The Illinois Fighting Illini have only managed 22 wins over the last six seasons. The surprising hire of Lovie Smith prior to the 2016 season has resulted in a record of 5-19 and a 2-16 record in Big Ten play. Times are very, very tough in Champaign. Perhaps the third year of Smith’s tenure will go better, as that seems to be about the time when recent hires have expectations heaped upon them. A new offensive coordinator and another season with defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson could lead to some improvement.
On the other hand, Illinois managed only 15.4 points per game and just 4.6 yards per play last season. That was with offensive coordinator Garrick McGee. New offensive coordinator Rod Smith has a little more talent to work with than his predecessors, but the Illini look destined for another year of struggles. That also means that questions will surround the head coach all year long. Is Lovie Smith just not cut out for the college game? Can you really fire him? Or does he have to go out on his terms? How long does he need for the process to take hold? After all, Illinois had 16 different freshman starters last season and a lot of sophomores top the depth chart this year.
BetDSI Sportsbook lists Illinois’s season win total at 3.5, with the over at -110 and the under at -120. BetOnline Sportsbook lists 3.5 with the over at -120. 5Dimes has 4, with heavy juice at -140 on the under, so, effectively a line of 3.5. I normally tell you that this only applies to regular season games, but Illinois isn’t making a bowl game anyway.
|Date||Opponent||BangTheBook Line||Expected Wins|
|9/8||Western Illinois||-3.5 (est.)||.61|
|9/15||USF (N – Chicago)||+8||.26|
|9/21 (F)||Penn State||+22.5||0|
Expected Wins: 2.86
“Returning starters” can be very misleading. Illinois technically returns eight of them and that may be reason for optimism, but they also had 4.6 yards per play, 15.4 points per game, 280 yards per game, and 3.3 yards per carry with a team completion rate under 50 percent. In conference play, everything was even worse. How much do returning starters matter when the group is that bad? Furthermore, Illinois will learn a new offense under Rod Smith. And they’ll do so without a legitimate quarterback. Expected starter Cameron Thomas threw 66 passes last season, completed only 28 of them, well, 33, if you consider the five to the other team.
Perhaps graduate transfer AJ Bush will be the go-to guy. He played at Virginia Tech, but didn’t see the field much. True freshman Coran Taylor could see the field, but could also be redshirted. Mike Epstein is a solid running back, so long as he can stay healthy. He only had 57 carries last season, but led the team by 80 rushing yards as he averaged 6.1 yards per pop. Mike Dudek will get some help at wide receiver with the grad transfer of Shaedon Meadors from Appalachian State, where he had some decent seasons. Ricky Smalling stood out as a true freshman last year to lead the team with 31 catches for 510 yards. Illinois has four returning starters on the offensive line, but looks to start four sophomores. That group allowed 42 sacks last season.
At least the defense can’t have a sophomore slump with a bunch of sophomores because it would be challenging to top last year’s performance. In all honesty, the Illini defense wasn’t bad, given how awful the offense was. Illinois allowed 31.5 points per game and 5.7 yards per play, but the defense was on the field for 162 more plays than the offense. Holding opponents under five yards per carry for the season was a huge win. A lot of players got a crash course in what college football is all about last season.
This side of the ball returns eight starters as well. The only senior likely to start is JUCO transfer Del’Shawn Phillips, who could find himself playing on Sundays. Phillips had 85 tackles last season and was the veteran leader of the defense. Illinois really bulked up on both lines in recruiting and has some big boys on the two-deep on the defensive line that should help against the run. All things considered, the secondary played fine, although teams opted to run it down Illinois’s throat with 548 carries against just 339 pass attempts. The defense was gassed by season’s end, as the Illini were outgained by 185, 134, 438, and 207 over the last four games against Purdue, Indiana, Ohio State, and Northwestern.
Illinois should open the season with wins over Kent State and Western Illinois, but won’t be a favorite again the rest of the way. At least USF is watered-down this season, as the Illini allowed 680 yards in last year’s meeting. This is a very young team once again and the early bye week won’t help, especially with five of the last eight on the road and one at home against a team off of a bye.
