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Is Illinois just an unlucky team? The stats say no

Putting this season in perspective.

TCR // Brad Repplinger

I am going to break away from my standard graphs and talk about one-possession games.

There has been a lot of talk about one-possession games on Illinois Football Twitter and in our TCR group chats.

And you know what, one-possession games are the ones that get the blood rushing.

While this is a conversation that could happen in the offseason, it needs to happen now because I am disagreeing with most fans here. The 2023 Illinois football team, even with its flaws, is actually pretty damn good — in Illinois standards. Let me explain.

Below you will find two graphs: Illinois One Possession Wins and Illinois Two Possession Wins, where I have drawn up the winning percentages from the last 30 seasons. While this chart is best viewed in the third dimension, I have tried my best to share this history in two dimensions, so hope it makes sense.

For this analysis, one-possession games are games decided by eight points or fewer.

Illinois One Possession Wins

There are four categories in this chart.

  • Win Close: teams that don't have a lot of one-possession games, but when they do, they win.
  • Iowa: teams that have a lot of one-possession games and they win a lot.
  • Pushovers: teams that don't have a lot of one-possession games, and they still lose.
  • Heart Attacks: teams that have a lot of one-possession games and they lose most of them.
  • The 2023 Illinois team is colored in brown.

For most of the last 30 years, Illinois teams have been stuck in the purgatory that is in the pushover/heart attack zone. (This becomes more clear in the next graph). Not a lot of close games. In some years, Illinois was great at breaking out of this trap and actually winning close games.

The one team that has actually broken completely away from this is 2023 Illinois. This team has found itself in 7 games decided by 8 points or fewer. Four of these games were won in an NCAA-leading fourth-quarter come-back drive; two of these games were fourth-quarter losses, and one of these games was won in uninspiring fashion against FAU.

Given Illinois’ track record, most of these games should have been losses. But despite the youth, the new coordinator, and the QB/OC combination, Illinois persevered. The 2023 team is 1.72 standard deviations above the average one-possession games played and 2.57 standard deviations above the average of one-possession games won.

You can talk all the talk about how this team should be better, but despite its disadvantages, the team pulled through.

That should be commendable — and it is in a vacuum — but looking at the whole picture it isn't and it sets up perfectly for the next chart.

Illinois Two Possession Wins

This graphic has one replaced label. Win Close is replaced by Elite Teams. Elite Teams win a lot of games and when they win, they win by double digits. These are your Michigans, Ohio States, Georgias, and Alabamas. In fact they would probably be in the very top right corner of this graphic.

Illinois on the other hand, has been here in the past. Turner’s teams in 1999 and 2001 and Zook’s elite teams in 2007 and 2010 (2010 is pretty average — but it could put bad teams away). Every team in the Elite category made a bowl game, including Smith’s 2019 team and Tepper's 1994 team. Last year’s Illinois team was winning 88% of its 2 possession games.

For most of Illinois' last 30 years, they were total pushovers. Playing in a ton of two-possession games, and losing most of them. Cubit is a fun one. 100% of games in 2015 were two-possession games. Illinois won 5 of them.

This is why the Illinois’ 2023 campaign has been extremely frustrating. Of Illinois’ 6 losses this year, 2 have been within 4 points. The losses to Kansas and Penn State made sense. Kansas returned most of its high-performing 2022 roster and Penn State is, well, Penn State. But the absolutely mind-numbing losses to Purdue and Nebraska are killing this season.

If they were one-possession losses, you could count Illinois as unlucky. You could make a lot of excuses — but this team would still be winning >50% of its close game. But when you lose and get pushed over by your rivals, the argument that this team is good turns sour.

Looking at the top half of the Two Possession Win chart, there is a comment thread. A statistically stellar defense.

The defense was one that Illinois lacked in 2023 and is something that needs to be addressed in the offseason.

Illinois can do that by winning on Saturday and ending the regular season 4-2 after starting 2-4.