It’s Illinois Fighting Illini week here on Off Tackle Empire, and after a meaningless 2015 season, a meaningless 2016 season, a meaningless 2017 season and a largely meaningless and futile 2018 season, it’s time for the long-anticipated 2019 season where Illinois will, in theory, be playing for the season it currently is instead of some far-off time in the future when the roster is complete.
After all, head coach Lovie Smith is entering his fourth season at the helm, albeit one that has a strong case to be called “Year 3” due to his March hiring back in 2016 cutting his first offseason in half. Still, coaches are often judged in three seasons. The supposedly foundational and transformative 2017 recruiting class will be juniors this fall, and two of the five biggest impact players from that class haven’t even left the program yet.
Look, I’m gonna level with you all again. We all know I can produce better content than this article, and I’m hoping we all know why I’m not doing so, but in case you’re new here, I’ve deflected all the horrors of the Lovie Smith era thus far with the mantra “we’re building towards 2019,” in the hope that this would be the season where I could finally reawaken the unabashed irrational hope/hype/swagger that so many college football fans usually experience during the offseason.
As it stands right now, there are four possible outcomes to this season, and the one that I’ve been hyping up for years now seems unlikely. Let’s talk about the schedule first.
When you look at that non-conference schedule in detail, you can see why this was in theory an important breakthrough. I can’t remember an easier non-conference slate for the Fighting Illini than this. Back when the Illini were facing a ranked Mizzou, #5 Cincinnati and perennial winner Fresno State in a 3-9 season, I dreamed of this kind of non-con slate. Akron and Eastern Michigan scored wins against Big Ten teams last year, but (1) they did so largely due to enormous cockups by Northwestern and Purdue and (2) they lose many key pieces of what made those teams...well...not “good,” per se, but “good enough to take advantage of Big Ten teams dicktripping.”
With 4 of 5 starters returning on a competent run-blocking offensive line, Illinois should win these three games without much trouble. However, in his 9 non-conference games, Lovie Smith has gone 5-4 with only one decisive victory over an awful FCS Murray State squad in 2016. Nevertheless, these are by far the easiest games on the schedule. This is how a non-conference slate should look for a program that’s struggled to climb out of the sewer for the last 25 years.
With a trio of highly-rated players coming in to join two classes of great athletes, Illinois should be preparing to turn the corner as they gain more momentum with their prime recruiting grounds. However, there’s one problem: every other team in the Big Ten West is also trying to improve, and they have much stronger cases than Illinois. An Illini team that should be 3-0 will kick off B1G play with the resurgent Nebraska Cornhuskers, who finished with the same record but a much happier fanbase. Adrian Martinez jogged through the Illini defense with ease last year, though this hardly made him unique among Big Ten quarterbacks. Though he’s only bringing in his second class to Lincoln, Scott Frost has been recruiting at a markedly higher level than Lovie Smith, whose Fighting Illini would be massive underdogs even if it were clear what was happening at quarterback.
A road trip to Minnesota will ensue, where Illini fans will all predict blowout wins because of the inexplicable meltdown of Robb Smith’s Gopher defense last year. Minnesota is another team with rising young talent across the board, but they’ve done better at recruiting and retaining players than the Illini, so this is no gimme. A home date with a loaded Michigan squad follows, and though Harbaugh will definitely find a way to get less out of his NFL talent than any other coach in America could, it’s doubtful that Harbaugh can find a floor low enough to accommodate the Fighting Illini.
The Illini haven’t beaten Wisconsin since 2007. The tide may be turning in the battle of “Wisconsin vs. The Division,” but it’s difficult to envision a competent Illini run defense. Purdue defensive coordinator Nick Holt absolutely drinks the milkshake of Illini OC Rod Smith. He drinks it up. They’ve matched up twice, and Holt successfully shut down Khalil Tate’s rushing game and forced him to beat the Boilers with his arm. He nearly did, but Illinois has nobody with that level of talent at the quarterback position. Holt employed the same strategy of forcing everything to the quarterback last year, and AJ Bush absolutely melted. I’ll believe Rod Smith can beat Nick Holt when I see it, and Purdue is yet another team that is upgrading talent more effectively than Illinois.
This probably leaves the Illini at 3-5 (0-5) entering November, where the one game fans have circled will come into play. That’s right, it’s Illinutgers IV. The home team has lost all three football contests so far in this matchup, and this game is essentially the season for both Lovie Smith and Chris Ash. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where the loser of this game is immediately fired. Rutgers lost this game last year by turning the ball over early and often, allowing Illinois to build a big enough lead that Rutgers’ ability to run up and down the field didn’t matter. A more cautious Rutgers offense could definitely hang in there longer. This is probably the Big Ten Game of the Year.
A middling offense and an awful defense travel to East Lansing to take on an awful offense and a great defense. Best unit wins. I’ll be in attendance, and I expect to stop yelling by halftime.
