adj Off of 0.50 would be expected to score 12-13 pts on ASU.
Adj Def - a measure of a team's scoring defense, adjusted for schedule. A team with an Adj Def of 2.00 would be expected to give up 50 pts to ASU. A team with and Adj Def of 0.50 would be expected to hold ASU to 12-13 pts.
Adj Eff - a measure of a team's overall strength, AdjEff = AdjOff/(AdjOff + AdjDef). A perfect rating would be 1.00, a perfectly bad rating would be 0.00, a perfectly average rating would be 0.50. This rating tends to reward teams with good defenses more than good offenses.
Adj Marg - a measure of a team's overall strength, AdjMarg = AdjOff - AdjDef. A good rating would be > 0.00, a bad rating would be < 0.00, a perfectly average rating would be 0.00. This rating tends to reward teams with good offenses more than good defenses.
(NOTE: While I list both Adj Eff and Adj Marg as measures of overall team strength, the "official" rankings are Adj Marg, as I find it tends (usually) to be a slightly better predictor of game results than Adj Eff.)
Opp Rat - the average rating of a team's opponents, as determined by Adj Marg. A relatively difficult schedule will have OppRat > 0.00, a relatively easy schedule will have OppRat < 0.00, a perfectly average schedule will have OppRat = 0.00.
Luck - the difference between a team's expected winning percentage (based on schedule and expected scores) and their actual winning percentage. Luck > 0.00 indicates that a team won more games than they were expected, Luck < 0.00 means that a team won less games than ther were expected.
Projected Scores - these are based on a team's Adj Off, Def and their opponent's Adj Off, Def. I won't bore you with the math or reasoning, but suffice to say that expected scores align uniformly with the Adj Marg rankings. The expected score differential is proportional to the Adj Marg differential.