Last year, before the season kicked off, we ran a feature where we found four facts in the Phil Steele preview of each team on Wisconsin’s schedule. We are going to do something similar this year, but we are also including Brett Ciancia’s Pick Six Previews in the mix. He and Steele write two of the best, if not the best, preseason college football previews and there is an absurd amount of info on each team. You buy both of those and you are set for the season.
Fact No. 1: Illinois had INSANE turnover luck last season
This has been mentioned by both Tyler and Rock already this week, but it bears repeating: the Illini were +10 on turnovers last year, which was tied for No. 10 in the nation and best in the Big Ten Conference. Steele notes that 73% of teams in the past three decades that had positive double digit turnover differentials had an equal or worse record the next year. And, uh, if we want to be accurate about it...Illinois already had a losing record last season.
However, none of that really matters to us because the Illini beat the Badgers last year but if you were to play that game nine more times, odds are Wisconsin wins all nine of them. Here are some crazy stats:
Illinois won four of their nine conference games last year.
Illinois had more yards than their B1G opponent once (+53, vs. Rutgers)
Illinois lost the turnover battle twice in the B1G (loss, at Iowa, -2; loss, vs. Northwestern, -1)
In their four wins they were:
+2 turnovers, -105 yards, beat Wisconsin 24-23
+2 turnovers, -3 yards, beat Purdue 24-6
+3 turnovers, +53 yards, beat Rutgers 38-10
+2 turnovers, -121 yards, beat Michigan State 37-34
You can clearly see two one-score games that may have gone differently were there even one fewer turnover by the non-Illini team. Illinois is clearly getting better, but relying on crazy turnover luck is no way to go through a B1G season.
Question No. 2: Is Illinois recruiting better?
The Illini have been one of the most active participants in the ::Law & Order noise:: TRANSFER PORTAL and have found some solid contributors there, not the least of which is senior WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, formerly of Southern Cal, and last season’s leading receiver or starting QB Brandon Peters, formerly of Michigan. But what about high school recruiting?
Smith has five recruiting classes under his belt now and his average rating is No. 63 of 65 Power 5 schools, according to Pick Six Previews, and has gotten worse every year since 2017. The decade prior to Smith’s arrival? They were No. 55. Also of note, the Illini did not sign a single kid from the state of Illinois in the 2020 class. That is basically unheard of, especially for a Power 5, flagship institution.
There are a lot of seniors on Illinois’ two-deep roster and a lot of them were not recruited by Smith out of high school. Will the Illini be able to continue finessing the transfer portal or will they be forced to hit the high school trail with a renewed vigor.
Question No. 3: will the veteran offensive line be better?
The Illini have 126 offensive line starts, which is good for No. 4 in the nation, returning for the 2020 season. Their potential starting five is four seniors and a junior, and one of them (RG Blake Jeresaty) is a grad transfer from Wofford, where he was an All-American, and his 29 career starts don’t factor into the Illini’s total. The other option at RG is sophomore Verdis Brown, who played 13 games last year.
This is where we wonder about whether continuity breeds improvement or if people are who we thought they were.
The Illinois offense averaged 5.0 yards per play (No. 116 in the nation), 3.8 yards per carry (No. 98) and the QB was sacked on 11% of his attempts (No. 116). Their “best” stat related to the offensive line was that they were No. 73 in the nation in “explosive rushes” at 5.5 yards per attempt.
According to Steele, Smith says that he thinks all four of his returning starters on the o-line have NFL potential. Playing against a veteran Wisconsin defensive line in Week 1 could answer this question quickly.
Fact No. 4: the defense is much improved under Smith
Lovie took over defensive coordinator duties from Hardy Nickerson halfway through the 2018 season and that has proven to be the correct call. While “turnover luck” is most definitely a thing, being in the right place to capitalize on that luck is important too. Illinois’ defense is fast and aggressive and they swarm to the ball. The Badgers know this and basically every player the media talked to over the past week or so stressed ball security heading into this game.
They lose leading tackler Dele Harding as well as leading sack artist Oluwole Betiku but this year they should rely on their back seven more and could definitely make things difficult for Graham Mertz in his first career start under center.