Lovie Smith has managed to score points against Iowa just once in his three games against them. Can he improve to 2 for 4? Also, who cares? Kirk Ferentz has absolutely devastated the Lovie Smith Illini in all three seasons of their existence. Hell, it was Kirk who finally got me off the “Lovie Smith is going to win six games in Champaign some day” train last year:
Maybe this column is substantially less dour if, say, Iowa wins 31-17...but that doesn’t matter now, does it?
The Illini will finish off the season with a trip to a team that plays like shit until October and then becomes invincible in November, so that bodes quite well.
But Wait, You Big Baby, They Improved By Two Wins. They Doubled Their Wins From 2017. Who’s To Say They Won’t Improve Further?
There’s actually a lot of evidence that last year’s Fighting Illini weren’t any better than the generationally-bad 2017 squad. That supercharged offense? Not really that effective. Finished 70th in S&P+, and proved to be very stoppable in 7 and 0 point performances against Purdue and Iowa. It was only thought to be “good” in comparison to 2017’s 109th-ranked offensive unit.
2017’s 2-10 (0-9) team finished with a -7.4 overall S&P+ rating, good for 96th in the country.
That 2018 team that finished with four wins? The one that represented a big step forward?
-7.9, good for 97th.
In fact, I had an inkling that this may just be the worst P5 team to ever go 4-8. Outisde of the USF game (much luck) and the Northwestern game (Fitz resting the starters), Illinois was thoroughly demolished in every single loss. It’s not like when Tim Beckman went from 2-10 to 4-8 in 2013; that team actually had the 38th-best offense in the country, hung with Washington until the fourth quarter, went to overtime in Happy Valley, lost a fourth-quarter track meet to Indiana and lost a heartbreaker to Northwestern.
There was only one 4-8 P5 team quite as bad as 2018 Illinois, and that was 2015 Rutgers! In the year of Kyle Flood’s downfall, The ‘Gers put up a -10.1 S&P+ rating, good for 101st in the country, with the 66th-rated offense but the 112th-rated defense.
In fact, the seasons hit a lot of the same notes:
- A win against a G5 team that would go 2-10 that was uncomfortably close (Army playing the part of Kent State)
- A close loss in the non-con to a team with aspirations that probably shouldn’t have been that close (Washington State playing the part of USF)
- A win against a bad FCS team (Norfolk State playing the part of Western Illinois, although Rutgers had a much more convincing win)
- Brought down to earth by Penn State (28-3 vs 63-24)
- A win against a P5 team that would finish with at least 11 losses (0-12 Kansas playing the part of 1-11 Rutgers)
- A win against a bowl team from the Big Ten that made no sense at the time and still makes no sense in hindsight (Indiana filling in for Minnesota)
What separates 2015 Rutgers from 2018 Illinois? Well, 2015 Rutgers had more close losses, such as the 4th-down-spike game against #4 Michigan State. They also didn’t give up more than 52 points in one game and in fact won the only game in which they surrendered more than 49. Finally, unlike Illinois, Rutgers fired the head coach for this debacle in conjunction with a laughably bad attempt at academic cheating.
So What Are These Scenarios?
In Scenario 1, which is in my opinion the least likely, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate transfers to Illinois, is admitted, and immediately wins the starting job. He has already graduated and has a great relationship with his former OC Rod Smith. Tate is enough to immediately make Illinois a candidate to win at least 6 games, as he alone can break some of the less stout defenses on the docket.
Scenario 2 is the one I gave up on after the 63-0 defeat at Iowa’s hands last year. In this scenario, freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams secures the starting job before the Nebraska game as Illinois works out kinks through a 3-0 non-conference tour and proves to be a game-breaker as the Illini win six games and end up playing a bowl game in Detroit, where I host a legendary tailgate for all the Illini fans who never though the day would come.
I dare not get into specifics, but perhaps Williams leads a shootout victory over Nebraska, and even though they lose at Minnesota, the primetime game against Michigan sells out and I get another moment where Illinois feels like college football, and though the game gets away from them, it’s only a 10-point loss that nevertheless ensnares some poor freshmen into believing Illini football is fun and hooks them for life.
Anyway, Scenario 3. In this one, Illinois trails Akron 14-7 at halftime, comes back to win by 3 points, then loses either at UConn or at home to Eastern Michigan. They lose either all conference games or 8 of them and beat Rutgers, and Lovie Smith is fired either during or immediately following the season.
The most likely scenario, however, is Scenario 4. Illinois struggles to a shaky 3-0 before getting obliterated by Nebraska and beaten handily by Minnesota and Michigan. An inspired effort against Wisconsin leads to the rare close loss, but Purdue pitches a shutout the following week. A narrow win over Rutgers makes up Josh Whitman’s mind that Lovie will return. Illinois is shut out in East Lansing and I chuck my Illini hat out of the bleachers in the third quarter, but end the scoreless streak with a Sad Field Goal to lose 42-3 at Iowa. A stupid 7-6 loss to Northwestern that feels like 35-0 closes out the season and all of Illinois’ top recruiting targets commit to Missouri, Miami, Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern and Western Michigan. Miles Smith is promoted to defensive coordinator and Rod Smith takes a head coaching job at Eastern Illinois.
Welcome to Illinois week. This was a mistake.