Happy College Football season, readers! I’m Inquisitive Thumpasaurus here with Off Tackle Empire and today we’re going to be discussing the upcoming Illinois Fighting Illini football season in some detail. Head Coach Lovie Smith enters his fourth season, though some call it Year 3 in light of the March timeframe of his hire back in 2016. Still, whether it’s year 3 or year 4, it’s fair to expect some decisive conclusions about the direction of the program. A 4-8 record last season represented a 2-win improvement over 2017’s dismal campaign, but the Illini produced one of the worst defenses in Big Ten history and registered the all-time worst loss for the program in their final home game. With experience finally starting to accumulate, it’s a crucially important season for Lovie Smith and worthy of deeper examination.
It’s now my privilege to welcome to the show a trio of Fighting Illini expert consultants, Depression Thumpasaurus, Pragmatic Thumpasaurus and Belligerent Thumpasaurus.
Thank you so much for the pleasure of your expertise, gentlesaurs
The pleasure’s all mine
well, none of it’s mine
And a special thank you to the concerned friends and family who helped us locate Belligerent Thumpasaurus after following a tip that he’d been rampaging his way to Piscataway to roar at John Groce for aggressively proving his last prediction wrong. Has it really been over two years? My how time flies.
So let’s start with the big question: in light of the last three to eight years, why should anyone care about these Illinois Fighting Illini?
The simplest answer is that this roster has the best combination of talent and experience that Illinois has boasted under Lovie Smith by a wide margin. The depth isn’t there yet, and there are a few unproven commodities, but this is a far cry from the youngest team in the league across the board. There’s finally experience in the starting offensive line, which boasts five upperclassmen, four of whom have at least 24 starts for the Illini under their belt. This alone will provide some much-needed stability in the gameplan; this is a line that can grind out some yards against a Big Ten defensive front.
Even if you don’t necessarily believe in Lovie Smith, it’s sure to be interesting to see how well it pays off to get a handful of starters from the transfer portal. He’s far from the first coach to start a transfer, but I don’t recall another power 5 coach taking this many transfers to shore up the next year’s starting rotation. Brandon Peters will start at quarterback, Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe will start at receiver, Richie Petitbon will fill in at guard for the graduated Nick Allegretti, Oluwole Betiku will probably start at defensive end and Milo Eifler will see heavy minutes at linebacker.
In short, the combination of talent and experience on this Illinois team is finally within striking distance of the median Big Ten team.
yeah that’s easy to say when you look at it on paper. there’s a reason we got these guys...it’s because they washed out of their programs. it’s not the same as recruiting top-200 players out of high school.
that recruiting class that is finally going to be in its junior year? yeah, they’ve lost bennett williams, lou dorsey, larry boyd and carmoni green from that class already.
nobody’s ever “due.” just because you’ve been terrible, you’re not entitled to wins. you could also just keep being terrible. does one offseason really erase all those 60-burgers?
SYRACUSE BEAT MIAMI 66-13 IN 1998, AND NOBODY FROM THAT 1998 MIAMI TEAM EVER AMOUNTED TO ANYTHING, ESPECIALLY NOT ED REED, NATE WEBSTER, MIKE RUMPH, EDGERRIN JAMES, SANTANA MOSS, REGGIE WAYNE —
so we’re about to be 2001 miami now?
NO, WE’RE 1999 MIAMI. PAY ATTENTION.
To bring up a more relevant example, the 2013 Illini defense was also very young and very bad, but many of its players were important on the 2015 Illini defense that finished in the top 25 of the defensive S&P+ ratings.
ALL THEY HAD TO DO WAS FIRE DC TIM BANKS INTO THE SUN LIKE THEY DID TO HARDY NICKERSON LAST YEAR
as though hc/dc lovie smith didn’t give up 63 points in one of his games
ONE IS A SMALLER NUMBER THAN TWO, WHICH IS HOW MANY TIMES HARDY NICKERSON GAVE UP 63 POINTS LAST YEAR
nickerson gave up 63 points two times while working under which defensive minded head coach again?
