I have been predicting Illinois football records since I started writing for TCR in 2014. So far I've had a hit and a miss. Two years ago I called for a 6-6 record with a tough bowl game loss (hello, Louisiana Tech), but last season I predicted a 7-5 record and a postseason victory. Whoops. Let's see if I can make it two-for-three with this year's edition.
To help break down the 2016 slate I've divided the games into different "tiers" of the season and provided a prediction for each as well. Some games have yet to announce when they start or what network they'll air on, so I'll also utilize my crystal ball to foresee kickoff times and channels. Every opponent will be followed by their ranking among ESPN's Football Power Index, a tool that measures a team's strengths and weaknesses to try and determine how they'll perform in 2016. Illinois is currently ranked 75th. So without further, ado let's look at the Illinois Fighting Illini schedule.
Season One ("Welcome to Champaign" Projected 2-1 record)
1. vs Murray State (team ranking N/A), 2:30 PM kickoff, BTN
Lovie's head coaching career at Illinois kicks off against Murray State on Sept. 3 at 2:30 PM at Memorial Stadium. The Racers are coming off a disappointing 3-8 season in 2015 and Smith's inaugural game in (collegiate) orange and blue should be the easiest one on this schedule. Murray State is led by quarterback KD Humphries, who broke the single-season Murray State passing record in 2015. He also finished seventh in the FCS National Player of the Year voting last year. Their defense is certainly subpar, ranking in the bottom half of the FCS, and they've only won six games in the last two seasons combined, but Humphries shouldn't be taken lightly as an offensive threat. Regardless, Wes Lunt and company should have more than enough firepower to outmatch Humphries. Let's go ahead and call this a solid opening day WIN.
2. vs North Carolina (20th best team in the nation), 6:30 PM kickoff, BTN
A big primetime game against a power five opponent in Week Two? Welcome to Champaign indeed. Lovie's team will be tested right out of the gates against a North Carolina squad that went 11-3 last year and finished in second place in the ACC. Most Illini fans are probably trying to eradicate it from their memories, but these two teams faced off early last season in Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels absolutely demolished Illinois, 48-14. UNC loses their star QB Marquise Williams, but running back Elijah Hood and wideouts Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer all return to an offense that averaged 40.7 points per game in 2015. This makes it a stern test for Dawune Smoot and company on the defensive side of the ball. Even though the game will be close throughout, I think the Heels will come away with a narrow victory, sending Lovie's Illini to their first LOSS of the young season.
3. vs Western Michigan (61st best team in the nation), 3:00 PM kickoff, ESPNNews
Watch out -- the Broncos will be sneaky good. Another afternoon kickoff and a third consecutive home game will be a nice way to start the year for Illinois, but they can't look ahead to the beginning of Big Ten play if they want to escape Lovie's 'Welcome to Champaign' campaign with multiple victories. Western Michigan, who are actually ranked fourteen spots ahead of the Illini in the FPI index, are led by P.J. Fleck. Fleck was a name that surfaced after Cubit was fired as having interest in the Illinois job but nothing solid ever materialized. WMU boasts quarterback Zach Terrell, who threw for over 3,500 yards last season. On the other side of the ball, the Broncos have a strong secondary with safety Asantay Brown and cornerback Darius Phillips, both experienced upperclassmen who ranked in the top of the MAC in tackles. This is going to be a close game and if you go to sleep on Western Michigan they can spring the upset, but Wes Lunt always seems to drum up fourth quarter magic in non-conference home games. He'll do it again versus the Broncos and the Illini will pull out a narrow WIN.
Season Two ("Life on the Road" Projected 2-2 record)
4. at Nebraska (28th best team in the nation), 2:30 PM kickoff, BTN
You'll note that I've slotted this game to be broadcast on BTN; as I mentioned earlier, for any game times or networks that haven't yet been announced, I'm predicting them based on past scheduling. Lovie's first road trip will be to Lincoln, Nebraska, and if you think the Illini seem to play the Cornhuskers a lot at the beginning of conference play, you'd be right. These two teams have met and will meet for the first game of the Big Ten season for five straight years. Nebraska had a down year in 2015 after Mike Riley took over the program, but they finished on a strong note by upsetting Michigan State and winning a bowl game. The Huskers have QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. back, who threw for over 3,000 yards and finished second in the league in passing yards per game in 2015. His downside, however, is that he also led the Big Ten in interceptions, and Nebraska lost several key defensive linemen to the NFL last year. The Husker offense is strong but the defense is not (not something you're used to hearing about Nebraska). This is never an easy place to win and even though Illinois won last season, I can't see them going into Lincoln and doing it again. LOSS.
