I. Case History/Opening Statement
A. Case History
Simply put, the 2017 Illinois Fighting Illini were one of the worst teams ever fielded in the history of the Big Ten, losing each game by an average of roughly 31 to 15. The passing game was awful, the rushing game was abysmal, the defense was below average but the special teams were fairly competent. An uncomfortably narrow win against a Ball State squad that would go on to lose every MAC game led into the high point of the season, which was Week 2’s 20-7 stifling of Western Kentucky. After that, they lost every game, with only the Minnesota game being decided by a single-digit margin.
There’s no sugar-coating it. Just as I predicted, Illinois was horrible last year.
B. Opening Statement
Fellow Bigtenants, August has arrived and with it training camp season. With training camp season has come endless hype. Every team has never looked better on offense or defense or special teams and every player is in the best shape of his life. Every football team has taken huge strides and is surely prepared to have much more success than their 2017 counterpart. Not all of these predictions will come true; some teams will win fewer games than last year. Illinois, however, will show quantifiable improvement this season.
Exhibit A: Off Tackle Empire Evidence
Exhibit B: The Champaign Room Evidence
Last year’s team was nowhere near as good as their 2-10 record made them look. It’s certainly possible to achieve a worse record this year, but it’s virtually impossible that the team will be worse. However, that won’t be enough. The team has to improve enough for this to be an unambiguous step forward. The good news is that there’s plenty of reasons to believe this is likely.
If Rod Smith is all he’s cracked up to be, his hire was a ridiculously savvy move not just because of his proven record of offensive success but because he’s the right coordinator at the right time. I say this because Illinois already has the kind of athletes needed to run Smith’s offense. It’s a very good fit with the existing roster. Not only that, but this is not an overly complex offense and shouldn’t have the kind of growing pains usually associated with installing a new offense. This is fortuitous for a program that is quickly running out of time to show improvement. The QB depth chart at least has more relatively interchangeable bodies, Mike Epstein returns to lead the ground game, some speedy athletes may see time at receiver and an offensive line consisting of gigantic specimens will gain more experience.
What’s not clear is how Smith’s uptempo offense will mesh with Lovie’s ball-control ideology that keeps his defense fresh. The defense is certainly no less deep than last year’s squad; in spite of some transfers, a bunch of new blood joins the defensive backfield in addition to the two prize recruits at defensive tackle. The defensive line in particular could be a force of nature by 2019/20. The linebackers are where we’ll see a lack of athleticism and depth hurt this team and where high-profile recruiting misses at the position will haunt us. Special teams should flourish as well. All the specialists return and Blake Hayes and Chase McLaughlin comprise, in my opinion, the best punter/kicker tandem we’ve had since Santella and Dimke.
This year, improvement needs to be tangible. There’s really no reason it shouldn’t be seen.
III. Expert Testimony
I would like to call to the stand a hound dog. Miss Hound Dog, last year you predicted the sleeping giant that was Illinois would continue sleeping, did you not? Describe your feelings before last season
Based on your expectations, what was last season actually like?
I’m sure you’re not alone in feeling that way. When you look at this Illini team, especially when film suggest AJ Bush can throw the ball to his left side and also run, what’s your outlook on the season?
I see. So Illinois will not be totally asleep, but certainly won’t rise just yet and though the eyes are open, they look towards the future. When you consider the implications of winning four games this year and closing out a good recruiting class, how do you feel about the 2019 and 2020 seasons?
Nothing further. Thank you very much, hound dog.
IV. Closing Statement
Ladies and gentlemen, this fall we enter the first season after which Lovie Smith can reasonably be fired. The hopeless situation he inherited bought him an extra year no-questions-asked and 2017 was always going to be a historically bad season. Illini fans are desperate for stable, continued competence, and for this to happen, Lovie Smith cannot be fired after this season. In my opinion, the goal is simple: the Fighting Illini must win a Big Ten game. It simply won’t be possible to sell the vision of the futuire when its debut keeps being pushed back. This is the entrance to the corner we must turn. If we don’t show signs of turning into that corner, it means our vehicle is simply going straight off the track into the nearest barrier.
The first two games should be wins and if they aren’t then you’re in for a big treat as I can’t even comprehend my reactions to such events.
South Florida is a game that would be nice to win and can quite possibly be had depending on what you think of Charlie Strong’s coaching acumen. Many key players graduated and avenging a loss from last season in Chicago would make a very positive statement about the direction of the program, which will be important because Penn State will eviscerate us.
This team needs to win a Big Ten game. Lately, I’ve been predicting worst-case scenarios to emotionally prepare myself for them. But this one is going to be more optimistic, and they could very well exceed this. Between a Rutgers team struggling to find an offense, a Purdue that loses a lot of defensive starters, a talented-but-unpredictable Maryland team, a Golden Gophers flotilla with bigger quarterback problems than Illinois, a Nebraska that will be in transition, an Iowa that is always up and down within a season and a Northwestern that I just refuse to take seriously, there is a win somewhere in this Big Ten schedule. We’re going to have a losing record this year, but I’ll be absolutely delighted with the implications of this result.
V is for Verdict
The Illinois Fighting Illini will finish 3-9 (1-8) on the year while looking substantially more competitive than the 2017 edition.
Illinois’ 2018 Record
This poll is closed
Worse Than 2-10