2021 was year one of the Bret Bielema era in central Illinois. What would that bring to Champaign-Urbana; besides a significant uptick in business for Black Dog BBQ and Papa Del’s Pizza?
Let’s start off with a quick pop quiz. Match the following teams with their strength of schedule ranking:
Illinois, Georgia, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Clemson, Utah, Cincinnati
55, 14, 47, 40, 32, 30, 78
And the survey says......
Notre Dame 30
http://powerrankingsguru.com/college-football/strength-of-schedule.php is where I pulled those from so you know I just didn’t pull numbers out of my butt.
So, the Illinois Fighting Illini went 5-7 and just missed a bowl in Brat Bielema’s first season, but they undoubtedly would’ve made a bowl if they hadn’t played in the MIGHTY B1G WEST!! and had instead played in a trasch conference like the SEC.
Of course, part of the tough SoS for the Illini was taking on UTSA’s best team in their history. This seems like something Illinois has a real knack for. Let’s look back at some other historical oddities that Illinois played in the non-con. (I’m going off memory here so if I have a year wrong, don’t tell me about it in the comments because I don’t care)
2021 12-2 UTSA
2017-2018 10-2 7-6 USF
2016 13-1 WMU
2015 UNC 11-3
2014 WKU 8-5
2013 Washington 9-4
2013 Cincinnati 9-4
2009 Cincinnati 12-1
2006 Rutgers 11-2
Illinois starts a home and home with Kansas in 2023. I recommend buying low on Lance Leopold’s Jayhawks.
Let’s dive in a little deeper to the performance of the Illini. Illinois led the nation in super seniors returning and had one of the most experienced teams in the country. Could the new staff take all that returning lead and through some coaching alchemy turn it into gold? In 2020, Illinois was dead last in the conference in nearly every defensive stat and 13th in most offensive stats. (Quick shoutout to MSU for keeping us off the bottom line on both sides of the ball)
On defense, Ryan Walters and company had a shocking turnaround as the Illini moved from 14th to 4th in conference in scoring D. We damn nearly cut our points against average in half from 34.9 to 18.9. Ryan Walters was richly rewarded for his fine performance when Illinois made him one of the top ten highest paid assistants in the country with a three year contract worth 1.4M per year.
On the defensive side, Bert assembled an impressive staff with three former PS defensive coordinators. On the offensive side, he hired an offensive coordinator who had one mediocre year at East Carolina under his belt most recently and had last been a PS coordinator in 2006 (and that was under Glen Mason at Minnesota, so P5, but barely). It was a pretty questionable hire that resulted in a pretty questionable performance. Illinois had over 200 career starts across the O-line and managed to actually score less points per game than they did in 2020. They did move up from 13th to 11th thanks to the truly dumpster fire levels of offense from Indinia, Northwestern, and Turgers.
Obviously the game of the year for Illinois was the 9 overtime thriller, ok, well it was a long game anyway, against the Penn State Nittany Lions. I would just like to state for the record that replays clearly showed PSU came up about 18 inches short of the goal line in the 8th OT, but incompetent B1G officials wanted more time on TV. I’d also like to note that Illinois players talked after the game about how Penn State turns off the hot water to the visitor’s locker room after a game if they lose. What the hell kind of chicken shit sportsmanship is that?
The #Illini are leaving Happy Valley with a win, after knocking off No. 7 Penn State 20-18 in ninth overtime. @WCIA3Bret has a live report and highlights from Illinois' statement win on the road: https://t.co/yzg0Bx2Mxm— WCIA 3 Sports (@WCIA3sports) October 24, 2021
It wouldn’t be OTE if we didn’t talk about punting. Demi-god of punting and super dreamy hunk Blake Hayes regressed just slightly from his last two years, but he did provide my #1 favorite highlight of the season after stranding a hapless Minnesota offense on their 1 yard line.
Blake Hayes snapped the oar over his knee after his last punt! What a ! #Illini pic.twitter.com/vLX5I42ZRk— Craig Choate (@craigwchoate) November 6, 2021
Bret Bielema finally listened to me this offseason and fired Tony Petersen, so MISSION ACCOMPLISHED on my part. He hired his former TE coach at Arkansas and UTSA offensive coordinator Barry Lunney. I guess if you can’t beat them, hire them? I’ve watched Illinois for so long that hope is hard to come by, but what can I say? I guess I’m ready to get hurt again.