Hello, fellow Illinois Fighting Illini football junkies. How are you doing? Are you holding up OK? Personally, I’m not great. I’m still reeling from how thoroughly dominated we were by Western Michigan. Adding insult to injury is that due to my automotive job in Southeast Michigan, I had to drive by a Western Michigan billboard on my way to an afternoon meeting on Monday. However, I think I’m finally beginning to find peace.
Due to the huge size of our 2016 senior class, I have been expecting 2017 to be a down year since before last year. The roster will simply be too thin to field a team that can compete in the Big Ten, and there’s not a whole lot available next year for this coaching staff to work with. In six months with Garrick McGee, the offense clearly hasn’t gelled. This offense was recruited and molded in the image of what Bill Cubit wanted to run, and if this produced a winning Big Ten team, Cubit would still be our coach. Replacing our entire linebacking corps and half our secondary has proven to be a difficult task as well. There isn’t a game-breaking return man (well, not a healthy one) to single-handedly get us back in the game. There’s just not much that could have been done in this situation.
What does that mean for this year then? The dark times have come a year sooner than we’d expected. I don’t think we can completely evaluate this staff’s ability to coach based on this year. Saturday’s game showed me that this a Year 1 Total Rebuild year, like 1997, 2005 and 2012. This is going to suck, and it might get worse next year.
So why shouldn’t you lose hope?
1: This will hurt less than 2012
It’s been only four years since we had to look several seasons into the future to find some comfort from what was happening on the field. 2012 was a tear-it-down full-scale program rebuild.
This won’t be as hard to stomach for many reasons. That 2012 team was perceived as having much more talent (after all, it was Zook leftovers) than this one (Beckman/Cubit leftovers). The coaching staff has proven experience, and there are no reports of friction between players and the staff such as the reported "seniors not buying in" narrative from 2012. Most importantly for the fans, Lovie Smith seems firmly in control and seems to know what he’s doing. Our ship has a captain who inspires confidence, and his press conferences don’t embarrass me. We might lose a lot of games this year, but we won’t be the laughingstock we were in 2012.
2. This staff can definitely out-recruit the previous regime
This has to be a full-scale rebuild. Ohio State went from 6-7 in 2011 to 12-0 in 2012 and Michigan went from 5-7 in 2014 to 10-3 in 2015. In Ohio State’s case, 2011 was an interim-coached mess with NFL caliber talent in a period between a coach who had won a national title (Jim Tressel) and a coach who had won two (Urban Meyer). In Michigan’s case, a very good recruiter with a coaching deficiency (Brady Hoke) left behind a roster that happened to be a perfect match for his successor (Jim Harbaugh).
In the four years before 2012, Ohio State’s recruiting classes rated 7th, 4th, 16th and 7th in the nation according to 247sports. According to the same, Michigan’s classes in the four years preceding 2015 ranked 26th, 6th, 4th and 20th.
With 2016’s class already settled before the arrival of Smith, I’ll look at the five years preceding 2017. These classes ranked 64th, 49th, 72nd, 48th and 72nd in the country. By contrast, our opponent, Western Michigan, had higher ranked 2014 and 2016 classes than we did and has generally recruited at our level since the arrival of P.J. Fleck. By the numbers, the Beckman/Cubit regime recruited near the bottom of the Big Ten over their five years. This doesn’t even take into account massive attrition from the 2012/13 classes and the large number of junior college players recruited. So Western Michigan had similar talent, but it had been recruited to PJ Fleck’s system over four years. We’ve had three head coaches in that time.
Surely our biggest-ever investment in an Illinois football coaching staff can produce better recruiting results than Tim Beckman did. Though the class has yet to fill up, you’re already seeing 2017 recruiting landing players with much better offer sheets than the typical Tim Beckman prospect. It will take some time to build, but eventually we’ll be able to watch with our eyes on the future. For now, though, our roster is not compatible with the team our coaching staff wants to produce. However, the only player on this roster brought in by Lovie Smith is Hardy Nickerson Jr, one of our best players, and if anyone can produce that team, it’s these coaches.
3. The payoff will be exhilarating
Were you at that North Carolina game? Did you see it on TV? There were huge crowds of people in front of the stadium all day, pumped up to watch the team walk into Memorial Stadium. The stadium was packed and the crowd was incredible.
Yes, we lost, and some of the shine wore off, and understandably a lot fewer people came out to watch Western Michigan run us over, but that was a sneak peek at what the glory days of the Lovie Smith era will look like.
Due to the unusual timing of his hire, Smith missed out on the tail end of 2016 recruiting, so unlike a normally timed rebuild he didn’t get to bring in a few freshmen for his first season and walked into the job behind his competition in 2017 recruiting. This means that while the results of a full-scale rebuild normally show up in year 3, it will likely take an additional year for the first definitive Lovie Smith season to occur. We’re talking 2019. Yes, I know, it seems so far away right now, but the build and the payoff will make it incredible.
We’ll see a massive sea of orange in full seats in a possibly-renovated Memorial Stadium. We’ll make Champaign notorious as a difficult place to play. We, the football junkies, will never have to beg our friends to come to games again.
Until then, sit back, relax, and buckle up. Don’t let this reconstruction break your spirit. We’ve been waiting for a stable program for a long time; what’s another few years? At least with a competent, relevant coach at the helm, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel this time.