August 10, 2009
Part of the Doc's Big Ten Week.
The guiding premise of "Life on the Margins," in-season and out, is that teams are always better judged for predictive purposes by "down-to-down" statistics -- that is, on the basic premises of how well they move the ball on offense and stop opponents from moving the ball on defense, focusing on blocking, tackling, execution and all that rot removed from factors like field position and turnovers, which tend to be fairly random, distort the reality of the "down-to-down" fundamentals and ultimately even out over time. By that standard, as I've pointed out before, Illinois clearly improved in 2008 for the second year in a row:
Relative to 2007, last year's Illini outgained opponents by more yards per play and per game, won by wider margins on average, lost by smaller margins on average and even managed to outgain opponents by about the same margin in losses as it did in all games in '07. By all of those major, objective standards, Illinois improved.
And, like, won half as many games. Essentially the same 9-4/6-2 Rose Bowl up-and-comers of '07 gasped home last year at 5-7/3-5 after losing four of the last five. How does a team that gains more yards, scores more points and allows fewer yards than its very successful predecessor -- especially when, again, it's essentially the same team -- fall so completely off the map?
Phil Steele has made part of his living with this idea in an annual feature in his labyrinthine preseason magazine called "Turnovers=Turnaround," based on the simple premise that teams with high turnover margins in either direction (he usually looks at teams that +10 or better/ –10 or worse) tend overwhelmingly -- about two-thirds of the time -- to move in the opposite direction the following season as the giveaways and takeaways even out. If you want one number in Illinois' case that screams "significant regression" -- the only one, in fact -- ball control is it"
It doesn't get much more black-and-white than that: 7-0 when winning the turnover game, 2-15 when losing it. (And 4-6 when it evens out.) The two wins in '07 with negative turnover rates? Over Ball State and the hopeless, 1-11 version of Minnesota. Last year's team put on a clinic in how to give away wins -- or at least chances to win -- over the last two months, losing to Minnesota, Western Michigan and Northwestern despite outgaining all three; the Illini outgained Minnesota alone by a staggering 238 yards but managed to lose by fumbling away two touchdowns (one directly, one setting up the Gophers inside the Illinois 10-yard line) and failing on fourth down from the Minnesota one in the second half. Illinois averaged an impressive 418 yards in five losses after Oct. 11, and yet failed to score more than 20 points in any of them.
At the same time, the Illini had a fairly modest game on offense (329 total yards) in a win over Iowa, when the defense was able to get three turnovers back for the three the offense gave the Hawkeyes; it was the only game Iowa lost after Oct. 11 despite holding the Illini offense relatively in check. When it held on to the ball, this was still a solid, competitive team.
Ergo, it should still have the potential to match or even exceed the heights of 2007, yeah? Given the schedule (six games against teams that won at least nine games last year, and the critical trifecta of Ohio State-Penn State-Michigan State coming back-to-back to start the Big Ten season) and the losses on defense (seven starters gone), that's probably going a little far. But this time last year, the Illini were widely regarded as one of the top two or three teams in the conference and as a top-20 team overall. As muddled as the conference appears behind Ohio State and Penn State, there's no good reason the Illini can't finish nearer to that track, which would likely land them in one of the New Year's Day bowls, than to the milquetoast projections based on last year's swoon. (Then again, we are talking about an offense led by Juice Williams, for whom giveaways may be a fundamental tenet of his very being. If that's the case again, especially if Williams continues to carry the heaviest load in the running game, then we officially have another Zook team permanently branding itself as "self-destructive," and the clock will begin ticking loudly.)