Well well well, would you look at that? Here we are at B1G 2021 and I’m back in my comfortable position as the leadoff hitter.
Why do I usually hit leadoff? Because I write about Illinois!
I think I may be in a better place than I’ve been in years, because after an extremely adverse initial reaction to the Bret Bielema hire, I decided to back off, not follow the offseason too closely and just make my usual plan to go to a game every year and only kind of care what happens. A side effect is that I think I’m finally at peace with the fact that Illinois is not a football program, it’s a football meme. The East has Rutgers, the West has Illinois.
We’re a meme. We hired a meme to be our head coach, and then got a meme quarterback in the transfer portal:
Blessed! Excited to get to Work! pic.twitter.com/XMVwdLMQpU— Artur Sitkowski (@artursitkowski4) April 28, 2021
What Happened In 2020?
There was this virus.
Also, Lovie Smith finally coached his way out of Champaign a full two years past his expiration date.
What happened to Illinois last year was just a microcosm of what happened to them over the last five years:
I should note here that “mediocre” does not mean “middling.” “Mediocre” means “not very good, doomed to never achieve any notable success.”
A season after Lovie’s Illini had the greatest dead cat bounce in the history of college football in a four-game winning streak that started with a 31 point upset, they came out and allowed Graham Mertz to complete 20 of 21 passes to tight ends and fullbacks. That’s basically it.
Now, because Illinois is a meme, they won an objectively funny shootout with Rutgers and waxed Nebraska after all hope was gone. His Illini were, however, terrible at every phase of the game except for kicking the ball. Lovie cemented his firing by losing his fifth of five games to Iowa and getting utterly walked the fifth of five times against Northwestern.
Really, this meme thing has been growing on me year after year.
You could see the gears turning a couple years ago.
Lovie Smith managed to produce two new entries for that list in 2019.
But I’m all the way there. Bring on Bielema. Arizona State hired a meme and it worked out just fine.
2021: What To Expect
Illinois will be the worst team in the Big Ten and it won’t even be close. We didn’t even move our stuff out of the sub-basement, and in fact our preferred cot is still warm. Just like 2005, 2012 and 2017, Illinois will lose every Big Ten game. It was pre-ordained.
There was just no time to add any impact players for 2021, although the transfer portal is still out there. Lovie & Co decided to just kind of stop recruiting after signing day in 2019, so there’s a big gap to fill. We’ll get into more depth on what Bielema is trying to do here, but this is just about 2021 and for those purposes Illinois will be terrible.
Brandon Peters will be the starter as Illinois seems likely to have a lot more snaps under center and a lot fewer QB runs. If Peters goes down, it’s the Art Sitkowski show at Illinois. Last year I might have been distressed, but now I can no longer deny that it’s comedy gold. What a sentence.
Illinois is going to make a more concerted effort to run the ball in a more Big Ten fashion than last year, and the offensive line is easily the strongest position group on the team outside of punter. It might not matter, though, since they don’t have much in the way of receiving threats. Teams will stack the box and Illinois will look a lot like 2017 Illinois, but maybe worse on defense.
They won’t be worse on defense than last year!
If the spring game is any indication, they’ll be running a 5-2 as their base defense look. Literally anything is better than putting our linebackers in coverage against receivers, and the secondary players outside of Derrick Smith are a bit underrated and may thrive with a little more QB pressure.
Blake Hayes is the best player in college football.
August 28: Nebraska Cornhuskers
September 4th: UTSA Roadrunners
September 11th: @ Virginia Cavaliers
September 18th: Maryland Terrapins
September 25th: @ Purdue Boilermakers
October 2nd: Charlotte 49ers
October 9th: The eternal Homecoming opponent, the Wisconsin Badgers. This will be their fifth time as our Homecoming foe since 2014. Illinois has won 1 of the last 1 of those games.
October 16th: BYE
October 23rd: @ Penn State Nittany Lions
October 30th: Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The Sitkowski Bowl. #ILLINUTGERS at its finest. This is also the final regular season #ILLINUTGERS until 2024. The Big Ten broke that series up to make us play Penn State every year for six years because the Big Ten has absolutely no idea when it has a good product on its hands.
November 6th: @ Minnesota Golden Gophers
November 13th: BYE
November 20th: @ Iowa Hawkeyes
November 27th: Northwestern Wildcats
So, I’m hoping that we’re gonna do record predictions because I want to be able to add yet another Consensus Preseason Last Place award to the Illini trophy case. This might also be for Closing Arguments but since I’m a casual fan now, I don’t even remember lol who’s qb again
I expect Illinois to go either 1-11 or 2-10 depending on whether or not they can beat a UTSA squad that went 5-2 in C-USA play last year. They’ll lose all their Big Ten games and their first road trip to Virginia will be a disaster. Charlotte seems very beatable.
It would be hard to do any worse than Lovie Smith did, but Bret Bielema doesn’t have the luxury of Chris Ash Rutgers or
Darrell Hazell Purdue Mark Dantonio Michigan State to provide wins in Year 1. I think he’ll continue the tradition Lovie briefly interrupted of Illinois coaches losing every Big Ten game in year 1 like Turner, Zook and Beckman all did.
Of the Big Ten games, Nebraska and Rutgers seem like the most likely wins. I say Nebraska because there will be no tape on any new schemes Illinois is running and they may be able to catch the Huskers by surprise. I say Rutgers because in #ILLINUTGERS, you throw out the records, nothing else matters but this
This season, like so many of Illinois’ last 10, doesn’t matter. More on the future later in this week.