NOT DIGNIFYING THAT WITH A RESPONSE
So we’ve covered what’s new, but what is there to build on?
the acl fairy is operating with ruthless efficiency, having claimed top-100 freshman marquez beason before the season even started
Corner depth is a bit of a concern, but the starters are solid, the runningbacks are talented (Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein and others) and Rod Smith has proven to be a capable offensive coordinator.
IF NOT FOR BILL CUBIT AND GARRICK MCGEE, LAST YEAR’S BACKFIELD WOULD HAVE HAD CORBIN, EPSTEIN, KE’SHAUN VAUGHN AND DEVIN SINGLETARY.
TELL YOU WHAT.
THIS IS A DAMN SLINGSHOT PASS, THAT’S WHAT THIS IS. THERE’S A BIG GAP TO ILLINOIS COMING OUT OF 2018, AND THE REST OF THE FIELD SEES THAT GAP AND ASSUMES THEY’RE OKAY, BUT LITTLE DO THEY KNOW THAT LOVIE SEES THE AIR. WE’RE IN THE SLIPSTREAM GETTING A HUGE RUN AND WE’RE GOING BY ON THE INSIDE LIKE EVERYONE’S STANDING STILL.
Let’s take a look at this schedule. Illinois will kick off against an Akron Zips squad that finished 4-8 and fired Terry Bowden, and loses an awful lot of offensive skill players.
they beat northwestern last year, but we sure didn’t. the only way we can beat them is if they have gotten substantially worse, because it’s not like we’re actually getting better. it looks like they actually will get worse, so i’ll say illinois doesn’t win so much as akron loses
LOOK AT THE BIG BRASS BALLS ON EEYORAPTOR OVER HERE! WE’RE GONNA SHOW HORSE TEETH O’CALLAHAN HOW TO BEAT THE ZIPS. HINT: KANGAROOS HAVE LONGER LEGS THAN YOU THINK, PADRAIG FITZSIMMONS. WHAT WAS IT YOU SAID IN THAT POSTGAME PRESSER? LET’S REVISIT:
WHO DO YOU THINK THAT WAS?
DAMN RIGHT IT WAS ME.
ILLINOIS BY MANY
This should be a good matchup for Illinois and a good chance to see just how well the passing game has developed...if they even need to use it. With any luck, the defense stays healthy through the non-conference and the lack of secondary depth doesn’t become a glaring issue. Illinois wins comfortably.
A unanimous decision! So, the following week, the Illini head to somewhere within 30 miles of Storrs, Connecticut to take on the UConn Huskies on the road on CBS Sports Network. Why?
because it’s a glimpse into the future
Beats me, but Illinois wins easily
2-0, AVERAGING OVER 50 POINTS PER GAME DESPITE ONLY PUTTING UP 31 AGAINST AKRON
The toughest test of a very mild non-conference schedule will follow: a home date with Chris Creighton and the Eastern Michigan Eagles.
They may have beaten Purdue last year, but Tyler Wiegers isn’t walking through that door and, like UConn, it might not matter how good Chris Creighton is if the school is openly not trying to compete. This EMU team isn’t as good as last year’s.
WHAT, ARE WE THE ROYAL AUSTRALIAN ARTILLERY NOW? WE CAN DEFEAT FLIGHTLESS BIRDS.
they have a better coach than us. we’ve started 2-0 the last two seasons only to lose to a team wearing green in week 3. hopefully this is just mistakes and not injuries. 2-1.
That’s a really favorable non-conference schedule for a team looking to prove a point. The home Big Ten opener is against Scott Frost’s Nebraska Cornhuskers, who defeated the Illini 54-35 in Lincoln last year
DID THEY? OR DID ILLINOIS DEFEAT ILLINOIS BY MUFFING TWO PUNTS IN THE FIRST HALF? LOOK FOR FEWER MISTAKES AND A MORE COMPETENT DEFENSE TO PROPEL ILLINOIS TO A SURPRISINGLY NARROW WIN, MAYBE ONLY 10 POINTS HERE.
I’M SICK AND GODDAMN TIRED OF HOW GREAT NEBRASKA’S GONNA BE AND HOW HAPPY WE ALL HAVE TO BE THAT SOMETHING THAT WAS THE BEST 25 YEARS AGO MIGHT BE GREAT AGAIN. WHAT ABOUT SHIT THAT’S HARDLY EVER GREAT BECOMING GREAT FOR THE FIRST TIME ANYONE CAN REMEMBER?
