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1. Stability? Who needs it?
Each year in this preview series, the order for a given conference is set using each team's five-year F/+ ratings. This measure gives us an easy look at each program's overall stability, and as a result, we're in theory counting down from least to most healthy in each conference.
Assigning Illinois any sort of five-year rating at all, however, feels strange. This program's identity, direction, and general health change drastically with each passing season. The Fighting Illini's five-year ranking is 71st, but between 2009-13, they ranked within 18 spots of 71st only once. In 2013, they actually hit the nail on the head, ranking exactly 71st; in the previous four years, they had ranked 92nd, 32nd, 53rd, and 108th, respectively.
A team rising or falling by 20 or 30 spots in the rankings from year to year is a relative rarity, but Illinois does it every damn season, and it goes farther back than just five years. Since 2005, they have ranked in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 70s, 90s, and 100s. In the 13 seasons since 2001, they've experienced one-, two-, three-, five-, seven-, nine- and 10-win seasons. There is no normal in Champaign. While other programs establish a certain lot in life, the Illini float around like an empty grocery sack.
Tim Beckman's second season in Champaign was quite a bit more positive than his first. The funk of the 2-10 campaign of 2012 didn't entirely wear off, and the Illini only progressed toward a mediocre standing overall, but improvement is improvement. There was almost nowhere to go but up in 2013, but Illinois, to its credit, went pretty far up.
Now, to achieve relevance, the Illini have to do it again. With Illinois, anything's possible, but there's there isn't a lot of evidence for hope of a second surge.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 5-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 71|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|31-Aug||Southern Illinois||N/A||42-34||W||30.4 - 30.4||W|
|7-Sep||Cincinnati||64||45-17||W||49.4 - 25.0||W|
|14-Sep||vs. Washington||18||24-34||L||31.1 - 33.6||L|
|28-Sep||Miami (Ohio)||123||50-14||W||38.7 - 45.7||L|
|5-Oct||at Nebraska||39||19-39||L||24.9 - 42.2||L||-0.5|
|19-Oct||Wisconsin||19||32-56||L||47.9 - 37.1||W||1.7|
|26-Oct||Michigan State||6||3-42||L||21.0 - 46.3||L||-8.3|
|2-Nov||at Penn State||61||17-24||L||34.4 - 30.5||W||-7.0|
|9-Nov||at Indiana||56||35-52||L||26.3 - 44.6||L||-9.2|
|16-Nov||Ohio State||9||35-60||L||27.9 - 30.7||L||-6.4|
|23-Nov||at Purdue||114||20-16||W||25.3 - 28.1||L||-9.1|
|30-Nov||Northwestern||59||34-37||L||35.0 - 32.3||W||-3.5|
|Points Per Game||29.7||60||35.4||105|
|Adj. Points Per Game||32.7||37||35.5||111|
2. October: a smoking crater
Look only at the first four games of 2013 and the last three, and you see a team that was reasonably decent, perhaps above average. Yes, Illinois lost by 25 points to Ohio State, but it was at least only a 12-pound game with five minutes left. The Illini were competitive in losses to the Buckeyes and Washington and a bit unlucky in a loss to Northwestern, and they trounced Cincinnati to boot. These seven games don't represent a good team, but ... decent? Mediocre? Sure.
And then there are the five games in the middle.
- Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Illinois 37.4, Opponent 33.7 (plus-3.7)
- Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Opponent 40.1, Illinois 30.9 (minus-9.2)
- Adj. Points Per Game (last 3 games): Opponent 30.4, Illinois 29.4 (minus-1.0)
Illinois lost to Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Michigan State by an average score of 45-18, played well in a loss to Penn State, then got obliterated at Indiana. By the time Ohio State came to town, a 3-1 start had begat a five-game losing streak, and the Buckeyes' late surge finished off any hopes of bowl eligibility.
