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Illinois searching for consistency as Lovie Smith era begins

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The Illini haven't had consistent football success in decades. Can Lovie Smith finally provide what the fans in Champaign have been looking for?

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Success doesn't happen overnight. Rome wasn't built in one day. Illinois is not going to the College Football Playoff this season. I think by now most Illini fans realize that the Lovie Smith era does not and will not need to be an immediate triumph. These are not players that Smith recruited, this is the first year under his schemes and system and there are also several key injuries that will hamper his team's depth. But for the Illini faithful, 2016 isn't necessarily about success. It's about consistency.

For the first time in what seems like decades, the Illinois football program appears to have a plan and head coach in place that won't be going anywhere for a long time. Smith signed a six year deal when he was announced as the new Illini head coach back in March. He made it clear to the media that he's in "the fourth quarter" of his career and that he's not going anywhere. He intends to rebuild this program from the ground up and stay here until he retires. Even though nothing is guaranteed and we have absolutely no proof that things will materialize as he says they will, how nice is that to hear as an Illinois fan? How nice is it to hear a proven, NFL head coach tell your fanbase that he's going to be here for the rest of his professional career and he's going to see this through until it gets turned around? For anyone who's been an Illini fan for the past decade, it's gold.

Illinois has gone to back-to-back bowl games once since 1993. Once. Since the start of this century the Illini have had back-to-back above .500 finishes (you guessed it) once. Ironically enough, both of those came in the same two years, 2010 and 2011. And you'll remember that despite the team's early success in 2011, Ron Zook was canned after they dropped six consecutive Big Ten games. Speaking of coaches getting canned, Illinois is on its third head coach in the last calendar year and its sixth since the year 2000. The list of offensive and defensive coordinators is too long to even go through. Illinois' offense has finished in the top 50 of the S&P+ ratings in back-to-back seasons once since 2005. The defense has finished in the top 50 in back-to-back years twice since 2005. The Illini football program has been nothing if not a model of inconsistency for the past two decades. Take a look at the final offensive and defensive S&P+ ratings for each of the past ten seasons:

Offense

2005 96th
2006 67th
2007 13th
2008 33rd
2009 103rd
2010 46th
2011 104th
2012 109th
2013 32nd
2014 60th
2015 98th

Defense

2005 109th
2006 56th
2007 24th
2008 35th
2009 55th
2010 21st
2011 10th
2012 88th
2013 103rd
2014 72nd
2015 41st

Some of those year-to-year jumps are jarring. The 2008 offense finished 33rd in the nation; the following season saw the team finish 103rd. That's a -70 differential in just one calendar year with the same head coach at the helm. There are good inconsistencies too, of course. The offense jumped from 109th in 2012 to 32nd in 2013, a +77 improvement. But then it jumped right back down to 98th two years later. The defensive ratings tell the same story. The 2011 Illinois defense, which was one of the best in the country, finished tenth overall. The 2012 defense was the worst in the Big Ten, finishing 88th overall. I'll spare you more statistics as you're probably starting to see my point.

No one currently within this football program has had any sense of consistency or "sameness." Some of these players have learned as many as four different systems in their five years in Champaign. But now that changes. Now Lovie Smith and his staff, which boasts the most NFL experience of any coaching staff in the country, has a system in place that is guaranteed to remain (mostly) the same. Consider this: the only potential changing of the guard Illini fans need to worry about nowadays is that the team performs too well and one of Smith's coordinators leaves for another job. And that's a really nice feeling to have. The success won't come overnight, but it doesn't have to. Lovie isn't going anywhere. So sit down, buckle up and enjoy the ride. It should be a fun one.