Preseason polls are ridiculous.
So, it’s ridiculous to get upset about them. So I’m not upset. But, seriously.
Illinois is not ranked in the Top 25 in either the AP or the Coaches poll. Illinois is unranked while, for instance, Virginia Tech is ranked #7 (Prediction: the oft-overrated Hokies will go 2–2 in the first four games) and Notre Dame is ranked #23.
Preseason polls are a mix of unstated criteria more confusing and less related to reality than even the US News & World Report college rankings. Votes might be based on key losses or recruiting or reputation or tradition or sticking-it-to-the-BCS grudge-holding (Boise State at #13, I’m looking in your direction). Or it might be none of the above — for nearly two decades, Steve Spurrier tossed a vote in the Coaches poll toward the hapless Duke Blue Devils out of sheer visor-induced batshit-craziness. (Okay, it was out of loyalty. Still.)
But even by these arbitrary or nonexistent standards, an unranked Illini is a slap in the face. And, like the merits for inclusion, the Illini remain unranked for a combination of reasons: a toxic mix of coach and conference and tradition spiced with a healthy dose of “won’t get fooled again.”
Last year, after being ranked #19 and #20, respectively, in the preseason Coaches and AP, the Illini went a sad 5–7. There are voters who never watched another Illini game after the first (a loss to Missouri) and only saw that the lead number in the final record was the smaller of the two, and voted accordingly.
But, because they do this, voters are dumb. Football games often come down to one or two plays. (Sometimes they come down to one or two inches: Michigan State’s final offensive down last year, and therefore their season, ended a single inch short.)
Illinois had one ridiculous loss last year, to Western Michigan. But two more games were wins converted to losses by only a few plays. The Minnesota game was one that clearly should have been won — and right up until the last play, felt like it was going to be won. If the right thing had happened (or the wrong thing had not happened) on any one of a half dozen plays, Illinois would have won that game. The Ohio State game was slightly different, but just as winnable. If two or three plays (and one awful call) had gone differently, Illinois wins. That’s 7–5 (or even 8–4). That’s a bowl game and probably the top 25.
But “coulda been” is not “is,” and voters like to rely on the previous year’s actual record. That’s because it’s easy and uncomplicated by extenuating circumstances. Or the facts of the current situation.
Chief among these facts is that Illinois is packed to the gills at skill positions. The wide-receiving corps is incredible, and maybe the deepest in Illinois history. The team is legitimately three-deep in the quarterbacks — and if freshman Nathan Scheelhasse had to come in, it would still be okay. And between Troy Pollard, Daniel Dufrene, Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure, we’ve got running back threats coming out the ear. (We’re not talking Ronnie Brown/Cadillac Williams, here — but, seriously, between Juice, the tight ends and the receiving corps, how many more offensive plays are left?)
And despite what people want to say about the defense being the big question, our wins and losses this year, like last, will rest mostly on the offense. The offense — led by Juice Williams — has shown itself capable of putting up gaudy numbers. But in all three of the aforementioned losses-that-should-have-been-wins it was turnovers that doomed us. The defense, which gets blamed for scores against, was often put into an untenable position by the offense.
There are no statistics for this, but if Illinois cuts in half its turnovers-inside-their-own-thirty-yard-line and Juice throws, say, twenty-five percent fewer interceptions (so twelve instead of sixteen) we’ll have a good season. This is almost regardless of how the defense plays.
Still, this is not prediction of Illini success. The Illinois schedule is as hard as Notre Dame’s is easy. Illinois plays four legitimately good (and two great) teams in its first five games. (ND doesn’t do that its whole season.) So a slow start is probably in order.
But unlike the 2000 team — which was very skilled, but unable to bounce back from a referee-induced loss to Michigan, last year’s team proved remarkably resilient. The record might not suggest this, but the games do.
After a tough loss to a good Missouri team, Illinois won their next two. Then after another tough loss to a good team, this time Penn State, Illinois won at Michigan in a game it looked, early, like a Wolverine rout. Then a loss to Minnesota might have proven the final nail in the coffin. But Illinois continued to show up, winning two more Big Ten games before losing to Western. Even after that loss, the team gave the Buckeyes all they could handle. That’s a lot of bounce-back for an Illinois team.
I hope they have it again this year, because their first five games are a murderer’s row.
So I’m not going to make a prediction. That would be dumb. But if I did make one, I would say Illinois ends up 8-4 with a final ranking of #19.
Which, as it happens, is exactly where they should be ranked now.