The awful post-September drop took the shine off of what was still a season of overall improvement. Under a new coordinator, the offense surged back after a miserable 2012, but the defense sank too far back for it to matter. Now Illinois has to rebuild the defense while the offense replaces its quarterback.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||45.9%||32||Succ. Rt. +||107.0||36|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||31.6||102||Def. FP+||98.4||76|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.3||58||Redzone S&P+||105.3||40|
|Q1 Rk||30||1st Down Rk||28|
|Q2 Rk||31||2nd Down Rk||43|
|Q3 Rk||22||3rd Down Rk||20|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Reilly O'Toole||6'4, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||12||16||141||1||1||75.0%||2||11.1%||7.2|
|Aaron Bailey||6'2, 220||So.||4 stars (5.9)||2||5||4||1||0||40.0%||0||0.0%||0.8|
(Oklahoma State 2012)
|6'5, 215||So.||4 stars (5.8)||81||131||1108||6||7||61.8%||1||0.8%||8.3|
|Chayce Crouch||6'4, 225||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
3. Year 0 A.N.
Bill Cubit's time as an FBS head coach didn't end on a high note. After averaging seven wins per season at Western Michigan, his Broncos fell to 4-8 in 2012, and he found himself looking for a new job.
He took on a doozy: Illinois offensive coordinator. He was tasked with restoring an offense that had fallen all the way to 117th in Off. F/+ in 2012, and damned if he didn't do it. Illinois' offense wasn't elite in 2013, but it improved all the way to 39th. The Illini struggled on passing downs but were proficient at staying on schedule. In running back Josh Ferguson and wideout Steve Hull, he had a pair of big-play weapons, and senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase completed two-thirds of his passes and once again began to show some of the promise at which he had hinted in 2010.
Scheelhaase is now gone. It felt like he was an eight-year starter in Champaign, and he was around long enough to take part in a surprising program surge (from 3-9 to 7-6 in 2010), a second bowl game (7-6 in 2011), a comprehensive collapse (2-10 in 2012), and a second surge of sorts. In his absence, Cubit has replacement options of all shapes and sizes. To name two: Reilly O'Toole is a longtime backup, and Aaron Bailey is a highly touted sophomore.
It appears, however, that the most likely option is Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt, who has already had a rather strange career himself. Appointed Brandon Weeden's successor as a true freshman, Lunt completed 62 percent of his passes at an aggressive 13.7 yards per completion in 2012 but was a little bit interception-prone; injury troubles got him knocked backwards on the depth chart, and he elected to transfer in the spring. Transferring to another major-conference school in a quest for playing time is tricky, and while O'Toole and Bailey aren't J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf, Bailey's pedigree suggests he could be hard to fend off over the next three seasons. Regardless, Lunt finished spring atop the depth chart. We'll see how his aggressive tendencies mesh with Cubit's often horizontal offense.
|Josh Ferguson||RB||5'10, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||141||779||7||5.5||5.9||39.0%|
|Donovonn Young||RB||6'0, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||93||376||3||4.0||3.4||32.3%|
|Aaron Bailey||QB||6'2, 220||So.||4 stars (5.9)||20||83||3||4.2||3.8||35.0%|
|Jon Davis||TE||6'3, 240||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||9||36||0||4.0||4.5||22.2%|
|Devin Church||WR||5'8, 185||So.||3 stars (5.6)||8||44||1||5.5||3.0||50.0%|
|Reilly O'Toole||QB||6'4, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||8||46||0||5.8||4.3||37.5%|
|Kendrick Foster||RB||5'9, 195||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Matt Domer||RB||5'11, 190||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
4. Get to know Josh Ferguson
Opportunity Rate and Highlight Yards do a decent job of measuring a runner's efficiency and explosiveness. Obviously the quality of blocking and all sorts of other factors are involved here, but we get a good description of a runner by looking at how frequently he got at least five yards downfield (Opportunity Rate) and how explosive he was when he did (Highlight Yards).
In 2013, only 16 FBS running backs combined at least a 39 percent Opportunity Rate with an average of at least 5.9 Highlight Yards per opportunity. Among this group are some of the most celebrated backs in the country: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White, Miami's Duke Johnson, LSU's Jeremy Hill, Baylor's Lache Seastrunk, South Carolina's Mike Davis, and Colorado State's Kapri Bibbs. Ferguson was in that group, as well.
