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Why Illinois must win one of its last five games

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The Lovie Smith era hangs in the balance.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the aftermath of last year’s 2-10 debacle, if you were asked what’s the one thing you wanted to see out of the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini football team, what would you say?

I would have said, quite simply, “tangible improvement.”

With three wins, Lovie Smith’s Illini have already improved on last year’s mark and broken the ignominious Big Ten losing streak dating back to 2016. Before the season, I for one said that three wins would be enough to satisfy me.

Well, it’s not quite that simple, but don’t go accusing me of moving the goalposts just yet. The problem with our three wins is that according to advanced statistics, all of the teams defeated by Illinois in 2018 are worse than the 2017 Fighting Illini. In other words, if 2018 Rutgers played 2017 Illinois, they would lose. Kent State has only one win, coming against FCS Howard, and Western Illinois (a FCS school) is 2-5.

More and more I am leaning on Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings, and Illinois finished last year as the 118th-best team in college football. Kent State represents our best win this year at #122, but the Sagarin rankings have Western Illinois as our best win (FCS teams are not represented in S&P+). Last year’s hapless Illini did manage a win against a Western Kentucky team that would finish as the #84 team in the rankings.

Three wins is more than last year, but Illinois has yet to defeat a team better than last year’s Illini, so from an advanced stats standpoint they have yet to prove that they have taken a step forward.

But the SCHEDULE!

On the flipside, however, the worst team Illinois has lost to is South Florida. The Bulls clock in at #40 in S&P+ and are arguably underperforming compared to the level of talent on their team.

The four losses suffered by the Illini are to teams that grade out in the top third of FBS teams. Of particular interest: every team to defeat Illinois has a top-30 offense. So, Illinois has three wins against putrid teams and four losses to teams between good and great.

That’s why these last five games are so important.

With the exception of Iowa, every remaining team on the schedule statistically profiles as an average FBS team. Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern are all ranked in the 60’s in S&P+, putting them right in the middle of the 130-team field. Three of these teams have offenses that rank 95th or worse, and none of them have a top-25 unit to contend with. The best unit among these four teams is Maryland’s defense, which can really put the clamps on an opponent without a consistent rushing attack.

This stretch of games will be crucial for this program to demonstrate to fans what they’re working with. Is morale and spirit where it needs to be after the departure of two promising players in Lou Dorsey and Bennett Williams? Can the defensive scheme become effective as the young defensive backs get more reps and internalize their assignments? Do we have a fundamentally good enough coaching staff that our team will improve as the season goes on? Do we understand the importance of winning right now and will we pull out all the stops to maximize the odds of victory? Can we show our recruiting targets that we’re making progress and they have a chance to sign on with a team on the upswing?

Quiet the Doubters

All it’s going to take is one defensive performance well above our average, combined with an average performance on offense and special teams. Lovie Smith has always been renowned for his defense. If that unit could come into one of these critical four games and do just enough to secure a win, it would quiet the doubts about Smith’s long-term viability as the head coach and would do wonders for the image of this program. This is especially important now that four more scholarships are available for the 2019 class.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Maryland represents our best chance at one of these wins because its offense is meant to exploit basic defensive schemes — like ours — that keep everything in front of the defense. Minnesota at home is the game I see as the biggest opportunity, but all four (again, Iowa is good enough that I cannot conceive it being a win) of the aforementioned opponents are better than our best win and worse than our worst loss.

Gentlemen, the stage is set.

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