DAMMIT, WE’RE MORE THAN JUST AN OBSTACLE IN SOMEBODY ELSE’S INSPIRATIONAL STORY.
no we aren’t. mike riley isn’t gifting us this win.
Nebraska’s definitely better, but I don’t think the gap is as big as the media seems to think, especially this early in the season. I think the Illini can keep pace with Adrian Martinez and a bevy of talented skill players, but Nebraska will probably control the lead for most of the game and win by two scores.
After a bye week, the Illini will head to TCF Bank Stadium for a rematch of their best win from 2018 against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Hey, can you still set up your I-Card with a free TCF checking account and use it as a debit card?
I’m not sure Illinois gets this one. Presumably, the Gophers will employ a different defensive strategy than the one that got them gashed for 55 points. Minnesota is the only team in the Big Ten that returns as much production as the Illini, and I think a healthy Antoine Winfield makes a big difference too. This one could get away from us quickly.
this game is early in the season so we don’t have to wait long for our biggest accomplishment of 2018 to be rendered irrelevant. hopefully joe moore finds pj fleck too aggressively weird to want to spend four years around him.
ROW ROW ROW YOUR BOAT
INTENSELY DOWN THE STREAM
HYPRRLY HYPRRLY HYPRRLY HYPRRLY
FLECK’S A PONZI SCHEME
At one point, the October 12th game against Michigan seemed important, but it might end up being a mismatch now. What are we thinking?
we’re eating out of their dumpster for our starting quarterback, what do you think is gonna happen?
NO DAMMIT NO I’VE BEEN ROARING ABOUT THIS GAME FOR YEARS AND I’M NOT GONNA BACK DOWN JUST BECAUSE EVERYONE THINKS THIS IS THE YEAR FOR MICHIGAN YET AGAIN. THERE’S ENOUGH TALENT HERE TO NOT GET COMPLETELY BOWLED OVER, AND EVERYTHING YOU HATE ABOUT LOVIE AS A GAMEDAY COACH, JIM HARBAUGH DOES. IT’S LOVIE COACHING AGAINST LOVIE, ESSENTIALLY. THERE WILL BE TEN FIELD GOAL ATTEMPTS, BUT WE’RE WINNING THIS KICKING BATTLE SO HELP ME GOD.
COME ON, MICHIGAN PEOPLE, WOULDN’T YOU RATHER HAVE YOUR SEASON END HERE THAN AT HOME AGAINST OHIO STATE AGAIN?
TOO BAD YOU DON’T GET A CHOICE IN THE MATTER. CHAMPIONS OF THE WEST MY ASS, IF YOU WERE CHAMPIONS OF THE MAC WEST YOU’D STILL HAVE TO PLAY TOLEDO IN THE CONFERENCE TITLE GAME.
My assessment of the talent level is not as optimistic as that of my colleague. This one might hurt if I’m perfectly honest. The good news is that Michigan fans will get no pleasure from this, but they might get satisfaction, because they’re the kind of folks that derive satisfaction from being disappointed. It’s very Midwestern.
Homecoming will be against the Wisconsin Badgers and Jonathan Taylor (Thomas) this year, presumably with those gray uniforms that some people have opinions on.
why do we have wisconsin for homecoming on the odd years? 2015, 2017 and now 2019. when are they going to start to suck enough to compete with us? no chance this time either. thanks for the grays nike.
OK LISTEN UP YOU LITTLE SHIT, THOSE GRAY UNIFORMS ARE — i can’t do this, they suck. i’m going to ignore them and pretend we’re not wearing them AND INSTEAD FOCUS ON WISCONSIN’S SUDDENLY VULNERABLE DEFENSE. REVEAL YOURSELVES FOR THE FRAUDS YOU ALWAYS WERE ALL ALONG BY DROPPING A 50-SPOT TO ILLINOIS!
Honestly, I could see it. Look, I’m gonna have to call a win over a superior team at some point. It might be Wisconsin. This could be a sneaky good match, because if Illinois can run the ball against the Badgers, they’ve won half the battle. Then it’s a matter of keeping pace with their offense. This could low-key be the best chance for an upset. Give me the Illini at home on the 100th anniversary of a national championship!