Cubit's Illinois offense was by all means a pass-first unit -- a Bill Cubit offense will pretty much ALWAYS be a pass-first unit -- but Ferguson still did quite a bit of damage in about 12 carries and five targets per game. He rushed for nearly 800 yards and was second on the team with 60 targets, 50 catches, and 520 receiving yards. He is a unique, well-rounded threat, and there's a chance that, without Scheelhaase or last year's top three wideouts, Illinois leans on him quite a bit in 2014.
|Josh Ferguson||RB||5'10, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||60||50||520||83.3%||13.8%||66.7%||8.7||-16||8.9||76.3|
|Martize Barr||WR-T||6'0, 195||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||46||26||246||56.5%||10.6%||42.4%||5.3||-91||5.1||36.1|
|Matt LaCosse||TE||6'6, 245||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||29||20||237||69.0%||6.7%||60.0%||8.2||3||4.8||34.8|
|Jon Davis||TE||6'3, 240||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||28||25||208||89.3%||6.4%||79.2%||7.4||-52||8.3||30.5|
|Donovonn Young||RB||6'0, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||17||12||43||70.6%||3.9%||76.9%||2.5||-96||2.0||6.3|
|Justin Hardee||WR-Z||6'1, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||14||11||95||78.6%||3.2%||71.4%||6.8||-26||4.3||13.9|
|Devin Church||WR-X||5'8, 185||So.||3 stars (5.6)||3||2||5||66.7%||0.7%||100.0%||1.7||-19||-0.6||0.7|
|Dionte Taylor||WR-T||6'0, 180||So.||3 stars (5.7)||3||1||5||33.3%||0.7%||N/A||1.7||-13||0.0||0.7|
|Tyler White||TE||6'5, 245||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Marchie Murdock||WR||6'1, 190||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Geronimo Allison||WR||6'3, 185||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Tyrin Stone-Davis||WR||6'3, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Mike Dudek||WR||5'11, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
5. Starting from scratch out wide
The good news is that two of the top three departed wideouts were the definition of "replaceable." Spencer Harris and Miles Osei had high catch rates, but almost all of their targets were near the line of scrimmage.
Steve Hull, on the other hand, exploded for nearly 1,000 receiving yards as a senior after spending most of his career as a defensive back. Cases like Hull's completely skew expectations for when a player switches to the other side of the ball; it doesn't usually go like this, but it was a magnificent surprise for the Illinois offense.
Unfortunately it was only a one-year surprise, so the Illini are once again looking for play-makers out wide. Eight returnees caught at least one ball last season, and only one averaged better than 10.4 yards per catch: tight end Matt LaCosse, who averaged a still-meager 11.9. Junior college transfer Geronimo Allison finished the spring atop the depth chart; he caught 69 passes for 872 yards and eight touchdowns for Iowa Western Community College last year, and he and freshman Mike Dudek each used early enrollment to make a mark in the spring.
If someone can stretch the field at least a little bit, Cubit will know how to make the quick, horizontal passing game work. He's been doing the spread offense thing since the 1990s.
|Michael Heitz||LG||6'5, 305||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||31|
|Simon Cvijanovic||LT||6'6, 310||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||26|
|Ted Karras||RG||6'4, 300||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||22|
|Alex Hill||C||6'3, 315||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||15|
|Joe Spencer||C||6'4, 300||So.||3 stars (5.7)||2|
|Chris O'Connor||RG||6'5, 295||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Pat Flavin||LT||6'7, 300||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0|
|Scott McDowell||RT||6'5, 290||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Austin Schmidt||RT||6'6, 285||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Chris Boles||LG||6'4, 320||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|Christian DiLauro||OL||6'5, 280||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Nick Allegretti||OL||6'4, 300||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Peter Cvijanovic||OL||6'6, 280||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||47.9%||109||Succ. Rt. +||94.1||83|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||26.7||112||Off. FP+||96.5||96|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.5||95||Redzone S&P+||97.9||66|
|Q1 Rk||99||1st Down Rk||106|
|Q2 Rk||49||2nd Down Rk||97|
|Q3 Rk||109||3rd Down Rk||92|
6. Thrown into the fire
Three years ago, Illinois had one of the best defenses in the country. The Illini ranked eighth in Def. F/+ in Ron Zook's final season; the line featured a pair of ferocious ends (Michael Buchanan and Whitney Mercilus), there were two missiles in the linebacking corps (Jonathan Brown and Trulon Henry), and the starting cornerbacks were serious play-makers (Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne).
