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2017 Preview and Predictions: Illinois Fighting Illini Football

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Time to see if this staff can coach

Illinois v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

I. Case History/Opening Statement

A. Case History

Very little was learned in year one of Lovie Smith’s tenure, but the staff seems to realize this will be a long rebuild if the increase in freshmen on the field over the year is any indication. At one point our 3rd string quarterback was passing to our 4th, 5th and 7th wideouts on our opening drive. Injuries combined with a roster that just wasn’t particularly strong to produce a 3-9 campaign that kind of seems to blend together. A solid 2017 class is nevertheless devoid of immediate-impact players.

B. Opening Statement

Welcome, one and all, to the second year of the Lovie Smith era. The hype has died down a bit and Lovie’s boys have been forgotten among such storylines as a competent Year 1 for DJ Durkin, PJ Fleck totally not being Tim Beckman on Ron Zook’s steroids at all, Purdue playing against type and hiring a good coach, Jim Harbaugh buying toilet paper, and of course the impending Rutgers dynasty of which we’re so often reminded.

On paper, this roster isn’t better than the 2016 squad that won only three games. This means any improvement is going to come from a combination of individual player gains, increased familiarity with the schemes this staff is trying to implement, and staff-driven player development. How much these things are worth will be shown by how much the team improves. Fighting Illini fans will have to be ready to look deeper into each game than the score because that improvement might not show in the win column.

II. Discovery

A. Off Tackle Empire’s Evidence

B1G 2017 // Cocktail Party Preview

B1G 2017 // Will Illinois’ record improve?

B1G 2017 // How did Illinois get so bad at offense?

B1G 2017 // Illinois Haterade

B. The Champaign Room’s Evidence

2017 Position Previews

Illini Pets

C. Summary

The good news for our defense is that they did a lot of cardio work last year due to the offense’s inability to sustain drives, so they’ll be better prepared to be on the field for 40 minutes a game this year. Even better news is that the offense is bound to improve for the following reasons:

  1. From a probabilistic standpoint, it certainly can’t be much worse
  2. Chayce Crouch is more of the type of quarterback Garrick McGee likes to work with than was Wes Lunt. Crouch’s running ability is a threat, and unlike Lunt running the ball, it’s actually a threat to the other team instead of our own.
  3. Everyone’s healthy and there might be multiple receiving options if Mikey Dudek can complement Malik Turner; it would be a pipe dream to hope for the return of circa 2014 Dudek, but his hands never went anywhere.
  4. The second year in any football scheme is bound to run more smoothly than the first.

However, perhaps not all is well, because the last time Illinois’ offense wasn’t horrible was in 2013, which is problematic because that was also the last time the defense was beyond pitiful.

The projected starters consist of just one freshman, but only seven seniors. Many of these players will return for 2018, making this staff’s ability to develop players of utmost importance. Perhaps you’re seeing a theme here...but in case I have to spell it out, I’m looking to 2018/2019 already.

III. Expert Testimony

I call to the stand a hound dog.

Hound dog, in your expert opinion, what is the most likely scenario for the Sleeping Giant That Is Illinois Football in 2017?

As you can see, she believes some more sleeping is in order.

IV. Closing Statement

Look, I’m gonna level with you. My expectations are low and I’m detaching myself as a defense mechanism against the possibility of this whole coaching regime failing. It’s not that the sky is already falling, it’s just that Illini fans have been burned so many times before with coaches creating expectations of sustained average-ness.

So, what’s it going to take for me to feel confident at the end of this season?

  1. Win a Big Ten game. Preferably at least two. The bottom of the barrel at this point is only three teams deep, and we play both of the others (Purdue, Rutgers)
  2. Finish 2018 recruiting strong. A lot of tumbleweeds over the summer created unrest until Lovie landed four star defensive tackle Calvin Avery out of Texas, who is not only our highest-rated recruit since 2013’s Aaron Bailey but is also a LINEMAN. Keep cookin’.
  3. More discipline; fewer penalties; better fundamentals; more time of possession.

2018 is the goal. Remember, Illini coaches go bowling in year 3 before things fall apart.

V. The Verdict

Pass me some of that orange kool-aid, Baba! The rest of it sounds about right. I can’t talk myself into more than 3 wins. It would be pretty sweet if our win/loss total added up to 12.7 though. I do not like the idea of facing Western Kentucky and South Florida, and if we somehow win all three non-conference games it will be an absolute miracle.

I go to Illinois football games every year despite the 500 mile distance between my location and Champaign. I notice that nobody has us losing all 9 conference games, so I am going to try to make both Purdue and Rutgers this year. I haven’t attended an Illinois football win since 2014.

Maybe by this time next year, I’ll be able to have feelings about this program again.