5. vs Purdue (68th best team in the nation), 11:00 AM predicted kickoff, ESPN2
This game wreaks of a late morning kickoff on ESPN2 with Beth Mowins on the call. The Boilermakers were a bad team last year and have only won a total of eight games under head coach Darrell Hazell. I called for there to be marked improvement from this team in last year's predictions post, but there really wasn't much to speak of. Quarterback Austin Appleby transferred to Florida in the offseason, which means David Blough will battle redshirt freshman Elijah Sindelar for the starting QB gig. They don't have a very strong group of wide receivers, meaning the offensive side of the ball will definitely be a question mark this year for the Boilers. The defense, however, is a different story. They boast three seniors on the defensive line who tied for the team lead in sacks in 2015, and if they can get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks their D will be better than expected. That said, if Illinois wants to have a successful season it will have to include beating Purdue at home. WIN.
6. at Rutgers (70th best team in the nation), 11:00 AM kickoff, BTN
This will be Illinois' first trip to Piscataway since 2006 and only their third meeting all-time against the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers is undergoing a major rebuild, with both the athletic director and head football coach being dismissed this past offseason in a move the university's president called, "a chance to refresh." Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash was hired on to be the new man in charge. As for the roster itself, the Scarlet Knights have a big question mark at quarterback; there will most likely be a summer battle between juniors Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig to see who will grab the starting job. On defense Rutgers lost a lot of talent to the NFL last year and will need to replace both starting linebackers, but sophomore Deonte Roberts could emerge as the leader on that side of the ball. Big Ten road games are never easy, but the Illini should be able to handle a Rutgers team that went 2-5 at home in 2015. Let's call this one a closer-than-expected road WIN.
7. at Michigan (11th best team in the nation), 2:30 PM kickoff, ABC/ESPN2 mirror
This marks the third road game in four weeks for the Illini, and this will definitely be the toughest one. Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines are riding high after a 10-3 season sent them to the Citrus Bowl. Harbaugh also bolstered a strong recruiting class in the offseason and also nabbed several transfers to improve his squad. Michigan is expected to be one the best teams in the Big Ten this season and if Illinois wants to win in the Big House they'll have to bring their best effort, but I'm not even sure if that will be enough. "The Lovie effect" most likely makes this an ABC telecast and a closer game than in Tim Beckman's meetings in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines will come away with the victory at home. LOSS.
Season Three ("Life at Home" Projected 1-1 record)
8. vs Minnesota (67th best team in the nation), 11:00 AM kickoff, BTN
Minnesota is an interesting and puzzling team. Two years ago they went 8-5 and won games at Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska. They had a January 1st bowl appearance and also nabbed a couple four-star recruits. Then in 2015 they saw their head coach step down in the middle of the season and went on to finish with a disappointing 5-7 record. But they ended up being invited to a bowl game anyways and won. It's safe to say that the Gophers' 2016 campaign could go in one of several directions, but for Illinois to maintain a hope for the postseason they'll need to take care of business against Minnesota on homecoming. The Gophers' QB Mitch Leidner is a dual-threat senior who can help lend a hand to an offense with a weak set of wideouts. Even though his rushing totals went down and his interceptions went up in 2015, he's still a solid passer both in and out of the pocket. Linebacker Cody Poock leads the defense in 2016 after racking up 100 tackles last year, but there's not much else on the Gophers' D for opposing offenses to fear. Let's wear the Gray Ghost unis and bring home another homecoming WIN.