In 2012, half of that set of play-makers had departed, as had the defensive coordinator, and the defense dropped all the way to 71st in Def. F/+.
Last year, it got even worse. With a young, uncertain two-deep, Illinois ranked 100th in Def. F/+. The offense improved from the 100s to the top 40 over the last two years, just in time to simply offset defensive regression.
Illinois really did have youth as an excuse, however. Below, you'll find that 16 current sophomores and juniors made at least 4.5 tackles last season. To the extent that inexperience held the Illini back, that will no longer be a hindrance. Now we just have to find out if there's actual talent here.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Austin Teitsma||NT||6'2, 290||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||34.5||4.9%||5.5||0.5||0||0||1||0|
|Teko Powell||DT||6'3, 295||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||10||13.5||1.9%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||1|
|DeJazz Woods||LEO||6'3, 255||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||11.0||1.6%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kenny Nelson||DE||6'6, 250||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||11||11.0||1.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jake Howe||NT||6'3, 300||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||12||6.5||0.9%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Dawuane Smoot||LEO||6'3, 250||So.||3 stars (5.6)||7||5.5||0.8%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Robbie Bain||NT||6'3, 300||So.||3 stars (5.6)||10||4.5||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jarrod Clements||DE||6'3, 285||So.||3 stars (5.7)||10||3.5||0.5%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Abe Cajuste||NT||6'3, 290||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Paul James||DE||6'4, 240||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Joe Fotu||DE||6'3, 275||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jihad Ward||DT||6'6, 285||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Tito Odenigbo||DE||6'3, 275||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Mason Monheim||MLB||6'1, 235||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||69.5||9.9%||6.5||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|Mike Svetina||WLB||6'2, 235||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||41.0||5.8%||2.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|T.J. Neal||MLB||6'1, 235||So.||3 stars (5.7)||12||26.5||3.8%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ralph Cooper||WLB||6'1, 230||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||7||7.0||1.0%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Zepheniah Grimes||WLB||5'11, 225||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||12||6.5||0.9%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|LaKeith Walls||LB||6'2, 210||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Carroll Phillips||LB||6'3, 225||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
7. Wanted: play-makers
That incredible 2011 defense featured four players with at least 10.5 tackles for loss; the 2013 defense featured only two, and both are gone. End/OLB Houston Bates transferred, and Jonathan Brown graduated; only three returning Illini defenders had more than 2.5 tackles for loss last year, and one (V'Angelo Bentley) is a cornerback.
Illinois' line was decent in power situations and ranked a semi-respectable 62nd overall in Adj. Line Yards, but the pass rush barely existed, and there's not a single proven option returning in 2014. Somebody's got to make plays up front, and I'm not sure who that's going to be. If a newcomer like junior college transfers Carroll Phillips or Joe Fotu or freshmen Paul James or monstrous Jihad Ward were to assert themselves this fall, there's plenty of playing time to be found.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Earnest Thomas III||STAR||6'2, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||12||79.0||11.2%||2||0||0||7||3||0|
|Zane Petty||FS||6'1, 200||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||51.5||7.3%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Eaton Spence||CB||6'0, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||12||37.0||5.3%||0||0||0||4||0||0|
|Darius Mosely||CB||5'11, 185||So.||3 stars (5.7)||12||28.5||4.1%||0.5||0||0||1||0||0|
|Taylor Barton||SS||6'1, 215||So.||3 stars (5.5)||11||23.5||3.3%||0||0||1||2||0||0|
|Jaylen Dunlap||CB||6'1, 175||So.||2 stars (5.4)||12||22.0||3.1%||1||0||0||2||0||0|
|V'Angelo Bentley||CB||5'10, 190||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||10||17.5||2.5%||4||0||1||2||0||0|
|Eric Finney||STAR||6'1, 215||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||10||12.0||1.7%||2.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Caleb Day||CB||6'1, 195||So.||4 stars (5.8)||8||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jevaris Little||SS||6'1, 185||So.||3 stars (5.5)||12||4.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dillan Cazley||CB||5'10, 190||So.||3 stars (5.6)||10||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|B.J. Bello||STAR||6'3, 215||So.||2 stars (5.4)||4||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Clayton Fejedelem||FS||6'1, 190||Jr.||NR|
|James Crawford||STAR||6'2, 205||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Darwin Kelly||CB||6'1, 200||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Julian Hylton||DB||6'0, 190||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
8. Mint condition
The secondary returns entirely intact. Granted, this would be more exciting if Illinois hadn't ranked 108th in Passing S&P+ last season, but the unit was quite young in 2013 and got almost no help from the pass rush. Illinois was pretty efficient on passing downs and returns a potential star in hard-hitting Earnest Thomas III; plus, the six freshmen and sophomores who played a pretty significant role in 2013 (along with four more in reserve) are now sophomores and juniors.