MY GOODNESS, that was out of character! So the next challenge is the Purdue Boilermakers in West Lafayette.
It’s hard to say if this game will be more winnable than last year’s. There’s contributors gone on the defense and David Blough has graduated, but Elijah Sindelar’s no slouch and Rondale Moore will have even more talent around him. I’m going to go with Nick Hold and their defense finding a way to go 3-0 against Rod Smith as an OC.
O YE OF LITTLE FAITH! ILLINOIS GOT ANNIHILATED BECAUSE THE PASSING GAME WASN’T THERE! HAVING EVEN A SLIGHTLY TWO-DIMENSIONAL OFFENSE WILL KNOCK THAT PURDUE DEFENSE RIGHT ONTO ITS HEELS LONG ENOUGH FOR LOVIE TO GRAB THAT CANNON IN ALL THE CONFUSION AND FIRE IT AT THE PURDUE SIDELINE. THAT’S HOW IT WOULD WORK IF THIS WERE A BOSS FIGHT. YOU’D HAVE TO DO IT THREE TIMES. BOOM BOOM BOOM THREE TOUCHDOWNS FOR REGGIE CORBIN. ILLINOIS ADVANCES TO 8-0
if only i were ignorant enough to be so blissful. purdue destroys us again. they hired a great coach and we didn’t.
The Illini then come back home for ILLINUTGERS VI.
You can throw out the records with this rivalry. What happens?
hard to say. illinois will be 2-6 right now, and a loss to rutgers will be the end of the lovie smith era. it would be a horrible, unforgivable loss and therefore seems like something that would happen. on the other hand, the worse thing might be to finish 3-9 and keep lovie because we won a big ten game. so i’ll say we do that.
Even the most pragmatic of perspectives can’t make me predict a loss to Rutgers. It’s really a bleak state of affairs over there at the moment
IS THIS A REAL QUESTION? HOW DARE YOU.
I’ll be in attendance, and I know at least a couple of you will be, at Spartan Stadium when the Fighting Illini take on the Michigan State Spartans. How ugly is this game?
The second bye week gives Illinois the opportunity to prepare to avenge a 63-0 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes last year. Can they get it done on the road?
It really seems unlikely that they can win this game. Kirk Ferentz has had Lovie Smith’s number like no other coach in this league, and that’s just such a stable program that it’s hard to see dramatically different results between years.
if i say it can’t get worse than last year i’d just be guaranteeing 64-0
OK SEE HOW REASONABLE I’M BEING BY SAYING ILLINOIS COMES UP SHORT 31-24 IN THIS ONE? THEY’LL SIT AT A MODEST 10-1 AFTER THIS GAME. I’M NOT COMPLETELY DIVORCED FROM REALITY.
And finally, a very intimate home date with the Northwestern Wildcats rounds out the regular season. What do we think?
maybe they have their starters in for the second half this year
NOTHING GETS THE JUICES FLOWING QUITE LIKE A CLASH BETWEEN JOHNSON AND PETERS, BUT THE PURPLE HELMET WILL NOT FINISH FIRST THIS TIME. ILLINOIS BY A TOUCHDOWN.
Illinois ought to be more equipped to play against a Northwestern team that feasts on turnover margin, but their discipline will be tough to overcome for a growing team. Northwestern wins an even game.
Now let’s take a look at how the OTE writing staff predicted the record for Illinois
HEY MY SEASON PREDICTION ISN’T OVER, MY ILLINI HAVE AT LEAST TWO MORE GAMES
Pretty narrow range of win total there, but overall, while Super-Pragmatic Thumpasaurus went with 4, I think the OTE community slightly underrates Illinois this year. I have them at 5-7 (2-7).
the 3-9 (1-8) illini are slightly overrated by the OTE writing community
YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL WHINGING LITTLE PESTS THAT NEED TO BE ELIMINATED BY AN APEX PREDATOR. MAY BLAKE HAYES PUNT YOU BETWEEN THE LEGS.
Well? How many?
This poll is closed
7 or more