Pick: Under 3.5 (+100, BetOnline)
I’ll save myself the 40 cents of juice and just go under 3.5 instead of under 4. The Illini may actually be building something respectable, as Lovie Smith brought in a really solid recruiting class this past cycle. A young team gets a new offensive coordinator, though, and it looks like another season with immense pressure on the defense. Illinois will be more competitive on the scoreboard, after losing five games by at least 20 points and four more by double digits, but it won’t show up in the win column.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
The Illinois Fighting Illini made a really interesting decision by hiring Lovie Smith. Smith, the former coach of the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, would certainly provide instant legitimacy and credibility, though it’s definitely different coaching college kids versus professionals. The early returns weren’t great, as the Illini went 3-9 in Smith’s first year and regressed both offensively and defensively. Some have the Illini as the worst Power Five conference program in their power ratings heading into the season.
It makes sense. This is an offense that scored 19.7 points per game and lost the best thing it had going for it in Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. The defense gave up 31.9 points per game after allowing 23.3 points per game in 2015. Leading tackler Hardy Nickerson, who transferred to Illinois to play for his father, who is the defensive coordinator, moved on in his career. The question that bettors have to figure out is whether or not Illinois is who they think they are or if last season was just a transitional year with a lot of the same bumps in the road that other programs face.
Judging by the season win total, some slight improvement is expected in Year 2 in Champaign for the law firm of Smith, (Garrick) McGee, and Nickerson. 5Dimes Sportsbook has the line set at 3.5, with the under slightly juiced at -120. Let’s see if that will actually be the case.
|Date||Opponent||Projected Line||Expected Wins|
|9/15 (F)||@ South Florida||+18.5||0.04|
|11/18||@ Ohio State||+35||0|
Total Expected Wins: 3.59
There are quarterback options available for Illinois, which should breed a healthy competition going into the season. Dwayne Lawson probably has the most upside as the most desired recruit of the three, but Jeff George Jr. obviously has a football bloodline and Chayce Crouch was the primary backup last season, so the latter two know the schemes and the playbook better than the JUCO transfer. Whichever quarterback gets the nod will have a decent running game to fall back on, as the Illini ran for 4.8 yards per carry last season. The top two in yardage, Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin, are both in play this season as well.
The wide receiver corps could get a nice boost from the return of Mike Dudek, if his ACLs don’t fail him again. The junior has suffered a season-ending ACL injury in each of the last two seasons. Malik Turner was a shining star in a weak passing game last season with 48 catchs and six of the team’s 13 pass receptions for touchdowns. Illinois just didn’t have the capability to extend drives and remain on the field. The Illini averaged less than 60 offensive snaps per game last season with 353 runs and 358 passes. It’s hard to see that changing this season unless a QB emerges.
The defense gave up 31.9 points per game last season, although they did force teams to have some sustained drives in order to put points on the board. Illinois only allowed 12.7 yards per pass last season and did a decent job to hold opponents to 5.5 yards per play. In a relative sense, with how ineffective the offense was, the defense did a decent job. Unfortunately, 29 tackles for loss from last season moved on and leading tackler Hardy Nickerson exhausted his eligibility. Not being able to stack up in the trenches is a kiss of death in the Big Ten and Illinois’s defensive line lost a ton of production.
The coaching staff here is pretty impressive in terms of name and pedigree, but the talent is still lacking. It will take time for Lovie Smith and Hardy Nickerson to get a capable defense together. Last season’s group was big on effort, but small on talent. It seems like this season’s group will fall in that same boat. Opposing offenses just wore down the Illini front. Illinois faced 569 rushing plays last season, an average of 47 per game. It’s hard to have success like that.
Illinois’s schedule isn’t terrible, but it isn’t all that easy either. Ball State is one of the lesser programs in the MAC this season. Rutgers at home is a good draw. Getting Purdue at home would have been nice. Even in Illinois’s wins over FBS teams last season, they were outgained 385-320 by Rutgers and 490-304 by Michigan State.
Win Total Pick: Under 3.5
The projected numbers have this team right around the 3.5 mark, but finding four wins on this schedule is extremely difficult. Illinois would have to surprise a Nebraska or an Indiana at home and that just doesn’t look very likely at this point. Perhaps a quarterback emerges quickly and the offense is upgraded enough to bail out the defense, but it looks like another rebuilding year in Champaign.