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Illinois’ way-too-early roadmap to Indy

The Illini can certainly stumble into a title game.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Championship-Iowa vs Michigan Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

I’d like to consider this article a practice in procrastination. Beneficial procrastination — call it patience. This article, three weeks in the making, is the fruit of patience. Despite time management poor enough to make Lovie Smith blush, I’ve convinced myself that this delay was beneficial.

  • The original plan was to publish after Illinois’ victory over Virginia. The 2-1 Illini looked… promising? The rest of the division… did not.
  • Miss the deadline, dang it. Happens to all of us, right? And look at that! Illinois has an early bye week! Perfect, I can pivot to a bye week analysis angle!
  • Bye week comes and goes, I make zero progress. Yikes. Feeling a little disappointed in myself. How do I work up the confidence to get back on the horse and knock this out? More data! Conference play begins full time. So many angles to attack. So let’s get into it.

Turns out, there’s no better time to take a look around the Big Ten West and analyze Illinois’ standing among its division peers. Every team in the West has played four games, exactly 1/3 of the way through the season. More importantly, every team has finished their out-of-conference play, meaning each team’s season statistics can be compared fairly and evenly, accounting for one non-major cupcake scheduled per school. I guess even the worst procrastinators can stumble into greatness, given enough time.

You know who else could stumble into greatness, given enough time? Your 2022 Illinois Fighting Illini. Not that Illinois is playing bad, on the contrary they look incredibly competent, and this competence may prove to be the difference in a division title. The conference is riper for the taking than any season since 2018, when 8-4 Northwestern won the West despite a 1-4 start that included a loss to Akron at Ryan Field. I see plenty of similarities to that season, and plenty of reasons why Illinois could be this year’s 2018 Northwestern.

Illinois Stacks Up

Bret Bielema’s group might not be a great team, but in a division of mediocrity, they certainly match up great. Illinois is second among west teams in SRS (Simple Rating System), Sports Reference’s catch-all statistic for a team’s performance that “takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule.” Think of it like a Team’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement), aggregating how many points a team is above, or below, average (0.00).

With an SRS of 15.45, Minnesota leads Illinois in the division by less than half a point (15.07). Even better, the Illini and Gophers have formed a front-running pack, with Purdue a distant third by almost five points (9.80). SRS is not the end-all-be-all, 2018 Northwestern’s 1-4 start is evidence enough, but it does give a broad-yet-cumulative view of which teams are performing positively or poorly.

So, if we’re placing the Big Ten West into SRS tiers, the division looks something like this:

  • Good Starts:
  1. Minnesota (15.07)
  2. Illinois (14.29)
  3. Purdue (9.80)
  • Mediocre Starts:
  1. Wisconsin (3.38)
  2. Iowa (6.70)
  • Bad Starts:
  1. Nebraska (-5.65)
  2. Northwestern (-7.96)

Weak West Winners

Iowa, Wisconsin, and Northwestern’s early struggles are notable and a significant reason why Illinois has a chance at a conference title. Yes, the West usually plays second fiddle to the East; however, the West’s big dogs regularly represent respectably. Wisconsin and Iowa placed top five in the conference in SRS six times in the last decade, regularly beating out the likes of Penn State and Michigan. This year? It isn’t inconceivable to think Iowa and Wisconsin could both finish in the bottom half of the west in SRS for the first time since 2007 if play doesn’t improve. Northwestern’s surge under Pat Fitzgerald reached new heights with division titles in 2018 and 2020. This year? Losses to Southern Illinois and Miami (OH) have sunk their season in September. Illinois doesn’t have to be great; they simply have to be the best of the rest. With recent conference champions struggling out the gate, there hasn’t been a better time to do so since 2018, when Iowa and Wisconsin trudged to 5-4 conference records. Simply put, when Iowa and Wisconsin aren’t great, the division is wide open.

Favorable Scheduling

Again, Illinois doesn’t have to be exceptional, just better than the second-best team. Beat the teams you have to beat and you’ll be in Indianapolis in December.

Illinois’ remaining schedule has a few road bumps, but currently projects favorably. The average SRS of Illinois’ remaining opponents is 4.41, equivalent to playing 2022 Indiana (4.02 SRS). Even adjusting the negative SRS of Northwestern and Nebraska to 0.00, the average SRS of Illinois’ remaining opponents improves to just 6.11, a rating between Michigan State and Iowa. Not the easiest schedule, but not the hardest, and if Illinois continues its current play, they should win more games than they lose the rest of the way.

Illinois also possesses a favorable road schedule moving forward, playing projected cellar dwellers Northwestern and Nebraska on the road.

Roadmap to Indy

So, how do we get the Bielema band back to Indianapolis? It starts with taking at least one from Wisconsin and Iowa. Losing both would cut momentum drastically, allow Wisconsin back into the race, and give Minnesota full control of its destiny.

The Illini have to take advantage of the West titans’ poor play in order to view themselves as title threats. There’s little reprieve, however, as Illinois follows up with the biggest game of the season – at home against Minnesota. Anything less than 2-0 against Wisconsin/Iowa and this game becomes an absolute must have. The Golden Gophers have a weak 2022 schedule, and the title appears to go through them. Beat Minnesota and you have a chance. Lose to Minnesota and you have a prayer. Illinois then gets a interim-coached Nebraska before taking on Michigan State and Purdue at home. Like the Iowa/Wisconsin series, taking at least one is necessary and doable.

Finally, Illinois ends its season on the road with consecutive travel games against Michigan and Northwestern – two teams on the opposite ends of competitiveness. Take one of two there and guess what Illinois final record is? 8-4. The same record that gave 2018 Northwestern the Big Ten West Title.

The roadmap is there for an Illinois title, the Wildcats even printed out a copy a few years ago. Fitz’s cats weren’t great, their average margin of victory was one point and they finished outside the top 40 in both offense and defense, but they were better than the rest, and in the 2022 Big Ten West, that’s all that matters.