9. vs Michigan State (33rd best team in the nation), 7:00 PM predicted kickoff, ABC
Here's my totally-insane prediction of a primetime ABC slot. GameDay would be sweet, too. But if the Illini are going to be just 5-3 coming into this matchup, as I predict, ESPN will probably not bite on something as big as the GameDay crew heading to Champaign. Back-to-back home games sure is a nice luxury to have late in the Big Ten season, and if Illinois were only one game away from a bowl berth I'm sure they'd play with nothing to lose. But Michigan State made the College Football Playoff last year, and while the home field advantage is with the Illini the on-field advantage is certainly with the Spartans. MSU just seems to consistently remain a really good team. I'll call this one a slightly-closer-than-people-might-expect LOSS.
Season Four ("The Gauntlet" Projected 1-2 record)
10. at Wisconsin (32nd best team in the nation), 2:30 PM kickoff, ABC/ESPN2 mirror
Here's where the season really gets interesting if the Illini are within one or two wins of postseason eligibility. Two road games against quality opponents and a home game against a Rose Bowl team. Oh boy. 'The Gauntlet' stretch begins in Madison where Lovie's squad will be taking on a Badgers team that won 10 games last year. It was somewhat of a miracle that UW won as many matchups as they did; their quarterback was Bart Houston and they didn't have their star RB Corey Clement for a large portion of the conference schedule. You might remember that Illinois was at one point leading the Badgers in the fourth quarter of their contest in 2015. If this were a home game I'd be feeling a lot more confident about the Illini's chances, but Wisconsin gets the home field advantage and I think they'll get the win. Call this a tough road LOSS that drops the orange and blue's record to .500 for the season.
11. vs Iowa (35th best team in the nation), 11:00 AM predicted kickoff, BTN
The Hawkeyes surprised pretty much everyone last season by going undefeated in the regular season before losing in the Big Ten Championship game and the Rose Bowl. They racked up impressive victories against Pittsburgh, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska, and the scariest part about Iowa is that the only player they lost to the NFL draft was their center. Their backup place kicker also graduated, though! Kirk Ferentz is looking at a loaded roster full of talented players that just came off a 12-win season, and even though this game is in Champaign I don't think the Illini will have the firepower to keep up with the likes of C.J. Bethard on offense and Desmond King on defense. This was a close game in Iowa City last year and I expect it to be close again in 2016, but this one will be a LOSS.
12. at Northwestern (52nd best team in the nation), 11:00 AM predicted kickoff, ESPNU
Stop me if you've heard this one before. Illinois is 5-6 and needs a win against Northwestern to clinch a bowl berth. Yes, for the third straight year I'm calling for a winner-take-all Land of Lincoln battle that will push one of these teams into the postseason. Northwestern has some talent returning on both sides of the ball and I think their home field advantage might be the difference in this one. I'll call this rivalry game a close and frustrating LOSS.
Overall projected finish: 5-7
Hey, you've got to start somewhere. The bottom line is that no one is expecting Lovie to bring immediate success to the Illinois program, and considering he'll be working without Dudek this season, a nearly-.500 record is a pretty reasonable projection. In fact, 5-7 is about as optimistic an outcome as I can see when looking at that schedule, which ranks amongst the toughest in the country. A few toss-up games like at Northwestern and versus Minnesota may decide the season, but the Illini need to have a strong non-conference regardless. Looking at the back half of the schedule, which is loaded with opponents like Michigan State and Iowa, the final six games may see a stretch where Illinois goes 1-5. That would mean the team would have to start out 5-1 to make a bowl game, which would have to include wins over North Carolina and Nebraska.
An interesting (positive) schedule quirk is that the Illini only have to travel outside the state four times this season, including only traveling east of the state border twice. Those matchups (Michigan and Rutgers) come within a week of one another, meaning that after week seven the team won't need a plane ride. They only travel out of the state once and that's a short trip up to Madison, Wisconsin. One more important thing to remember: it may be Lovie Smith's first season but it will be Wes Lunt's last, and I'm sure the senior quarterback will give it everything he has to ensure that he goes out on a high note. No matter what the final 2016 record ends up being Illinois fans know they can expect an up-and-down rollercoaster ride of a season. But can you expect anything less?