Eaton Spence showed at least a little bit of coverage ability, and V'Angelo Bentley is an aggressive corner near the line of scrimmage. The pass defense will improve in 2014, though it could still be pretty limited by the pass rush up front.
|Justin DuVernois||6'1, 190||Sr.||51||41.1||2||5||13||35.3%|
|Taylor Zalewski||6'3, 220||Jr.||66||62.6||35||1||53.0%|
|Taylor Zalewski||6'3, 220||Jr.||38-38||10-12||83.3%||2-5||40.0%|
|Ryan Frain||6'2, 220||So.||2-2||0-0||N/A||0-0||N/A|
|V'Angelo Bentley||KR||5'10, 190||Jr.||31||21.4||1|
|Martize Barr||KR||6'0, 195||Sr.||7||20.3||0|
|V'Angelo Bentley||PR||5'10, 190||Jr.||12||15.8||1|
|Special Teams F/+||58|
|Field Goal Efficiency||85|
|Punt Return Efficiency||16|
|Kick Return Efficiency||81|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||51|
9. Hey, V'Angelo
This is now the third time I'm mentioning V'Angelo Bentley. I'm a fan. He was obviously a bit scattershot as a cornerback -- he made some plays, but the fact that he was the fourth-leading cornerback on a team that desperately needed play-makers tells you he had plenty of glitches along the way -- but he was also one of the conference's most explosive return men. His kick return efficiency left something to be desired (only one of every five returns was a good one), but the good ones went a long way, and he was one of only eight players in the country with both a kick and punt return touchdown.
Bentley is the start of a unit that was otherwise pretty nondescript. Taylor Zalewski was almost automatic on kicks under 40 yards, and both Zalewski (kickoffs) and Justin DuVernois (punts) produced fine averages. The coverage units suffered a few too many breakdowns, but this special teams unit should again rank among the top half of the country at the very least, neither an extreme strength nor weakness.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|1-Nov||at Ohio State||4|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-4.9% (71)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||58|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-10 / -4.7|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||14 (6, 8)|
10. Win at home
Take the name off of the helmet, and this strikes me as a team destined to rank between about 60th and 75th again in 2014. Maybe it could get in the No. 45-60 range if things click for Wes Lunt and a new receiving corps.
Since this is Illinois, however, it's hard not to simply assume that the Illini will either rank higher than 45th or lower than 100th. They don't seem to believe in staying in one place.
Regardless of the team's history, we can say with certainty that any hope of bowl eligibility in 2014 will hinge on winning at home. The road slate (Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern) is devastating, and the home slate (Youngstown State, WKU, Texas State, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State) is ... less so. Beat the lesser visiting teams and go 2-1 against Minnesota, Iowa, and Penn State, and you're bowling. That doesn't seem like an intimidating task, but it's one that has almost no margin for error.
I like the job Tim Beckman did in 2013 to solidify the ground beneath his feet. The 2012 season was a disaster in just about every possible way, and his hiring of Cubit immediately rejuvenated an offense desperate for life. Now the former Bowling Green and Oklahoma State defensive coordinator has to figure out what to do with an Illinois defense that needs about three more play-makers than it had last year.
Honestly, if we're assuming another huge step either forward or backward in 2014, I'd bet on going forward. But there's no way in hell I'm betting on anything related to Illinois football, good or bad.