With spring football in full swing, it's time to look ahead to the real season coming up this fall. Only the re-injury to Mikey Dudek has slowed the rare momentum of good vibes around the Illinois football program since AD Josh Whitman canned quasi-interim coach Bill Cubit on his first day and hired Lovie Smith. ESPN's schedule power rankings just came out for 2016 and the outlook isn't great for Illinois. Quick breakdown of some of the jargon: FPI stands for Football Power Index, which ranks teams based on strength of schedule and expected point margin vs average team on a neutral field.
ESPN has the Illini with a 0.0 FPI (the 0.0 seems appropriate with how relevant this program has been in recent history), which ranks 73rd in the country. Of teams in the Big Ten, Illinois is 12th out of 14, only ahead of Maryland (74th) and Rutgers (75th). Hell, even Purdue is ahead of Illinois, as the Boilers are ranked 66th in country. The computers shied away from the Big Ten's top teams, as Michigan State is the top team in the conference, coming in at No. 11 in the country.
Using the FPI rankings, ESPN puts Illinois with a 4.4-7.6 expected record, which would rank 111th in the country. A thorough inspection of the schedule shows that Illinois will be favored in just three games this season: a 96.7 percent chance to beat Murray State in Lovie's opener, a 53.7 percent chance to beat Purdue on Oct. 8, and a 53.8 percent chance to top Minnesota on Oct. 29. Perhaps most surprising was ESPN giving Western Michigan a 53.6 percent chance of beating the Illini at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 17. Overall, Illinois has the 45th toughest schedule in the country.
Before Dudek's injury, I would have penciled in the Illini for five wins on the season, with a puncher's chance at a bowl game. Murray State, Western Michigan, Purdue, Minnesota, plus one random win like 2015 vs. Nebraska. Without Dudek running free in the middle of the field, I'm skeptical on how this offense will look, especially after losing key cogs like Josh Ferguson, Teddy Karras and Geronimo Allison. So an expected total of 4.4 wins probably sounds about right on the year.
Other than Murray State, the computers seem to think there will be a lot of close games for the Illini, without having the wins to show for it. There is a 0.2 percent chance for the Illini to win the conference (SO YOU'RE SAYING THERE'S A CHANCE?!?!?) but there's a 0.0 percent for Illinois to run the table and go 15-0 en route to a national championship. I like to think there's some minute decimal point for the Illini winning the Natty Championship, right? Dare to dream.
By comparison, last year's Illinois squad was ranked No. 67 in the country, and the 2014 team that made an appearance in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl was ranked No. 79.