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Closing Arguments 2021: Illinois Fighting Illini Football Preview

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Not all 2-10 seasons are created equal

NCAA Football: Illinois at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

I. Case History & Opening Statement

A. 2020: Another One Bites The Dust

Illinois had one of the only 2020 college football seasons of consequence, as they managed to actually be bad enough to justify a coaching change. I knew they wouldn’t be good, but I was worried that they’d be just good enough that AD Josh Whitman would try to stick it out (as recruiting died further).

Fortunately, the Illini came out against Wisconsin exemplifying everything wrong with the Lovie Smith era, allowing one incompletion on 21 attempts to a bunch of fullbacks and tight ends while unable to execute an offensive gameplan whose effectiveness would be questionable if they could run it properly.

Things never got better, and if you’re still wondering just what was it that you saw in the second half of the 2019 season, I’ll explain it again: one truly earned win against an extremely sleepy top 10 team followed by three strokes of luck. After outcoaching Paul Chryst, Lovie Smith got the benefit of a monsoon in West Lafayette neutralizing Purdue’s offense. After that, he was fortunate enough to welcome Post-Chris-Ash Rutgers to Champaign. The following weekend, the most unlikely series of events I’ve ever seen defeated Michigan State, and then a highly motivated Illinois team stayed in the game late against the Hawkeyes before Lovie shut it down for the season.

Lovie Smith simply never produced a good football team at Illinois, as evidenced by the fact that he never beat Iowa or Northwestern. It’s as simple as that. There was in my opinion enough evidence to convict at the end of the 2018 season, but since this is Illinois, we always have to wait a couple years before we’re sure it’s dead.

B. Opening statement

Folks, there’s nothing more American than optimism in the face of overwhelming evidence against you. That’s not what I have at this point, but what I do have is a new football coach. What does this have to do with the 2021 win/loss total?

Nothing!

I’d like nothing more than to stand up in front of you today and say that Illinois is a changed program ready to rise above the futility of its recent history and stake out a stable claim to some premium real estate in the upper middle class of the Big Ten. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant to the point I must impress on you, which is this:

The 2021 Illinois Fighting Illini football season will not crush the souls of Illini fans.

II. Discovery

A. Offseason Evidence Exhibits

Illinois Fighting Illini Football Cocktail Party Preview for the Meme of the West

Illinois Potluck #1: Jello Salad and RETURN OF THE BERT

Illinois Football New Schemes

A Brief History Of Illinois Failing To Hire A Competent Head Coach

Potluck #2: Dubious Claims and EXCITING ILLINI TRANSFER NEWS

Thumpasaurus Roundtable Discussion: Is Bret Bielema The Beacon Of Basic Competence That Illinois Fighting Illini Football Needs?

PODCAST: Does this Fighting Illini football roster have the potential for greatness with good coaching?

B1G 2021: The recipe for hating Illinois

B1G 2021, Illinois Potluck #3: Can Bret Bielema survive Year 1?

In Memoriam: Lovie Smith, Illinois Fighting Illini Football Head Coach 2016-2020

B. Pending Docket

August 28: Nebraska Cornhuskers

September 4: UTSA Roadrunners

September 11: at Virginia Cavaliers

September 18: Maryland Terrapins

September 25: at Purdue Boilermakers

October 2: at Charlotte 49ers

October 9: Wisconsin Badgers, The Official Homecoming Opponent Of Illinois Forever

October 16: BYE

October 23: at Penn State Nittany Lions

October 30: Rutgers Scarlet Knights (ILLINUTGERS VIII)

November 6: at Minnesota Golden Gophers

November 13: BYE

November 20: at Iowa Hawkeyes

November 27: Northwestern Wildcats

III. Closing Statement

A preponderance of evidence suggests that Bret Bielema, a man who has fielded actual football teams at the Power 5 level, is doing all the things one would do if one intended to field an actual football team at the Power 5 level. Reflecting back upon my opening statement, I said that this Illini football season would not crush the spirits of Illini fans.

I never said anything about winning any games.

The fact of the matter is, we lose a lot. We’re used to it. 2-win seasons are a common occurrence here. What you call an infamous calamity we simply call rock bottom for this cycle. We literally just had a 2-win season last year, but out last 2-win season with 12 full games was in 2017. Prior to that it was 2012, and 2006 was the previous such occasion.

Not all 2-win seasons are created equal, however. 2017 was a catastrophe that had been in the works for years due to the roster’s construction and higher than expected attrition. 2012 came as a bit of a surprise as the transition between coaches was much more violent than expected. 2006 was one of the best 2-win seasons ever, with the Illini fighting all the way to the fourth quarter of many games and snapping a long conference losing streak in East Lansing.

I predict that 2021 will be a 2-win season. Sure, the talent is there to aim a little higher, but this is Illinois. Lovie Smith’s 3-9 debut was the best inaugural season for an Illini head coach in nearly a quarter century, and he still lost at home to Darrell Hazell.

The vibes for this particular 2-win season are 2005, perhaps bordering on 2006. The 2005 season had a fun start, but quickly devolved into detached bemusement as Illini fans remembered that they’d been in the basement for years and weren’t getting out this quickly.

What I’m looking for out of this first year from this coaching staff:

  1. Make the most of the talent we have right now: run schemes and plays that make sense and commit to our upperclassmen instead of constantly playing for the future
  2. Make sound coaching decisions. The aforementioned 2016 “Purdoink” game raised some red flags about the Lovie regime’s in-game coaching acumen that never really went away.
  3. Compete through the half in at least 5 B1G games. We’ve lost a lot, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been ethered quite as much as we were in the Lovie Smith era. No more 63-burgers, please. If you must allow point totals that large, force a damn field goal once.
  4. Continue the momentum and activity with recruiting
  5. Don’t do anything embarrassing off the field or on the mic.

That’s all I want. Generally, all I want out of Bret Bielema is for him to color inside the lines. Compared to Lovie’s “slightly disturbed blank page” and Beckman’s “splatter art with what’s either YooHoo or liquid feces,” coloring inside the lines would look like Vermeer.

He’s been doing that so far.

IV. The Verdict

What is wrong with you people? Besides myself, ten jurors have submitted predictions so far. Only one of those 10 predicts a winless conference season, and for some reason 87townie thinks we’ll lose all our B1G games but win at Virginia in week 2.

This average is roughly 4-8 (2-7). I guarantee you one thing, if we duplicate the 2018 Illini record, we sure as shit won’t:

  1. give up 63 on three different occasions
  2. lose five games by 4 or more touchdowns
  3. arguably be worse than 2017’s 2-10 (0-9) campaign
  4. lose 63-0 at home

On the other hand, my expectations make it so that it’ll take very little for this season to be a success for me. I don’t know what else to say, other than that figuring out just how Illinois is going to be bad year in and year out is objectively more interesting than figuring out how Iowa gets to eight wins this year.

Let’s do this I guess.