Bret Bielema will enter his second year as the Illinois Fighting Illini head coach looking to do the thing that all Fighting Illini head coaches hired in the last 25 years were hired to do: rebuild a broken program.
If going through these failed rebuilds has taught me anything, it’s that it’s never too early to start taking stock of how it’s going. The goal, after all, is the same: build a consistent enough winner to fill the stadium and make Illini football fun.
It would be the peak of irony if Illinois Football emerged as a dependable, functional and stable institution in the 2020’s as all our major institutions crumble into dust that blinds us all as it swirls around the barren plains that were once the Corn Belt, but I’m not here to wax poetic, I’m here to survey a construction in progress. I’ll do this from a place of healthy skepticism so as not to produce another masterpiece of a frozen take.
I’ve been wrong before, and I’m ready to do it again. As I’m fully prepared to watch this year with my eye on the future (like I did last year, and in 2018, and in 2017, and in 2016, and in 2013, and in 2012...), let’s evaluate the progress towards building that future.
Staff Hiring: C+
Ryan Walters has worked wonders with this defense and the whole staff has recent relevant college football experience. This staff was assembled with a purpose. However, I can’t ignore the fact that Bielema missed his offensive coordinator hire, as proven by his decision to replace him after one year. This is likely the correct decision, but the margin for error is so slim when you’re trying to bring a P5 program back from the dead that it’s a blow to lose a year of experience, rapport and recruiting relationships by starting over at one of the two most important assistant positions.
There weren’t a lot of times this season where I found myself questioning who was on the field. Kerby Joseph and Owen Carney had breakout seasons with Joseph getting a 3rd round draft pick out of it. These were players that had been on the roster for years without much to show for it. Bielema’s first commit was Josh McCray, who was an unranked athlete that profiled like a defensive end. He made an impact as a hard-nosed runner against Maryland and in a couple other spots. Zach Barlev made an impact with some important reps on the O line against Penn State, and walk-on Tip Reiman made the most of some playing time and earned a scholarship. It’s only one year, so this is an incomplete grade, but Bert & Co have done a lot to convince me they have an eye for football talent, will play the players that give the best chance to win, and can find the roles that allows players to make the most impact. Since this is year 1, this is more about scouting than development.
Roster Strategy: B-
I don’t fully understand the entire strategy, but I know that the cornerstone is to first become a player for in-state talent and win with Illinois kids. Neighboring states have been emphasized, and many offensive linemen are being offered. If Illinois produces a great offensive line every year, this strategy will pay off enough to win six games a year. It’s too early to tell if that will be the case.
I don’t know that they have an offensive vision that appeals to anyone besides backs, linemen and tall Jersey quarterbacks. Either we’re going to have to figure out how to get receivers to come here or we’ll simply have tight ends split out wide sometimes and play the B1Ggest offense possible. Either is fine with me, but one seems more practical.
The other place where I’m going to knock the roster strategy is in the transfer portal, which I think Bert has underutilized. We’ve taken six players so far in 2022; a QB, an OT, two DL, a DB and a receiver. One of those was a P5 transfer (QB Tommy DeVito), and while we needed help on the D line, half our receiving depth chart entered the transfer portal.
While I believe overall it is a solid strategy and the most sound we’ve had in quite some time, my concern with this strategy lies in how well it will hold up to the NIL & transfer portal era. We’ve already seen a more successful Big Ten program snatch up one of our top pass catchers; any breakout star that can get more money elsewhere is likely to go there. The Iowa model of development is going to be harder to pull off from a rock bottom starting point in this day and age unless you’re willing to go after high-profile transfer players at the same rate you’re losing your own stars, and you have to be able to land them as well.
In a worst case scenario, we’ve hired a coach who was perfect for pre-2021 rules and he fails to adapt to the new paradigm. We already had a coach who wouldn’t adapt his game to the realities of the modern college football landscape. I’d like to think Bielema will at least try.
While I am largely supportive of the roster strategy, on paper it has yet to yield results. Illinois followed up their 72nd-ranked 2021 class with the 46th-ranked class of 2022. That 2022 class is on par with Lovie’s 2017 class, which was his high water mark. However, that class has 26 recruits, so a lot of that rating is due to class size; it’s the lowest rated by average player rating in the Big Ten.
Remember, though, we were also pretty stingy with the transfer portal. 247 takes that into account now, because most schools are supplementing their prep recruiting with portal addition.
That overall rating for prep + transfer has our 2022 class 65th overall, dead last in the Big Ten in both overall ranking and average player rating.
Bear in mind that all this, including failing to land a top-10 in-state player, was after a debut season in which Illinois overachieved and beat two ranked opponents on the road.
The reason I bumped this from a D up to a C- is because the class of 2023 is shaping up a little better so far, with the current #3 player in Illinois Kaden Feagin announcing a commitment to join three other top-1000 players. I’m not judging what I think might happen, I’m judging what’s happened, and although they’re saying and doing things I agree with in recruiting, the results haven’t yet convinced me that their approach is viable in 2022 and beyond. They’ll need to keep proving it on the field to make more progress with recruiting.
On The Field: B+
Given the state of the program when Bert took over and what he had to work with, the 5-7 mark from last year was better than I expected. What’s most important is that there were only two games in which they were largely non-competitive. One was very early against a non-conference foe, and the other did feature heroic play by the defense as the offense got shut out by Wisconsin.
That’s a notable step up from the horrendous blowouts of the Lovie Smith era. You can see adjustments being made. Guys who don’t know their assignments are replaced with guys who do. The team got better over the course of the season, which is a sure sign that the coach’s message is resonating.
The missed opportunities against Maryland and Purdue prevented the season from being full-on 100% magical, but beating down Northwestern carried a good feeling into the offseason.
Off The Field: A
I haven’t been judging all of these categories against previous Illini football regimes, but in this regard I absolutely am. I am giving Bielema a demerit for saying he was “playing not to lose” while defending his punt on fourth and short in plus territory with a fourth quarter lead. That being said, things that haven’t happened in the Bielema era:
- Mispronouncing “Illinois”
- Being trucked by an official
- Flagged for dipping on the sideline
- Lashing out at reporters
- Public/gameday drunkenness
- Expensing hookers to the school credit card
- Assistant coaches waving guns around out of their cars on the interstate and pointing them at people
- Players commit armed robbery of a dorm whose residents know what their voice sounds like
- Players getting drunk and stealing a gay ram which will later turn out to not be gay.
- Athletic director describing Bielema’s employment as “not ideal”
Bielema has been bland at worst, with a familiar, somewhat self-deprecating wit that’s endeared him to Midwest Dads all over downstate Illinois. He’s been good with the media on a level we haven’t seen in decades, and I believe he’s responsible for bringing back our beloved helmet stripe.
There are some definite risk factors, but compared to where we were after 2016 or 2017 with Lovie or after 2012 with Beckman, the entire structure seems to have more integrity.
This hasn’t yet been any kind of home run; after all, a 2-10 season could derail all of this by totally undermining the staff’s credibility, and it’s not out of the question that that’s exactly what happens. Even as you watch a rebuilding season, you’re always recalibrating expectations to match the new context you’re being given.
Outperforming expectations on the field this season, even slightly, would go a long way towards proving the viability of this thing. My benchmark is 4-8.
If Illinois fails to win at least 4 games this season, they will no longer have a winning program record all-time. It’s taken us most of 55 years to get here, but here we are at the precipice of oblivion with 619 wins and 613 losses, one of only 7 P5 programs with over 600 in each column.
The first step to salvation is avoiding that tip over the edge