Last March, Illinois officially began the transition to Football School status by making a surprise hire of Lovie Smith to helm the Fighting Illini, and also by losing a school-record 19 men’s basketball games. The "be terrible at basketball" portion of the transition is going more successfully than I ever thought possible, but how’s the "commit to competing in football" going?
Season 1 of the Lovie Smith era was a mixed bag featuring some surprising results to say the least. I’d predicted a 6-6 effort based on the huge amount of senior talent returning from a 5-7 squad in 2015, but a lot of underclassmen saw increasing playing time as the season went on and Illinois was only able to squeeze three wins out of its schedule.
Ultimately, it’s hard to know what to make of this season. It was more of a rebuilding year than I’d expected, but I don’t believe that says anything about this coaching staff.
- My favorite thing that happened all year was Game Two of the Lovie Smith era. A primetime matchup under the lights against North Carolina saw the first sellout in Champaign since 2011, and I was lucky enough to be in the Memorial Stadium I always dreamed of: packed with screaming fans and the kind of energy I’m used to only seeing on TV. The North Carolina game in 2016 will go down as one of my favorite Illinois football memories of the last five years. It was the best 25-point loss I can remember.
- Well, winning 52-3 against Murray State to open up the campaign wasn’t too shabby either
- Against long odds, a battered Illinois offense managed enough points to beat Michigan State for the first time since 2006. Down to several third-string skill players, including quarterback Jeff George, Jr., the Fighting Illini put up 31 points on the defending Big Ten champs.
- I guess we also beat Rutgers because they turned the ball over a lot.
- In putting up two Big Ten wins, Lovie Smith not only matched Bill Cubit’s mark from 2015, but became the first Illinois head coach to win a conference game in his first year since Lou Tepper in 1992. (Side note: did you know that Lou Tepper is currently Buffalo’s defensive coordinator?)
- In his first season kicking, Chase McLaughlin proved to be surprisingly accurate, not missing a kick until October.
- Chase McLaughlin’s first miss was a game-winner against Purdue that doinked off the right upright. This turned into an overtime loss after a fumble on the offensive possession. This left Darrell Hazell 2-0 in Champaign.
- The game against Western Michigan was one of the ugliest MAC-B1G games I can remember.
- Iowa won 28-0, handing Illinois its first shutout in...well, roughly a year, in a game where Illinois never kicked off because Kirk Ferentz prioritized the wind over possession.
- Such a tremendous amount of serious injuries, especially concussions. Starting quarterback Wes Lunt missed most of the season with one, and in the very next game his backup Chayce Crouch sustained a season-ending shoulder injury.
- Illinois was the most penalized team in the Big Ten in 2016.
- We’re really doing this "Homecoming is for gray uniforms" thing, huh?
So What Next?
With Wes Lunt departing and two dual-threat quarterbacks coming in to compete with Chayce Crouch for the starting job, the 2017 offense should be able to operate more as OC Garrick McGee generally prefers. The 2017 class, while Illinois’ best since 2008, isn’t loaded with immediate-impact players. Nevertheless, 2017 should show a lot about the ability of this coaching staff.
Unfortunately, with this schedule, the win-loss record might not be enough to determine if progress has been made:
9/2: Ball State
9/9: Western Kentucky
9/16: at South Florida
10/7: at Iowa
10/21: at Minnesota
11/4: at Purdue
11/18: at Ohio State
Ball State can be had, as they’ve been mediocre for the last couple of years. The next two? Yikes. Illinois will have to hope those two programs, which finished the season in the AP Top 25, are completely rudderless with Jeff Brohm and Willie Taggart out of the picture. After that, a plow through nine Big Ten games without a bye week will test a team with depth issues. I don’t see Illinois winning six of these, but if the recruiting success continues and the team improves statistically, 2018 could be a major turning point.
This story has only begun.