Here's how I'm looking at this season: if Covid didn't exist, we would have gotten out of bed this morning and F5'd the AP football poll to see if Illinois was listed in Others Receiving Votes. It would have been a mirage - Rutgers would have been 3-0 against our non-conference schedule - but we would have checked the polls. Because we totally would have been 3-0. Bowling Green (3-9 last year) would have been the third victim yesterday. Probably to the tune of 58-7.
Again, it wouldn't have "meant" anything. A win over FCS Illinois State (probably the toughest game, but they lost a lot from last year), followed by a win over UConn (#126 out of 130 in the preseason SP+), followed by a win over Bowling Green (#127 out of 130) would have meant very little besides "fine-tuned the offense before the Big Ten schedule".
I know that some of you, when I say this, will respond with something I've always said: "we're Illinois football and we can't be trusted". And I get that. Counting wins is never something that should occur in Champaign. I was at Eastern Michigan last year. I flew to Connecticut to watch UConn drive for the tying score with four minutes left (thanks for the INT, Dele). I get that nothing is ever a "given".
But I think that with this roster, and these three games in Champaign, and all of the individual factors (ISU was a playoff team in the FCS last year but they lost the running back who got them there plus several other key players, UConn saw 31% of their roster enter the transfer portal after last season, etc.), I think Illinois would have been favored in all three games by 14+. (And then maybe only favored in one Big Ten game. The point: this non-con schedule was the easiest in Illini history.)
So I think that makes for an easy evaluation of this weird 2020 season, I think. It's simply "3-0 plus however this fall season ends up". There are nine Big Ten games - eight on the current schedule plus the "1 vs 1, 2 vs 2, 3 vs 3" weekend on December 19th - which means I'm probably still going to view this like I was viewing it pre-Covid. A snippet from that post in January:
It's Year Five now, so many, many wins are expected. Set up the staff however you see fit - pay your son $315,000 if you want - but you'd better be better than 6-7. 2021 is likely a step backwards with all of the players graduating, so 2020 will tell us what you're capable of building.
And all of the pieces are there to build something great. In terms of experience (snaps played), this team will be top-5 in college football. A senior QB with three senior wide receivers. All of the stars from the most recent recruiting class redshirted (Williams, Cooper, Randolph, Coleman, Cumby, etc), so Lovie gets to sprinkle all of them in as second-year players. Luke Ford and Derrick Smith are now eligible. Players will be back from injury (Epstein, Beason, Smalling, etc). And the schedule starts off like this:
It's all there. And this will be the coaching staff (plus one CTBNL).
So now... show us what you've got.
My point here: I think we're still there. I think we know the outcome of the non-conference (had we played the non-conference), so let's just add 3-0 to whatever we do in these nine Big Ten games and then insert this season into the "where is this rebuild going?" file. I'll try to explain.
Back in 2017 I suggested 3-5-7-9. If we're playing this many freshmen, we're only going to win 3 games at most (it was 2). But then the freshmen become sophomores, and then juniors, and then seniors, so the path should be 3-5-7-9.
It's been 2-4-6. So, in my mind, this year at least needs to be an 8. That's not some "here's the line I think Lovie needs to cross for Whitman" kind of statement. As many have mentioned, Covid (specifically, the economics of college athletics right now with no fall Saturday football games with packed stadiums) has changed how every coach will be evaluated after the season. There have been tons of articles like this one which suggest that there won't be many (any?) P5 coaching changes after this season. Bluntly, no one can afford to fire and then hire.
In that article, Pete Thamel suggests that the average of 25 FBS schools changing coaches each season will drop to maybe five this year. And the majority of those will likely be on the Group Of Five level, not the Power Five. So yes, when I'm discussing this, I'm not saying "Lovie needs to win at least X or Whitman will fire him". Not anymore. Everything is upside down.
But I still think it's a valuable thing to evaluate. I still want to talk about it. I've given a lot of rope here (you know, the whole "give the next coach five years no questions asked" thing), and now we're at the end of that rope, and I want to see what we have. Which, I guess, means "I want to set a bar because the first three years when everyone was setting bars I was all 'no bars yet" and now that we're here I want bars".
Which means that I'm still looking at this season like I was going to look at this season. As in, "the winless 1997 Illini team likely starts 3-0 against these three 2020 teams so we can just toss out those games like they were already going to be mentally tossed out and just focus on what we do against these teams in this Big Ten". The games were canceled, but the games would have just meant we were 3-0 and still didn't know anything. Progress would be two more wins each year, so if 2-4-6-8 is the goal, let's see 5-4.
And yes, I know that the season could flip upside down. We play Iowa and their entire starting offensive line is quarantined and we win 9-7 and everyone says "no chance we beat Iowa without Covid help that's a fake win". Or we lose at home to Purdue 38-35 but Hansen, Eifler, Hobbs, Adams, and Syd Brown are all sick with Covid and everyone says "we would have beaten Purdue with a full defensive roster". Those arguments happen in normal years when injuries happen (or even when it rains) and they'll only increase this season.
But beyond all of that, I still think this is an evaluable (actual word!) season. 6-6 wasn't going to be good enough (yes, I just did the whole "back to back bowls isn't good enough at Illinois" thing for a second time in 10 years), so let's all pretend like we're 3-0 yet still need to see four wins in these eight games plus a bonus win in the final week. I think 2-4-6-8 holds true (steady progress) and we already "have" three wins so let's get to 8.
And, really, this is a pretty good schedule for evaluations like that. For example:
+ Jeff Brohm is in Year 4, Lovie in Year 5. Lovie took over in March of 2016 though and didn't have a recruiting class until 2017 (Brohm's first class, albeit limited because he only had 2 months to recruit). The last two seasons Brohm went 6-7 and then 4-8 and Lovie went 4-8 and then 6-7. So let's stack these two programs right next to each other and see how we're doing.
+ PJ Fleck is also Year 4 while Lovie is Year 5. For Fleck, Year 3 was 10 wins. But that was a senior-led thing (five NFL draft picks, all Jerry Kill/Tracy Claeys recruits), and now they have to rebuild with only 4 starters back on defense. Fleck had a head-start (took over a program that had been to five straight bowls and had those 5 NFL picks), so this is probably a great season to stack the two programs side by side. Fleck has his first roster of mostly Fleck recruits and Lovie has cleared all Beckman/Cubit classes (the only Cubit players remaining: Hansen, Kramer, and McCourt).
+ The three Big Ten programs with the most returning production? Illinois, Indiana, and Northwestern. IU is no longer on the schedule (although maybe that's our opponent Week Nine?), but Northwestern is, and something bad happened the last time we played Northwestern. The finale this season is a great litmus test. With this many seniors, how can you not go up to Evanston and get revenge for last year?
What I'm saying with all of this: the 2020 season, now back from the dead, is still very much evaluable. We still need to see the things we needed to see. That almost got tossed in the trash with an odd "we'll play a spring season but anyone thinking about going to the NFL probably won't play" scenario, but that has now changed back into a fall season.
And we're almost certainly 3-0 at this point. Can we get to eight wins?