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Monday, December 11, 2006

The second annual exploration of how very wrong I was about everything at the beginning of the season.

The Ignored

I didn't get around to Indiana or Minnesota previews, continuing a tradition started in 2005 when I decided not to bother projecting Illinois' fate. That worked out just fine. This year, not so much. Both Minnesota and Indiana were worth mentioning. Indiana was 5-7, a loss to I-AA Southern Illinois the only thing standing between them and a Motor City Bowl berth. Minnesota scraped its way to 6-6. Both beat Iowa, a team that
  • I projected to win the Big Ten
  • I ranked #2 -- in the country -- in the preseason
  • failed utterly in every way imaginable and is about to get rolled by Texas.
So maybe they deserved some notice.

The Scoffed At


General tenor of the thing: Won't be as hilariously awful as last year, but certainly won't be good or anything. In sum:
Strides towards competency are probable, but there's a long, long way from last year's Travelling Bye Week extravaganza and respectability.
Interesting miscellaneous error:
The Ron Zook era started out well enough with a thrilling overtime victory over Rutgers, but whenever the phrases "thrilling overtime victory" and "over Rutgers" find themselves in the same sentence their buddy "harsh reality check" cannot be far behind.
We'll get a test of this particular theory when West Virginia takes on Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl but as a general sportswriting device, "mock Rutgers" is real passe all of a sudden.

Yesssss. Last year's edition of this featured progressively worse and worse predictions about the quarterbacks of the league. The overall impression left by it was the only way I would ever get anything right about the most important position in the game was by flipping out a la George Costanza and going against every instinct I had. Well...
If things go poorly with Brasic, Zook might say "to hell with it" and insert true freshman Isiah Williams, the jewel of this year's recruiting class. Williams' implausible senior-year stats: 1,441 rushing yards at 21.8 yards per carry and 1,841 passing yards on only 128 attempts with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions. He's guru-approved and potentially the kind of guy who can lift the downtrodden into a state slightly less so a la Antwaan Randle-El. One caution: Williams only completed 56% of his passes as a senior, but it's not like Zook's going to have anything to lose after September.
HA! HA HA HA! Brasic did get yanked, Williams did get inserted -- though he was universally referred to as "Juice" -- and he did run around like Antwaan Randle-El a lot while completing very few passes. Staggeringly few, actually: around 40%. The last quarterback to start most of a season in the Big Ten and come out with a completion percentage that low must have been decades ago.

Nooooo. I was wrong, wrong, wrong about the defense:
[Defensive Line] I don't care that three of four starters return; the assumption here until proven otherwise is that the Illinois defense will be a mere rumor to opposing offenses. Defensive tackle Chris Norwood's 7.5 TFLs are nice, but that's about it as far as playmaking goes. The true sophomore defensive ends were awful a year ago and will probably be slightly less awful this year, but I'm saving all my miracle points for "Lloyd Carr understands probability"; "Illinois defensive line is half-decent" will have to wait. ... [Linebackers] See defensive line; I don't care that three starters return. This is what you need to know about the Illinois linebackers: one of them claims to be named "J Leman." No word on whether he plans on fleeing to Myanmar Burma. [Defensive Backs] Detroit DePorres' own Sharriff Abdullah is the top returning corner; he is 5'8" and has zero interceptions and four breakups in about two full years of starting. This neatly summarizes the experience of being an Illinois cornerback: it's nasty, brutish, and you're short.
Later I reiterated my dismissiveness:

We're Sure About

The defense. The scoreboard operators at Illinois games are going to get a nasty case of George Jetson button-pushin' finger.
Moral of this story: always be wary of teams starting scads of underclassmen and returning them. J Leman, Redneck Linebacker, became a bonafide playmaker and the Illinois defense ended up thoroughly respectable at the end of the year: 38th in total defense, 32nd in pass efficiency defense, 51st in rushing defense. A big ugly 90th in scoring defense can be attributed to the short fields Illinois gave up frequently; they were 117th in both net punting and turnover margin.

Final Verdict on the Final Verdict. Official prediction of 3-9, "but an encouraging 3-9." It was 2-10, actually, but an encouraging 2-10. Overall: accurate.


