Illinois had a season for the ages. The record may not show it. The fans may not believe it. But statistically, this was the best season in a decade, and rivaling for the best season since 2007.
In my last column, I said I would be looking into Illinois statistically and try to make sense of all the numbers. Compared to past seasons, how much better was the 2022 team?
For this analysis,
- this year's Illinois team is in orange,
- previous years’ Illinois teams that made bowl games are in brown,
- and previous years’ Illinois teams that failed to make a bowl are in blue.
For comparison, I also included teams Illinois played this year in some of these graphs.
- Michigan, in yellow, is an example of an elite team.
- Northwestern, in purple, is an example of a bad team.
- Purdue, in black, and Wisconsin, in red, are teams that are comparable to Illinois.
Part 1: Outperforming Your Schedule
Time and time again, online message boards said Illinois had a shitty schedule, and they did. Illinois' SOS was .03, according to sports-reference.com.
Let's keep that in mind and look at the graph below. On the y-axis you have SOS and on the x-axis, you have what I would like to call the strength of wins. As it should be, the weaker your schedule, the stronger your wins should be.
Illinois in 2022 is nestled in the group I am going to call the over-performers. For this group, given their strength of schedule, they expectedly outscore their opponents, increasing in score differential as their strength of schedule falls.
For the majority of the last 15 years, Illinois has underperformed compared to its strength of schedule. Illinois had similar strength of schedules in 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2013 as Wisconsin and Purdue had this year. Illinois underperformed in every single one of those opportunities.
For a program in year 2 of its build, this is all I can really ask for. It took Michigan years to be dominant against its schedule, and Illinois should keep moving to the right. Since 2020, Illinois has continued to move to the right.
Last year’s schedule was harder, and Illinois outperformed and went 5-7. A peer team like Northwestern went 1-11 against a similar SOS this year.
Outperforming your schedule matters. You see it when watching your games. Recruits see it when they watch on the sidelines. NFL scouts notice it when scouting players.
I want to expand on this over-performance.
Part 2: Out-gaining your opponents
I think it goes without saying. If you out-gain your opponents, you score more points, and you win more games. Yards are exciting. Yards catch eyeballs.
In 2022, Illinois outgained opponents by an average of 122.8 yards a game, or by 1,474 yards on the season.
That is impressive.
In the last decade, Illinois had negative net yards and that trend has been completely turned around. With pretty much the same personnel on both sides of the ball, Bielema and Co. have taken that 2020 team and completely flipped it around.
Quickly, that negative net yards made it harder to win games, harder to make bowls, and harder to get fans to pack stadiums. Nobody wants to see their team get dominated every play of the game. For the last decade every time Illinois touched the ball, on average, they were moving backward. That is a tough pill to swallow.
As Illinois continues to improve on offense, I expect this trend to continue. An addition of a strong QB (Hudson Card, sup?) in Lunney’s offense, will be key to finding success, and finding a high school QB to shadow the QB1 in 2023 will lead to continued success.
But as TCR’s Pleas Honeywood noted this week, Illinois has no choice but to improve this trend. Chip Kelly and Lincoln Riley are bringing UCLA’s and USC’s high-powered offenses to the Big Ten. Known for winning in the trenches, Bielema will need to adapt to the west coast style of play if it wants to win.
For all this talk about offense, we know that the defense was the real star of 2022.
Part 3: Can Defense Make Up For a Crappy Offense?
Yes. Illinois proved it this year. Illinois had >2000 yards passing and running in the same year for the first time since 2011. But the defense let <2000 yards against the pass and the run for the first time in the modern era of Illinois football.
Again we see a trend with Illinois. For all teams but the 2007 and 2010 Illini, Illinois has had a subpar offense, an offense less efficient than 50% of the college teams. Even with Chase Brown leading Power 5 teams in running the ball, Illinois' offense failed to score.
The defense more than enough made up for the offense in 2022. There is a trend here, shown by the arbitrary green line. For the most part, a team needs a good offense (Purdue) or a good defense (Illinois). Elite teams, like Michigan, have both.
Honestly, this is why Chase Brown didn’t get Big Ten Running Back of the Year, why Brown didn’t get All-Big Ten First Team offense, why Bielema didn’t get Big Ten Coach of the Year, and why the Block I was peppered across the First, Second, Third, and Honorable Mention on the defensive teams. The defense propped up an improved, yet inefficient, offense.
The bad offense trend at Illinois needs to change. Illinois needs that scoring pop in the offense if it wants to win the West for the last time. The defense can take it to 8-4, a more efficient offense gives Illinois a trip to Indy.
But what about special teams?
Part 4: Playing Complementary Football
We all know about the special teams problems at Illinois this year. I actually want to say, it wasn’t really that bad. I am going to completely ignore Illinois place kicking since Caleb Griffin was injured and did end up receiving All-Big Ten Honors. I am going to just focus on both sides of the punting unit.
Football Outsiders have a stat called Punt Return Efficiency and Punt Efficiency. It measures the scoring gained or lost per punt. PRE is for when Illinois returns the ball and PE is for when Illinois punts the ball.
We were blessed by the Punt God Blake Hayes from 2017 to 2021, and those are some big shoes to fill. Even with Hugh Robertson’s gaffes this season (he was as good as Justin DuVernois from 2012 to 2014) Illinois returned to the mean. And with 5-star kickers looking to early-enroll, next season could see a massive change in these trends.
But here is where complementary football comes into play. We discussed how defense helps cover an inefficient offense, but the 2022 Illinois defense really was a fire department.
I want to focus on Blake Hayes’ seasons from 2018 to 2019 and 2020 to 2021. Hayes was still statistically a strong punter in 2018, but the defense was the worst defense in 15 years. It didn't matter how well he punted, Illinois was unable to keep an opponent from scoring. Illinois did improve on defense in 2019 and Illinois PE went up.
Again, Hayes had his second-best season in 2020, but the defense didn't help his efficiency. But Ryan Walters comes to Champaign and, instantly, Illinois does better when punting the ball.
In 2022, Illinois’ stellar defense cleaned up faults on defense. But we know the single possessions on special teams that affected Illinois' defensive success this year.
I do want to point out that there are externalities in 2022.
- Sean Snyder stepped in as Special Teams coach, replacing Ben Miller as he got treated for cancer. Miller should hopefully be back next year.
- This was Robertson’s first year punting in a game.
- This really was Illinois punting in unknown situations. It is a lot more stressful to punt when you are up by a score late in the game than when you are down by 15 in the middle of the third quarter.
Putting a Bow on It
Illinois has been able to outscore its opponents and be efficient enough to win games. As Illinois fans, this is what we have been asking for all along. This is what competence looks like. 2022 had all the parts of a competent season, we are really nitpicking areas of improvement.
But this is where we need to update our expectations. What we saw this year needs to be the norm, not the exception.
What happens in the offseason, in spring ball, and in fall camp needs to be an improvement on the 2022 season. It could result in another 8-4 season, and that is OK. But bringing that high level of consistency, fighting for a spot in Indy, being ranked in November, and having competence on both sides of the ball will change the perception of Illinois football in the future. But it has to start somewhere.
This was truly a great season. These ups and downs that we felt are what college football is about. I want more of that (and more of the ups) next year.