General tenor of the thing: It's going to be ugly; no one will mind.
Football will continue in Evanston after Randy Walker's shocking midsummer death but wins and losses will be beside the point. That's probably a good thing for Pat Fitzgerald, thrust into the head coach spotlight at only 31 without four-year starter Brett Basanez or much hope on the other side of the ball.
Hurray for turnover theory: One consistently useful metric is finding teams at the extremes of turnover margin and projecting that turnover margin to head meanward. (This is bad news for us. We finished third this year, though one of the caveats in the theory has always been "senior quarterback." "Running back who never fumbles" is also a good one, too, so we should be relatively safe. Not so safe: Minnesota, #1 in turnover margin and losing Brian Cupito. Bottom could drop out on the Gophers next year.) Northwestern provided a perfect capsule of it in action this year:
The outlook is grim, especially when you consider Northwestern's outlying turnover ratio: they were +9 despite having a terrible defense because said defense managed 30 takeaways, including 20 interceptions. That is well into the land of flukes. With a mewling babe replacing ancient Brett Basanez, Northwestern's turnovers figure to shoot up. Probability and common sense declare that their takeaways will travel in the reverse direction. Presto: likely two-game swing to the bad.
Northwestern went from +9 to -7 and dropped to 4-8.

Continued quarterback bullseyes. Sort of, anyway. Northwestern went into the year with three guys competing for the starting job...
The only thing anyone knows about Northwestern's starting quarterback is that he isn't Brett Basanez. Sophomore CJ Bacher and his six career completions are projected to start, and this concludes the Bacher scouting report. I've scoured the Internets for any information on him and every preview -- every preview -- says "Bacher is in competition with Andrew Brewer and Mike Kafka."
(The next sentence contains what was probably the first "ha, quarterback named Kafka!" joke captured in captivity: "Some venture to guess he will start, probably because Kafka keeps turning into a beetle." Zing, indeed.) ... I bet on Bacher, but claimed that "whoever the starter was" would see the Northwestern offense revert to the spread-option-happy version run by Basanez as an underclassman, when having him throw was inadvisable. Bacher was slowed by a fall injury; Kafka and Brewer split time proving that they were very bad quarterbacks indeed; Bacher returned to claim the starting job and did it with his arm, not his legs; and youbetcha I'm claiming this as a correct prediction:
If Bacher's arm is as accurate is reputed he'll get the opportunity to toss a lot of short throws to possession receiver Sean Herbert and Sutton, but Northwestern is going to revert from hoping their quarterback wins games to hoping he doesn't lose them.
Impression of the Northwestern offense under Bacher gleaned from the frigid Michigan Stadium benches: screen screen screen punt. Repeat until you lose. (He did improve radically given more time -- see first half versus OSU -- and is a major reason Northwestern should improve significantly a year ago.)

Side effects. On pint-sized dynamo Tyrell Sutton:
without Basanez's arm keeping safeties honest Sutton may find the sledding significantly tougher as a sophomore. If we make the safe assumption that whoever the starting quarterback is can't approach Basanez's efficiency and command of the offense, the only way to keep that eighth man from finding his way into the box will be to establish someone, likely Kim Thompson, as a deep danger. That requires not one but two untested players to step up -- unlikely. All eyes will be on Sutton* in '06.
Sutton's YPC dropped from 5.9 to 5.3; his carries slid down to 189. None of this is necessarily his fault.

Thank you for not defying expectations. Short but sweet on the Northwestern DL: "This is probably going to be the worst defensive line in the conference other than Indiana." 92nd in rushing defense, 110th in TFL, leading sacker had 3.

On the DBs:
Long Northwestern's glaring weakness, it would be folly to expect sudden improvement from this unit but for the first time in a long time there is something resembling a flicker of hope.
Ended the year 71st in defensive pass efficiency, which is almost mediocre and the best number this unit has posted in a while.

Final Verdict on the Final Verdict: I usually have a wide spread for the teams in the worst-case-best-case areas, but with Northwestern it was uncommonly narrow: 5-7 best, 3-9 worst. I projected them 4-8, and that's where they ended up, though I didn't see that New Hampshire loss coming. Also accurate.